Ian McDiarmid’s panel at New York Comic Con was absolutely charming, full of warmth and plenty of interesting facts and tidbits from our favorite galaxy far, far away. But one story in particular caught the audience, and that was how he got the part of Emperor Palpatine. We’ve got the whole tale right here, word for word.
“I got a phonecall one lunchtime, my agent said ‘George Lucas wants to see you.’ It’s not often you hear that phrase, let me tell you. And he said, ‘They’re sending a car.’ And as I spoke, I could see the car arrive right outside my front window, and I thought, well, how does he do that?
“So I got in the car, went down to the studio, and I met George Lucas and Richard Marquand the director, as you all know, of Return of the Jedi. And we just talked about… I don’t know, the weather? Or something like that? And the (stage) play I was in, and then suddenly it was all over. And George said ‘Thank you very much,’ and I went to door. I thought, well, it was nice to meet him anyway. And as I got to the door and opened it, he said, [brilliant impression of George Lucas enacted] ‘Hey! Great nose!’
“I thought, ah, that’s nice! George Lucas has told me I’ve got a great nose! I’ll be able to dine on that for a few years. And then I got back to my apartment, the phone was ringing—this is all true—and my agent said, ‘You’ve got the part!’ I said ‘What part?’ I sort of guessed it was Star Wars. And he said, ‘Oh god…’ Bored as usual. Leafed through his notes and said, ‘It’s called "the Emperor of the Universe.’”
“So I said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll be doing it then.’ And you know the rest. That’s how it happened.”
It would seem that being cast by George Lucas in a movie is something like being taken to see the Don of a mafia family.
It turns out the reason why McDiarmid was considered for the part in the first place was because he knew a casting director who had seen him play Howard Hughes. A much older actor had originally been hired to play Palpatine, but he couldn’t handle the yellow contact lenses that they needed him to wear. As McDiarmid pointed out, you could only see out of the front of the lenses, which made moving about pretty difficult.
For resuming the part in the prequels, the meeting was hilariously somewhat similar:
“It was a hotel this time, not a studio in London. I knew I was going to meet George. I walked in and there he was, wearing the same shirt. [Laughter from the audience.] Well, it certainly looked like it. And he said, ‘Okay, coffee, tea?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll have some water, that’s fine.’ Thinking we might have a bit of a long conversation, or he might want me to read, because obviously this character back in time would be a different person than the one I’d been playing. And he said, ‘Do you know anybody who wants to play an Emperor?’ I said, ‘Well, funny you should say that…’ He said, ‘Okay, you can give the water back.’ And… that was casting.”
So there you have it. How a mere man became Emperor (of the Universe?).
Stubby the Rocket is the Tor.com mascot. Stubby was once lost for 57 years in a maze built of George Lucas's decision-making process.