Prowse was born on July 1, 1935, in Bristol, England and was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis of the knee and had to wear a leg splint for four years as a young child. He ended up actually having osteoarthritis, but these early complications didn’t prevent him from training and competing for the Mr. Universe bodybuilding title in 1960 and then winning the British weightlifting championship from 1962-1964.
He and his 6-foot-7-frame began acting with appearances on The Beverly Hillbillies, The Saint, and Doctor Who. He even stared as “The Mighty Tonka” in a toy commercial directed by Ridley Scott.
He portrayed the Frankenstein monster in 1967’s Casino Royale, 1970’s The Horror of Frankensten, and 1974’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. In his last role as Frankenstein’s monster, he acted alongside Grand Moff Tarkin actor Peter Cushing.
Prowse also made a name for himself in the UK for his time as the Green Cross Code Man, a superhero-like character that was used in PSAs to help children cross the street safely. He appeared in this role from 1967 through 1990 and was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2000 for his work as the character.
In Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in 1971, Prowse portrayed a muscular manservent working for Patrick Magee’s Frank Alexander, and his performance caught the eye of George Lucas, who offered him a part in 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope.
“Lucas said to me, ‘You’ve got a choice of two characters in the movie,” Prowse recalled in a 2016 interview. “He said, ‘There’s a character called Chewbacca, which is like a huge teddy bear, or alternatively, there’s the main villain in the piece.’ Well, there’s no choice, is there? Thank you very much, I’ll have the villain’s piece.”
What he didn’t realize was that he would have to wear the imposing outfit and mask worn by Darth Vader, which weighed 40 pounds and was extremely hot.
“Once [the mask] was fitted, I became virtually blind, and the heat generated by the suit obeyed the laws of physics and traveled upward, straight into the mash,” he wrote in his 2005 memoir, Straight From the Force’s Mouth. “This immediately misted up the eyepieces, which was inconvenient, to say the least, but was not an insurmountable problem so long as I could look down through the triangular cut-out beneath the mask’s nose molding and use it as a spyhole.”
Originally, he spoke his lines in his West Country accent, and Carrier Fisher, who played Princess Leia Organa, jokingly called him “Darth Farmer” due to his rural tone. He was told his dialogue would be added later in the process because the mask muffled his voice, but Lucas decided that Darth Vader’s voice would instead by subbed by James Earl Jones in post-production.
“I think [Jones] did a wonderful job, but I still think I would have done equally as well given the right opportunity,” Prowse said.
Prowse would return for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and even though he thought he may get a chance to show his face when Vader’s mask is finally removed in Episode VI, British actor Sebastian Shaw was the one who made it onto movie screens around the world.
Even still, Prowse was proud of the what he brought to Darth Vader – an imposing force that was feared across the galaxy.
“Body acting and bodybuilding are more closely related than most people would image, and all that posing I’d done to impress the judges in my early years [paid] dividends,” he wrote in his book. “From within the black leather suit, I treated Vader’s every gesture as a bodybuilding pose, refining here and exaggerating there, until my character ‘spoke’ with every tilt of his head or movement of his arms.”
Prowse is survived by his wife Norma Scammell and their three children.
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