The summer of 1977 was my first introduction to actor Dave Prowse. Not in person, of course, but when he (in character) boarded a captured Rebel starship in the opening scenes of “Star Wars” (pre-New Hope). I can never forget Prowse’s embodiment of that awesome black-clad villain. What an entrance! In fact, I still remember my 10-year old self, nervously sucking on my soda cup’s straw, wondering for a split second if Vader’s mechanical breathing was actually me sucking in air from my now empty drink! I was awed by the terrifyingly confident way this character of “Darth Vader” strode into the stark white-walled ship’s interior…overlooking the carnage of dead rebels with a sense of satisfaction that showed even through his metallic mask. And the man behind that iron mask, former Bristol bodybuilder Prowse, played a very significant part of that (even if his voice was dubbed by a then-uncredited James Earl Jones).
All told, Darth Vader only appears onscreen for roughly 12 minutes or so, but he was arguably the most memorable character in the movie. I came home from that film fundamentally altered. “Star Wars,” that ‘little space movie’ changed moviegoing and moviemaking forever. My very DNA changed while watching the film, and soon after, I began collecting whatever I could from it–toys, trading cards, puzzles, books, and yes, a giant Darth Vader poster that went up on the back of my bedroom door. It’s not an exaggeration when I say that “Star Wars” changed the course of my life. Even in my 30s, when I first began dating the woman who would become my wife, one of the things that clinched our life union was her passion for Star Wars–it equalled my own. I knew I’d met my soulmate when I noticed that she had multiple versions of the original Star Wars trilogy on home video. She ‘got it,’ too.
Dave Prowse’s stock rose even more when I went to see “The Empire Strikes Back” in the summer of 1980. Since I couldn’t wait to know the story, I used my meager allowance funds to buy the novelization by Donald Glut. In the pages of the book, I read the BIG spoiler–Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father! Despite spoiling the ending for myself (but saving it for my family), the knowledge did not, in any way, diminish my appreciation of seeing the film for the first time. Prowse (who was allegedly fed false dialogue during the shooting to prevent media leaks) really gives his all with his performance. When he uses his fists and open hands to implore his beaten son to join him in ruling the galaxy, he matches the gravitas of James Earl Jones’ vocals.
Darth Vader, like Chewbacca, R2-D2 and many others in the Star Wars universe, is a literal composite character, assembled from the talents of multiple artists; voice acting (Jones), costume (the late John Mollo), sound effects (Ben Burtt’s scuba regulator that makes Vader’s mechanical breathing sound) and physicality, which is where the 6′ 7” Prowse’s imposing frame gave the character his considerable presence. While most of Vader’s lightsaber fencing in the original Star Wars trilogy was the work of professional fencer Bob Anderson (who was 6” shorter than Prowse), the rest of the physical ‘acting’ was Prowse, who, like Pedro Pascal today in “The Mandalorian,” managed to express much emotion through a heavy mask and restrictive costuming. “Return of the Jedi” (1983) dealt something of a blow to the actor, as Vader’s unmasking in the final moments of the film had Vader now played by actor Sebastian Shaw. Shaw did a fine job in his brief role as the reformed Anakin Skywalker (Vader’s true name), but his casting was a personal disappointment to Prowse, who would later get a chance to redo Vader’s unmasking scene for a Star Wars fan film production. Check out the 2015 documentary “Elstree 1976”, a fascinating look into the lives of Star Wars’ many unsung heroes, including Dave Prowse.
Note: Reportedly there was a falling out between Prowse and George Lucas, who believed the actor was behind a series of leaks to the press from behind the scenes of the trilogy; hence, the false dialogue for Darth Vader fed to Prowse, who read all of his character’s lines on set for the benefit of his fellow actors, even after he realized he was to be dubbed by James Earl Jones.
While the role of Darth Vader was my own personal introduction to Prowse, kids in the UK saw him unmasked as the “Green Cross Code Man,” a heroically costumed crossing guard who coached British children on proper etiquette for safely navigating street traffic. My Brit buddy Nick, who’s roughly my age, fondly recalls learning traffic safety from “Darth Vader” himself.
While I didn’t grow up in the UK, I nevertheless became an ardent fan of the British sci-fi series “Space: 1999” (1975-1977), which I would watch on late night and afternoon TV via local US stations. While the show was wonderfully cheesy fun, it sported very high production values for its time. The second and final year of the prematurely cancelled Gerry Anderson epic would feature an episode called “The Beta Cloud,” in which a pre-Darth Vader Dave Prowse would don a reptilian mask and black costume as he tore through ‘Moonbase Alpha.’ This unstoppable creature would turn out to be a rampaging robot sent to destroy the base’s life-support systems. The story was paper-thin, yes, but Prowse’s unstoppable monster tearing through the base nearly unchallenged was giddy, nail-biting fun back in the day. “The Beta Cloud” is a cheesy guilty pleasure.
I would also see him much later in 1971’s “A Clockwork Orange,” which I wouldn’t see until l viewed it on TV in my late teens (post-Star Wars). I immediately recognized Prowse out of makeup, as I’d seen the actor on many press junkets and TV interviews for Star Wars. In the film, Prowse played “Julian,” the formidable bodyguard of a character victimized by reformed ex-Droog Alex (Malcolm McDowell). While the role wasn’t terribly substantial, it would ultimately lead to his being considered for Darth Vader in Star Wars a few years later, as George Lucas sought actors of wildly differing heights and physiques for various roles as droids, Wookiees, and a certain Sith Lord.
I would also later come to appreciate Prowse’s work in the Hammer horror films, such as “The Horror of Frankenstein” (1970), which allowed the actor to show most of his own face (save for a scarred skullcap used to hide his hair and eyebrows).
Prowse would play a very different version of a Frankenstein creation (a much hairier one) in 1973’s “Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell,” which I first saw images of in the pages of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine, a few years before I would see Star Wars. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t catch either of these Hammer films until some time after Star Wars, but I am a fan of them today.
At San Diego Comic Con in the summer of 2006, nearly 30 years after I’d first seen “Star Wars,” I had the chance to meet Prowse, who was signing photos at a booth on the Dealer Hall floor at the enormous convention. There was no crowds or no long lines in that fortuitous moment. He signed a photo from “The Empire Strikes Back,” as we briefly discussed his approach to embodying the character. I was struck by his soft-spoken, easygoing manner. We then shook hands (some artists won’t do that) and I took my autograph. Meeting Prowse, the man who embodied Darth Vader in that movie which changed my life, was a brief but thrilling moment I will always cherish. I wish I could tell my 10-year old self that meeting your idols can be worth the wait.
Rest in peace, David Prowse (1935-2020). Thanks for a grand entrance that changed my life!
Update (11:30 am, 11/30/20): The cause of death for David Prowse is now confirmed to be complications from COVID-19. As of this writing, nearly one and a half million people have died worldwide from this disease. Yes, vaccines are being readied for release soon, but they won’t penetrate into the general population for months to come. As I’ve said on this site in nearly every post since this pandemic began, please continue to wear a mask, practice safe-distancing and avoid crowded social gatherings, especially during the holidays (however difficult that might be for families and loved ones). Remember, healthier asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus can unwittingly spread it to more vulnerable members of their social circle, or society at large. May the Force be with us all through this nightmare.