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While James Earl Jones may be the actor best associated Darth Vader, the baritone thespian only ever lent his voice to the formidable Star Wars villain. On set, several actors have donned the iconic Sith’s suit, including Hayden Christensen in Revenge of the Sith and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Daniel Naprous in Rogue One. Vader’s original actor, who even preceded James Earl Jones’ voice casting, was David Prowse — an English bodybuilder-turned-actor who wore the suit in all three of the original trilogy’s films.
At the end of Return of the Jedi, however, when Luke takes off Vader’s helmet to reveal the redeemed villain’s face, it is conspicuously not Prowse’s mug underneath the mask. Instead, the face belongs to English stage actor Sebastian Shaw, who delivers Vader’s final and only unmasked lines. Even though Vader’s face was a mystery before Return of the Jedi, the recasting is still conspicuous, especially given that George Lucas was already paying Prowse for the part. History suggests that the decision was not made solely for financial or even dramatic purposes, but rather out of spite, being the product of longstanding and lasting tension between the actor and director.
David Prowse Provided Darth Vader’s Enormous Stature
Prowse’s size landed him the job as Vader. Being a former British heavyweight champion and boasting a height over 6 feet, Prowse was offered to play either the main villain in Star Wars, or something called a Wookie — he opted for the former. In A New Hope, he recited all the dialogue from behind Vader’s mask, putting on a convincing villainous tone, albeit in his distinctive Bristolian accent. While there is some speculation that Prowse did not know his voice would be dubbed over during filming, the actor recounted in an interview at 2016’s Awesome Con that he assumed there would be a dub from the raw footage, but expected that he would be the one to re-record his own lines. However, once shooting wrapped, the crew left London to do post-production in Hollywood, and it was too expensive for them to fly Prowse out to finish the job. Thus, they hired James Earl Jones for the part, and while Prowse pays deference to Jones’ performance, he asserts that he could have done the job just as well.
Prowse Unintentionally Spoiled ‘Empire Strikes Back’… or Did He?
The Prowse-Lucas tension, did not begin with the unanticipated recasting, though. After Star Wars released and became a global phenomenon in 1977, a sequel was greenlit, and Prowse (along with the rest of the cast) started doing press. During a 1978 visit to Berkeley, Prowse talked about what fans could expect in the upcoming sequel, and was paraphrased in the San Francisco Examiner as noting that Darth Vader would be revealed as Luke Skywalker’s long-lost father. In a direct quote, the Examiner article ends with Prowse explaining, “Father can’t kill son, son can’t kill father. So they live again to star in Star Wars IV.”
Obviously, telling fans that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father in 1978 would have spoiled one of the biggest twists in cinema history. As straightforward as the article appears, however, there is question to its journalistic integrity. In the 2015 documentary I Am Your Father, Prowse explains that his comments at Berkeley were mere speculation, and that he had not even seen a script for The Empire Strikes back at the time. Considering that the article came out in July of ’78 and that Lucas didn’t complete the screenplay until August of that same year, it seems Prowse has a credible alibi.
Moreover, even once the “I am your Father” line was penned, it was kept a secret. Among the cast, only Mark Hamill knew about the reveal. On set, Prowse had to recite the line “Obi-Wan killed your father” in lieu of the actual twist. Lucas allegedly didn’t trust Prowse (or anyone else) with knowledge of the actual line, which Jones only delivered in post. However, the fact that Lucas kept it secretive up through the filming all but confirms that Prowse was only guessing at plot points when he made his 1978 comments at Berkeley.
‘Return of the Jedi’ Miscommunication Leads to Recasting and Estrangement
A similar incident occurred between the releases of Empire and Return of the Jedi. According to Den of Geek, Prowse was being interviewed about his body building career in the early 1980s when the subject shifted to Star Wars. By Prowse’s recount, the interviewer was the one who suggested to him that he would be killed off at the end of the third film, and though Prowse allegedly claimed ignorance, the reporter leaked the villain’s fate in The Daily Mail the next day. This is where George Lucas, who had grown increasingly protective of his story on set, lost patience with Prowse. Once the incident with the reporter happened, he was kept in the dark, and the unmasking scene was shot without the rest of the cast even knowing about it. Adding insult to injury, Prowse claims that he never received payment for Return of the Jedi.
David Prowse Made His Mark on Hollywood Beyond Star Wars
Nowadays, it’s expected that actors keep tight-lipped about all potential plot lines and spoilers related to an upcoming franchise installment — most of them even sign nondisclosure agreements before filming. However, the original Star Wars trilogy came out during the blockbuster cycle’s infancy. The mere idea of a cinematic spoiler was a novelty at the time, so even in the far-fetched chance that Prowse did run his tongue, perhaps one can be empathetic to his ignorance. After all, it is not as if Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi are any less significant or quality of films because of a few slip-ups the Darth Vader actor might’ve made back in the ’70s and ’80s.
Although Prowse did not get his chance to play Anakin Skywalker in the literal flesh at the end of Jedi, in I Am Your Father, director Marcos Cabotá concludes the documentary by recreating the unmasking scene with a near-80-year-old Prowse standing in for Shaw. Meanwhile, his face can be spotted in other films, notably A Clockwork Orange, where he portrays the hulking, yet silent Julian. He also portrayed the British superhero Green Cross Man, who taught children traffic safety in a number of government-sponsored Public Information Films throughout the 1970s. Then, at the end of the decade, though he did not land the titular role in Richard Donner‘s Superman, he was hired to help Christopher Reeve get in superheroic shape and immaculately turned the once-skinny actor into the spitting image of Kal-El. Evidently, Prowse — who passed away last year at the age of 85 — made a profound mark on cinema beyond just playing Vader, and whatever dubious statements he made regarding Star Wars over 40 years ago will not tarnish his memory.