On the passing of Darth Vader actor David Prowse, Yaz Jung remembers a rare interview with the star ten years before he died, reflecting upon the man behind the mask.
“He was much more than Vader.” said co-star Mark Hamill as original Star Wars actor David Prowse passed away aged 85. Prowse’s life was always a more interesting tale than simply that of the man who gave form to the timeless visage of Darth Vader and it is with this thought that I talked to him in 2011 while he signed copies of his autobiography Straight From The Forces Mouth. At the time, shoppers were greeted by a local detachment of 501 Legion, an international group of Stormtrooper cosplay enthusiasts whom had adopted Prowse as their ceremonial leader, helping him with personal appearances. Prowse had long won the enduring love of grass-roots fans by attending autograph signings at the UK’s first ever sci-fi conventions, designed by forward-thinking organisers such as Jason Joiner. Prowse’s presence and that of late R2-D2 actor Kenny Baker helped take such conventions from draughty yet charmingly decorated school gymnasiums, to established world-wide events such as the London Film and Comic Con.
Talking to Prowse, I began by asking him about his days at Bristol Grammar School, a selective strand of the British education system admitting students solely on perceived academic ability “I hated every minute of it.” he said laughingly in his pronounced West Country accent “I went to a Secondary Modern school (before), where I was sort of in the ‘A-Stream’ and then I won a scholarship to the Grammar school…trouble was I went from being top of the ‘A-Stream’ (in the Secondary Modern school) to being at the bottom in Grammar school, like the ‘Z-Stream’. I was very good athletically. I was a good athlete. I was a very good rugby player, so I got on very well with everybody but not very well academically..”
In 1975 Prowse was chosen to embody a British government-backed national public-service campaign to encourage road safety for children termed “The Green Cross Code” where he played the muscular and affable “Green Cross Code Man”. For every Darth Vader autograph signed that day, he would be asked to sign a print of the Green Cross Code Man. “Did it over 15 years..” he’d say proudly over and over to beaming parents who sought to share a part of their own childhood by introducing their children to David. It was a campaign that contributed to him being awarded an MBE, one of Britain’s highest Royal Honours.
As his Stormtrooper friends from 501 Legion continued posing for photos and playing with families, David resumed telling me about his early career.
“I was a body-builder to start with. I got very interested in exercising and I trained hard..” What kind of training was it? I ask. Was it an ‘old school’ mentality, like they had up North with the shoot-fighting style in towns such as Warrington and Rugby? David shook his silver-grey hair “No, body builders were always regarded as being a bit strange. They were thought of as a bit effeminate, but I don’t think it was like that. As a body-builder, you were a ‘health culturalist’. I did body-building for quite a long period and eventually got invited and went to the Mr. Universe competition and after that I changed over as I was getting quite strong, to competitive weight-lifting.”
Indeed Prowse was British Weightlifting Heavyweight Champion 1962, ’63 and ’64. I asked him if it was body-building which brought him into friendships with Arnold Schwarzenegger and original Incredible Hulk actor Lou Ferrigno. “Yeah” nodded David “I met Arnold and I met Lou when they came over for the Mr. Universe competition, and subsequent to that I’ve met Arnold a few times at different shows and Lou Ferrigno I meet on a regular basis.” Indeed Ferrigno wrote the forward to Prowse’s autobiography but I asked David if he remembered a particular moment in pop-culture history where the wrestler Hulk Hogan’s physique had been compared to that of Ferrigno, earning Hogan the moniker of ‘Hulk’ as he seemingly looked bigger than Ferrigno himself. Prowse however was quick to dismiss any such fallacy “There’d be no comparison between the two physiques, I mean Lou would make mincemeat of Hulk Hogan”. Prowse seemed so definite in his answer I wondered that with his own look and strength, if he had ever considered professional wrestling himself. David took a moment “No..I had one sort of go at amateur wrestling..” he said thinking back “I wrestled the then Metropolitan Police Collegiate Wrestling champion, but it wasn’t my thing. I had a go at Professional Highland Games, but I wasn’t athletic enough.” Prowse was of course being modest.
His considerable physical abilities and ‘million dollar’ look was the reason he was asked to train Christopher Reeve for the part of Superman. “The director Richard Donner, rang me up and said ‘Look we’ve got our Superman. He’s around 6'5 and weights about 13 stone’. I said ‘That’s positively skinny’, he said ‘Well , yeah, that’s the problem. Do you think you could build him up for us? I said providing I can have him, train him and get him to eat and drink exactly as I tell him all well and good. So he came under my guidance, he came to train with me at the gymnasium, I put 40lbs on him in 6 weeks.”
What was Reeve like as a person? Prowse smiled. “He was lovely, a very nice guy, we were like brothers…” Had Reeve ever expressed any nerves to Prowse as his mentor in the run-up to donning the cape? “I don’t think so, no, he was quite good, I think once he actually got into the suit, then he totally changed completely and was very ‘full of himself’ as it were, we didn’t get on after that.”
I remember remarking how success had repeatedly been known to come between friendships in show-business “Well it certainly did with that one.” quipped David as he turned to sign another autograph.
Reeve of course was not the only Hollywood legend that Prowse worked with. In 1971 he was Directed by Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange as Julian, the bodyguard of the hapless Mr. Alexander, who unwittingly helps Malcolm McDowell’s character without realising he is the same man who raped and murdered his wife years before. It is the role in which he first came to the attention of Star Wars creator George Lucas who once famously stated “If you were good enough for Stanley Kubrick, you’re good enough for me..” when offering Dave the role of Darth Vader.
Prowse remarked how Lucas enjoyed being told about Kubrick “Everybody wanted to hear about Stanley Kubrick, he was such an icon. He was a very hard task master, a real perfectionist. I always said that working with Stanley, you never do anything once when twenty times will do, so we just shot and shot and shot until Stanley got what he wanted.”
I wanted to know about David’s passions away from acting. “I’m doing some singing myself…” he stated humbly. What kind? I ask. You must have grown up in the time of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, I think aloud. “No I was never a Rock n’Roller..” he objected “I went to Las Vegas and sang with (the late MGM legend) Howard Keel. It was a great experience and now there’s a possibility that one of the major recording agents in Great Britain wants to work with me to do songs and big ballads from the shows.”
On the subject of his legacy, I wanted to ask Dave about his estrangement from George Lucas which saw him effectively side-lined from any official Lucasfilm associated Star Wars conventions on account of his having (in George Lucas’ words) “Burned too many bridges”. The two appeared to have a strained relationship over the years. It is has been said that Prowse was unaware his voice would be over-dubbed by James Earl Jones in the original Star Wars and was disappointed by this. It is thought he was also disappointed not to have his face revealed when Luke finally takes off Vader’s mask in Return of the Jedi. The truth is only known to the players and it didn’t seem right to ask such a loaded question when the then 75 year old actor was just meeting families and adoring fans on a Saturday afternoon.
I remember long queues had started to form at the bookshop and it was time for me to wrap things up. I finished by asking Prowse how he wished to be remembered.
“I want to be remembered as a nice person, somebody that has done some good in his life, had a very interesting career and hasn’t upset too many people. (The Book) is my autobiography, I’ve kept diaries for years, I’ve met some wonderful people, done all sorts of different things and that’s why I just wanted people to know a bit more about me than they do already.”
David Prowse’s book “Straight From the Force’s Mouth : The Autobiography of David Prowse MBE” is by Apex Publishing and available online and at all good bookshops.