David Prowse, the man behind Darth Vader’s physical presence on film, passed away Sunday at age 85.
Prowse was approached to audition for Vader and Chewbacca by George Lucas himself, after his performance in A Clockwork Orange. A professional weightlifter who stood 6’6″ tall, he was the perfect fit to embody one of cinema’s most intimidating villains. The role would eventually be played by a team of actors but Prowse provided the lion’s share, working in the infamously uncomfortable costume.
“The suit was made from quilted leather,” he told the BBC in 2010. “I wore a t-shirt and a pair of swimming trunks underneath — and the heat would rise into the mask and mist up the eye-piece, so you couldn’t see where you were going!”
David Prowse was born July 1, 1935 in Bristol, England. In the 60s he competed in weightlifting competitions and began acting in movies with an uncredited turn as Frankenstein’s Monster in the 1967 spy-spoof Casino Royale. He would reprise the role of the monster multiple times in his early career, while also appearing on Dr. Who, Benny Hill, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Though he was turned down for the lead in 1978’s Superman The Movie, he coached Christopher Reeve for the role, and did the same for Carey Elwes in 1987’s The Princess Bride.
His work as the Green Cross Code Man, a superhero in British PSAs who advocated for road safety, earned him membership in the Order of the Britain Empire. “Many people will know me for being the ultimate screen villain, Star Wars’ Darth Vader,” he wrote in 2014. “But being a ‘goodie goodie’ and heading up the Green Cross Code campaign, helping to save thousands of lives has always been the ultimate honour.”
He survived prostate cancer in 2009, and suffered from arthritis and related complications for most of his life.
Prowse expressed disappointment that he was replaced for aspects of Darth Vader’s portrayal. James Earl Jones dubbed his lines, stunt coordinator Bob Anderson took over lightsaber battles in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and Sebastian Shaw replaced him as the literal face of Anakin Skywalker when Luke unmasks him at the end of the original trilogy. (Shaw himself would later be replaced as the holographic Anakin by Hayden Christensen in later editions of the film.) Nonetheless, he was a regular guest at conventions and participated in a handful of Star Wars fan films.
Lucas told the Hollywood Reporter, “David brought a physicality to Darth Vader that was essential for the character. He made Vader leap off the page and on to the big screen, with an imposing stature and movement performance to match the intensity and undercurrent of Vader’s presence.” However the Star Wars creator had banned him from appearing at official fan events in 2010, claiming he had “burnt too many bridges” with Lucasfilm.
David Prowse is survived by his wife of fifty-seven years, Norma, and their three children.