Dave Prowse MBE, 76, is a former bodybuilder, weightlifter and actor who became a household name thanks to playing Darth Vader in physical form during the original Star Wars trilogy. He also starred for 14 years as the Green Cross Code Man promoting road safety to children, which started in the 1970s and ran for over two decades.
Q) Looking at the start of your career and in 1962 you won the British Heavyweight Weightlifting Championships and competed in the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in the same year. You’ve also helped to train many Hollywood movie stars like Christopher Reeve. How did the move into bodybuilding come about?
“I originally got into bodybuilding when I started to buy one of these health and fitness magazines when I was younger. There was this big, blonde giant on the front cover and I thought that’s what I want to look like. The magazine cost me a Sixpence and I can safely say it was the best money I ever spent. In the next issue it had the contact details of the local organiser of the health and strength league in Bristol so I went down to see him and he started me off training. I became absolutely besotted with bodybuilding and all I wanted to be was Mr Universe. That was my big ambition in life.”
Q) From 1975 until 1990 you were the Green Cross Code Man in the famous road safety campaign. In recognition of that work you also received an MBE in 2000. Is it the best job you’ve ever had?
“Yes, I loved it. If someone said to me lets go Green Cross Coding tomorrow, I’d jump at the chance. It was great knowing that you were doing so much good and the reaction you got wherever you went was wonderful. All the kids were fantastic and it was a pretty hectic schedule. I normally visited up to three schools a day, for five days a week. From that you can imagine how many children I met around the country and it was fantastic to be involved with such an important message. I loved it and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.”
Q) Although the Green Cross Code Man role happened during and after your career in Star Wars, how did you make the move from weightlifter to actor, and was it an intentional one?
“It amazes me that something I did thirty odd years ago still has that appeal. Not only do I get all the acclaim from the Star Wars trilogy, people come up to me and they say: ‘I remember you, do you remember meeting me?’ and things like this you know. People tell me that they remember when I visited their school as the Green Cross Code Man. It was a huge campaign I got involved with alongside the government and I helped to campaign for the road safety of children for all of 14 years. As Darth Vader began to become more popular in Britain, all the children knew that the Green Cross Code Man was really Darth Vader so they were quite enthralled about the idea of Darth Vader teaching them about road safety.”
Q) Although the Green Cross Code Man role happened during and after your career in Star Wars. How did you make the move from weightlifter to actor, and was it an intentional one?
“No not at all. It all came by accident. I travelled up to London to work for an American weightlifting company and as soon as I arrived they more or less just said to me here’s your A-Z and here’s the yellow pages, get out there, find all the sports shops and open up as many accounts as you can. They weren’t selling for trade but the company was just purely mail order based. I travelled across all of London and I managed to get various stores to open up accounts for weightlifting equipment. I ended up with accounts in Lillywhites, Harrods and Selfridges – all the major stores. It was a great time and I met all sorts of interesting characters. Harrods then eventually turned round to me and asked me if I would like to come into the store on a regular basis and run my own keep fit shop. Of course, I said yes.
“Quite often I used to call in on a gymnasium in Paddington called the Mayfair Gymnasium and what I didn’t realise at the time was that they had a stunt agency attached to it. The owner of the gym was a great friend of mine and he asked me if I would be interested in any show business work. Although I wasn’t an actor, he told me there was a niche for me in the business. He said: ‘you’ve come along and you’re reasonably good looking, you haven’t got any scars and you have a 6’7 frame, I think there could be something for you.’ Within a week I received a call and I was asked to get down to the Mermaid Theatre as soon as possible. Director Bernard Miles had asked to meet me and he told me about this role he wanted me to play in his show. He wanted Kenneth Griffith, a little Welsh actor to levitate off a bed and let death take him away. He had tried all sorts of things to try and make it work, but wasn’t able to pull it off.
