The muscleman under the mask: David Prowse made Darth Vader so terrifyingly human

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Man, could that guy ever point.

That may seem like a flip summary to a person’s life, but in the case of British actor David Prowse — the mighty muscleman inside the Darth Vader costume for the original Star Wars trilogy — it’s meant as the tallest of compliments. After a short battle with COVID-19, his daughter confirmed Monday, Prowse died isolated from his family in hospital Saturday at 85, leaving that famous scene of Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia even moreso now an echo of the dead.

But the fact that Vader is arguably the most imposing and expressive movie villain in cinematic history — and that for most of this performance we never see his human face, and certainly never Prowse’s — is a testament to the collaborative nature of acting, in this case taken to an absolute extreme where even puppeteers get more credit and sunshine. But Prowse matters.

With the wind of inner Bespin blowing behind him, there is zero doubt that James Earl Jones’ reveal of the original cinematic spoiler to his target Luke Skywalker leans heavily on the fallen Jedi’s impossibly deep, metallic voice. And yet all it takes is an image of Vader standing there against that inverse Death Star-ish backdrop, left hand outstretched, to bring almost any fan right back to the first moment where so many of us realized popcorn movies could be so very, very, all-caps SERIOUS (even if his helmet is a little shaky in the wake of the electric fans).

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“‘The POWWWER of the Dark Side,’” mimics Bob the Angry Flower cartoonist Stephen Notley, “with that clenched fist of fate. Given how iconic James Earl Jones’ vocal performance was, it’s easy to forget how much gesture and physicality Prowse brought to Vader.

“Performers of his stature are once-in-generation gifts. Lucas should’ve stuffed him in an Imperial uniform and given him a line,” the lifelong Star Wars obsessor muses. His favourite character, P.S., is R2-D2; mine, no hesitation: Vader.

If you go back and describe so many of the crucial scenes through the OG Star Wars films with Vader in the box, Prowse’s physicality always comes up. The way he lifts up and tosses rebel Captain Antilles; how he turns and silently storms off when the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive kicks in at the end of Empire Strikes Back; the way he leans, unsure, on the safety rail after Luke surrenders himself on Endor.

The fact Vader dismisses the Death Star as a mere “technological terror” when that’s an apt description of his entire vibe nonetheless avoids being hypocritical in large part due to the character’s actual human presence and mannerisms. He might be able to pop open a keg for you with his bare hands, but Vader never moves like a robot. That’s all Prowse.

“As Frankenstein’s Monster,” notes Mark Meer of Prowse in Hammer films Horror of Frankenstein and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, “he was genuinely threatening — as opposed to the more well-known and well-intentioned Boris Karloff version, that might hurt you by accident.

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“One was left with the impression that this particular creature fully intended any mayhem he caused.”

David Prowse in 1970s The Horror of Frankenstein. Photo by supplied

As well as being seriously one of the best improvisers on the planet, Meer also voice-acts the lead role of Cmdr. Shepard in BioWare’s Mass Effect series — so he knows what it’s like to play “part” of a role.

“As a voice actor, I am of course appreciative of the amazing work of James Earl Jones — but the Darth Vader performance is very much a collaboration between him and David Prowse. Prowse’s imposing stature and physical presence helped make the Lord of the Sith one of my favourite characters in Star Wars,” he says, “and in cinema!

“And you’ve seen his bit in Clockwork Orange, yes?” Indeed. And the underwear-clad, glasses-wearing bodyguard I’ve long called “Orange Julian” is just one of Prowse’s lesser-known cameos, including as Frankenstein in Casino Royale, the Black Knight in Jabberwocky, and even playing the bare-chested Minotaur in the 1972 Doctor Who serial, The Time Monster.

Which brings us back, as all memorable stories should in some way, to the present.

There is again an ongoing excitement for Star Wars crossing ages, races and genders I can honestly say hasn’t existed since the original films came out, four decades back. And that excitement has a name: The Mandalorian.

But while we know Pablo Pascal does Mando’s voice, and does it so well — Clint Eastwood in a Galaxy Far, Far Away — isn’t it strange we’re also so unaware of the people inside Din Djarin’s armour, the people we’re looking at more than any other in the series, under that mask? Credited as “Doubles — The Mandalorian,” they are Brendan Wayne, Lateef Crowder and, joining in season two, Barry Lowin. Say their names out loud because, like Prowse, they surely matter in Jon Favreau’s seriously magical love letter to the essence of first-impression Star Wars.

Peter Cushing, George Lucas, Carrie Fisher and David Prowse on the set of a little film called Star Wars. Photo by Sunset Boulevard /Corbis via Getty Images

And yes, we are now losing our Star Wars heroes, one by one — Kenny Baker as R2-D2, Carrie Fisher and Peter Mayhew, the mighty Chewbacca — in the last few years. But their timeless work is repeatedly proven to be so as new stories don’t dare step too far from their shadow, which grows longer every year as the double suns set.

David Prowse was more man than machine, and — along with George Lucas — it’s hard, and it hurts, to imagine our lives without a presence so impressive.


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