When George Lucas worked to cast the role of his lead villain for Star Wars, he needed someone with an impressive physical presence on set, and turned to six-foot-eight English actor and bodybuilder David Prowse for the role. For the next three films, Prowse played the body of Darth Vader, terrifying generations of viewers.
Prowse died over the weekend at the age of 85 due to complications from COVID-19, leaving behind not only his legacy as one of cinema’s most iconic villains, but for promoting safety for millions of children.
Born in 1935, Prowse grew up in Bristol and became a British heavyweight champion and weightlifter before joining the film industry. He found work in films like Casino Royale, A Clockwork Orange, Doctor Who, and Space: 1999 before one of his best-known roles as the Green Cross Code Man, created by the National Road Safety Committee to help teach children road safety. In a series of promotional videos, he would monitor streets and teach them how to safely cross the street.
In 2000, he earned the MBE for his role in the campaign, and in 2014, he reprised the role of the character for a new set of adverts to help raise awareness of pedestrian safety and smartphones.
That role brought him to the attention of Lucas as he was starting directing Star Wars. Prowse auditioned for both Darth Vader and Chewbacca, and ultimately turned down the latter role. “I turned down Chewbacca at once,” Prowse later recounted in J.W. Rinzler’s book Making of Star Wars. “I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask. And throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”
While Prowse would act as Vader in Star Wars, his voice would later be dubbed over by James Earl Jones after test audiences didn’t find the actor’s accent scary enough. Prowse reprised the role in The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, but would have a difficult relationship with Lucasfilm in the years that followed. He was accused of leaking information to the press about the films, according to Rinzler. “I was virtually ostracized from [Return of the Jedi],” he said. “I had no idea where my scenes fit in with the rest of the storyline, or even if my lines were the right dialogue.”
Prowse was already deeply frustrated that he was dubbed over — Rinzler noted that directors often yelled at him to slow down because Jones wouldn’t speak as quickly — and even moreso when actor Sebastian Shaw was brought in to play Vader / Anakin Skywalker as he was unmasked at the end of the film.
In the years that followed, Prowse largely stopped acting, but appeared in a documentary I Am Your Father and The Force’s Mouth, and regularly appeared on the convention circuit to meet fans. However, he would continue to have a tense relationship with Lucasfilm, and would ultimately be banned from official Star Wars conventions in 2010. He survived cancer in 2009, and in 2016 retired from conventions and appearances due to declining health. According to his daughter, he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s and contracted COVID-19 in recent weeks.
Writing for StarWars.com, George Lucas wrote that Prowse “brought a physicality to Darth Vader that was essential for the character,” and that he “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.”
Writing on Twitter, co-star Mark Hamill said that he was a “kind man [and] much more than Darth Vader.”
So sad to hear David Prowse has passed. He was a kind man & much more than Darth Vader. Actor-Husband-Father-Member of the Order of the British Empire-3 time British Weightlifting Champion & Safety Icon the Green Cross Code Man. He loved his fans as much as they loved him. #RIP pic.twitter.com/VbDrGu6iBz
— Mark Hamill (@HamillHimself) November 29, 2020