“I was asked if I could pick him up and sort of lift him very, very slowly and remain hidden at the same time. I did it pretty easily and I agreed to taking on the job, however because the programmes for the show had already been printed my name would be nowhere to be seen. On top of that, my costume would cover me from head to toe in black shroud, meaning nobody would be able to see who I was. Nevertheless, I had a four week run and I thoroughly enjoyed it, it ended up leading me on to more agency work.”
Q) Having starred in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi (1983), Director of the trilogy, George Lucas spotted you when…
“Well I starred in Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange in 1971, which only came out very briefly because there were terrible problems with it. There was so much sex and violence and everybody thought it was a terrible movie; subsequently Stanley started to receive death threats. He then took the film off the circuit so nobody would ever see it again but luckily for me in the brief time that it was out George Lucas watched it and remembered me. Five years later when George came over to England and visited 20th Century Fox, he chatted to a good friend of mine called Peter whom he asked to get in contact with me.
“I went to see him and he said he would like to offer me the choice of two parts in his new science fiction film, Star Wars. Obviously, I said what were the parts? He told me the first one was a character called Chubaka, a hairy gorilla. I turned this down as I didn’t like the idea of being in a gorilla skin suit for three months! The second was the big villain of the film. I said don’t say anymore George I will have the villain part thank you very much and he asked me why I was so adamant. Well I said when you think back to movies where there are goodies and baddies, you always remember the bad guy. Think back to the James Bond movies for instance, you remember Goldfinger, you remember Oddjob, I said well you tell me who played James Bond in the movie? George reckoned that I had made a very wise decision as he said: ‘nobody will ever forget Darth Vader.’ And that was it, as simple as that. Then I asked him how did he know me? He said: ‘I saw you in Clockwork Orange. If you’re good enough for Stanley Kubrick then your good enough for me.’ It was a wonderful move and having worked for Stanley Kubrick, it opened many doors to me.”
Q) You’ve been fortunate enough to work with some great directors and producers in your career but what kind of relationship did you have with George Lucas?
“Practically none. He hardly spoke to me all the way through. He was very, very quiet but he obviously knew what he wanted in his own mind. However, he had great difficulties in explaining or showing to you what he wanted the actors to do because he was so quiet. And it was a strange actor-director relationship. He was American and he had a couple of other Americans working with him which made it a small click and they spent a lot of time together. I got very little in the way of actual direction. The only time I really did converse with George was at the start of the first film. I wanted to make Darth Vader walk very dominantly and I wanted everybody to have to run to catch up with him. We did the first scene with me walking up the corridor and the captains by the side of me, and George stopped me at the end of it and said that I needed to slow up because the camera couldn’t keep up with me. From then on in everything slowed down.”
Q) What did it feel like when you realised George Lucas had stripped away your Darth Vader voice from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and replaced it with the voice of James Earl Jones?
“I didn’t appreciate this at the time. Now of course I did all the dialogue in all three movies myself but at the end of A New Hope, George, without telling me decided they would overdub it and got James Earl Jones to do all of Darth Vader’s dialogue. I didn’t know anything about it, not until the film came out and I watched it for the first time. I received a cable message from an American film director called Russ Meyer and it said: ‘congratulations Dave you’re in the biggest movie of all time and they’ve dubbed your voice.’ And that was the first I knew of it. I still had to learn all the lines for both Episodes V and VI even though they weren’t going to use my voice.”
Q) Despite what happened to the portrayal of Darth Vader’s voice, you are still fondly remembered by many as the real Darth Vader. What does this mean to you now?
“It’s wonderful and a lot of different things have happened from it. I have become a cult figure and I still regularly attend science fiction conventions and Star Wars events. People always want to talk to me about it and it’s great. I always get asked what has Darth Vader given me? Well, I respond by saying the best pension you could ever wish for! One would have never of thought that the big villain of the film who goes around killing everybody would become this cult figure. Darth Vader is by far the most popular character in Star Wars and it always strikes me as being very strange.”
‘Straight From The Force’s Mouth: The Autobiography of Dave Prowse MBE’ is published by Apex Publishing Ltd.