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A Brief History of Darth Vader’s Voice

This weekend, Star Wars: Rebels launched its second season with a slew of familiar Star Wars characters, but perhaps the most familiar of all was the welcome return of James Earl Jones’ sonorous bass voice as Darth Vader. But what do you know about the history of the voice of Vader? It wasn’t always Jones!

On set during the filming of the original Star Wars, Darth Vader’s lines were delivered by David Prowse, the imposing English actor who played the body of the Sith Lord. Depending on what you read and which interview you absorb, director George Lucas was either always planning on replacing this dialogue, or decided to replace the dialogue after he realized Prowse’s West Country English accent wasn’t cutting it. [Ed: Thanks to commenter J. Michael Spencer for correcting and clarifying the region where Prowse’s accent originates.]

In numerous interviews James Earl Jones points out that Lucas always wanted something “darker” —not in terms of race, but rather a voice that was more bass in contrast to Prowse’s tenor. Gleefully, Jones says that what Star Wars was stuck with was a guy who “had a stutter,” referring to himself. And when during the filming of The Empire Strikes Back, another voice  emerged, albeit not one heard in the final cut of the movie. Apparently the director of that film, Irvin Kershner, would do the lines for Darth Vader on the set. James Earl Jones claims that Kershner’s high-pitched voice was much scarier than anything he could pull off.

Obviously James Earl Jones is the canonical voice of Vader, and perhaps the only person we can imagine speaking his imposing dialogue. But even before the original Star Wars trilogy was complete, Jones wasn’t the only official voice of Vader; NPR produced three Star Wars radio dramas (airing in 1981, 1983, and 1996), each starring Brock Peters as Darth Vader. That’s right! The excellent actor—who appeared as Admiral Cartwright in Star Trek IV and Star Trek VI and also as Ben Sisko’s father in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—was the radio voice of the baddest of the Sith. Peters’ performance is noticeably different than James Earl Jones’, but it’s somehow not incorrect at all. Many of the voice actors changed from each radio drama, but the consistency of Brock Peters is part of what makes the Vader of the radio slightly more “human” than the Vader of the films. Because we can’t see Vader in the radio drama, we kind of need a voice that sounds, oddly, a little kinder than the Vader of the films. Peters didn’t try to “do” Jones, which is why his Vader is so interesting.

Of course, neither Brock Peters nor James Earl Jones did the voice for Vader in the various video games over the years. Back in 1996, the video game Dark Forces saw Scott Lawrence convincingly take on the voice of Darth Vader. Meanwhile, T.C. Carson did Vader for Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds, and Matt Sloan voiced Vader in the popular and Vader-centric The Force Unleashed. (Which contemporary Star Wars actor John Boyega has cited as being a personal favorite when he was a bit younger.)

But, Vader in translation is even more interesting than Vader in English (or Galactic “Basic”). The Brazilian version of Vader is played by Silvio Navas, the Spanish (in Spain) version is Isidro Olace but in 1997 was changed for the special editions to Federico Romano. Check out this video for a complete run down of every single time Vader says “No, I am your father.” The German rendition from Heinz Peturo is particularly mortifying.

Perhaps the strangest Vader voice of all is that of Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker. We tend to think of Vader being Vader when he gets in the suit, but face it, he’s being referred to as Darth Vader in Revenge of the Sith when he still looks like Hayden. And Hayden’s voice as Vader is a little weird—if you think about it for one second, you can do an impression of Hayden in Star Wars right now. He draws out his vowels a bit, but flattens the end of his sentences in an almost Andrew Garfield kind-of-way. Sorry maw-ster. There’s no way to be sure if this was an intentional affect on Hayden’s part, but if you allow your ears to squint a little bit (you know what I mean) there is some kind of connection between Hayden’s voice and that of James Earl Jones.

The likelihood that Darth Vader’s voice will be needed in The Force Awakens is fairly low. But if there was a ghost of Anakin Skywalker or Darth Vader, or even just his disembodied voice, who should do it? Brock Peters is sadly no longer with us, and even though some of us (maybe just me) might like having Hayden return, that might not work either. So could James Earl Jones show up again in The Force Awakens? Probably not, but, if there’s one thing his return as Vader on Rebels has taught us, it’s that there’s no denying the power of that voice. 

Ed. note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified David Prowse as Scottish. The actor is English.

 Ryan Britt is the author of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths out this November from Plume(Penguin) Books. He’s written (and wept) about dinos since before he can remember.

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