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The rich life of David Prowse, the man behind the mask

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Many actors dislike being defined entirely by their most famous role. David Prowse, who died Saturday at the age of 85, did not mind. In fact, he craved more of it.

“I created Darth Vader,” Prowse insisted to a London reporter after the release of the original Star Wars in 1977. “His movement, his mannerisms are what I and no one else put into the character.” Stung by what he saw as Lucasfilm’s lack of recognition for his contribution, Prowse would spend the rest of his life pointedly signing photographs to fans: “David Prowse IS Darth Vader.” 

To be sure, Prowse’s imposing height and commanding presence inside the costume brought an extra level of menace to the most famous villain in movie history. But his insistence on ownership belied the fact that Vader was a true composite character: Created by George Lucas, imagined by Ralph McQuarrie (the artist who gave us that mask), costumed in motorcycle leathers by John Mollo, with scuba-mask breathing added by sound designer Ben Burtt, and voiced by James Earl Jones. (That last credit irked Prowse more than any other. He went to his grave believing he should have done the voice.) 

This bone of contention, alongside fears that he was leaking plot details, led to Lucasfilm using Prowse’s services minimally in Return of the Jedi (1983) and not at all when Darth Vader returned in Revenge of the Sith (2005). It also sadly obscured the rest of a phenomenal life — in which Prowse was a famous bodybuilder, a successful gym owner, a life-saving superhero, and a star in not just one but multiple celebrated science fiction epics. 

A mountain of muscle

Prowse was instrumental in bringing the ‘keep-fit craze’ to Britain. London department store Harrods — seen here in 1978 — hired him to help sell gym equipment.

Image: Colin Davey / Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Prowse was born in Bristol in 1935 — part of what is known as the West Country of England, where residents have a distinctive rural accent. He never lost it, hence the crew on Star Wars calling him “Darth Farmer” for the way he read Vader’s lines.  

Tragically, Prowse’s father died when Prowse was 8, after what was supposed to be a routine ulcer operation. His mother had to take on lodgers to make ends meet. Prowse, already a budding athlete, took to eating all their leftovers to meet his massive calorie requirements. At age 13 a bout of tuberculosis required him to walk in splints, which helped increase his height from 5 feet 9 inches to 6 feet 3 inches. He finally topped out at 6 feet and 7 inches, by which time he was well on his way to being an elite bodybuilder. 

It was an extraordinary rags-to-riches tale. Prowse started his first Charles Atlas course training in a coal shed, and had to fundraise for supplements and weights. After a few years, he could deadlift 660 lbs. He was the British Heavyweight Weightlighting Champion from 1962 through 1964 and toured Europe, rubbing shoulders with an up-and-coming Arnold Schwarzenegger. A muscle magazine company hired him to help start a new weightlifting sales business in London. This was harder than it sounds, at a time when gyms weren’t even a thing. 

“The one thing I had going for me was my physical presence”

“The one thing I had going for me was my physical presence,” Prowse wrote in his 2011 autobiography From the Force’s Mouth.  

That was enough. Prowse inked a contract with, among others, the world-famous Harrods department store. He started a magazine called Power, founded his own gym, and signed up with a stunt performer agency called Tough Guys, which brought in his first acting gigs (Prowse’s first commercial was for Kit-Kats, in 1965, in which he played a Viking warrior) and, for one evening, as a fake bodyguard for infamous London gangsters the Kray twins. Tough Guys also led him to Hammer, the production company synonymous with horror movies, where Prowse first worked with his future Star Wars co-star Peter Cushing. 

That award-winning, sale-making physical presence turned out to be perfect on the big screen, and Prowse had a sudden succession of roles in the early 1970s that would make any jobbing actor proud. He was Frankenstein’s monster in three separate movies. He was a minotaur in Doctor Who. And when Stanley Kubrick needed a burly character for his ultraviolent adaptation of A Clockwork Orange — a bodyguard for the writer whose home is invaded by the droogs — Prowse was the obvious choice. 

Prowse, in his underwear, deadlifts Malcolm McDowell in 'A Clockwork Orange.'

Prowse, in his underwear, deadlifts Malcolm McDowell in ‘A Clockwork Orange.’

Image: Warner Bros / Archive Photos / Getty Images

That role would later catch the attention of a Kubrick fan called George Lucas. But by the time Prowse would interview with Lucas for the role of a then-unknown Star Wars villain, he was already well-known to a generation of children — and would be for another two decades — as the Green Cross Code Man. 

It’s hard to deny that Green Cross Code Man was Britain’s best-known homegrown superhero, appearing constantly in ads in every comic book and on every commercial TV channel. His name came from a road safety behavior list the government was trying to drill into young minds. Prior to Prowse, the campaign had been using a dusty old 1950s character, a squirrel called Tufty Fluffytail. Green Cross Code Man was more arresting — literally, as he would teleport down from space to stop kids from running out in the middle of the street. 

Who knows how many young lives Prowse might have saved, simply by standing with hands on hips in green and white spandex while imploring a generation to “Stop, look, listen, think”? Some 40,000 kids per year were involved in traffic injuries or deaths at the start of the campaign; at its end, 14 years later, the number was 20,000. Prowse later described the role as “the spiritual pinnacle of my showbusiness career.” 

For Prowse, the only downside — in a foreshadowing of his Star Wars troubles — was that the campaign felt the need to dub over his voice. 

Prowse’s onscreen career continued apace after Star Wars. He appeared in Terry Gilliam’s first film, Jabberwocky. He played a bodyguard, again, in the BBC TV adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Given that the body he is assigned to guard is an intergalactic rock star who is spending a year legally dead for tax purposes, it’s probably Prowse’s funniest role. 

And so by the time director Richard Donner was casting the title role in Superman, it did not seem unreasonable to Prowse that he might have a chance of playing another superhero (he’d also played Superman in an ad for Max Factor). After all, couldn’t they just dub an American accent over him? Prowse was incensed to discover that Donner merely wanted him as Christopher Reeves’ personal trainer. 

He nevertheless agreed, and Reeves’ impressive physique in the movie was the result — although the star was furious himself when Prowse had to leave for a couple of weeks for a preexisting commitment to train the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. 

The late Peter Cushing, George Lucas, the late Carrie Fisher and the late David Prowse on the set of 'Star Wars.'

The late Peter Cushing, George Lucas, the late Carrie Fisher and the late David Prowse on the set of ‘Star Wars.’

Image: sunset boulevard / Corbis via Getty Images

It was another scheduled trip around this time — touring America in 1978 to promote himself as Darth Vader — that first earned Prowse the ire of Lucasfilm. At an interview in a Berkeley comic book store, reported in the San Francisco Examiner, Prowse said that later Star Wars films would reveal Vader to be Luke Skywalker’s father. Given that the script for Empire Strikes Back hadn’t been written yet, this was either a lucky guess, or Lucas had been very indiscreet about his potential plans on the set of the first movie. 

“Sometimes you get in trouble just for speculating,” Prowse told me in 2013, when I tracked him down at a comic book convention, determined to find the truth of the Berkeley interview. It was the closest he’d come to explaining it. Years of bad blood with Lucasfilm had flowed from that moment; he’d supposedly been given fake dialogue to read on the set of Empire (“Obi-Wan is your father”), and partly replaced by his fencing coach in Return of the Jedi, over paranoid fears that he would leak plot points to newspapers. 

He nursed his grievances over this, and the lack of any share in the profits of Jedi, to the point where he was barred from official Lucasfilm and Disney events in 2010. It was a sad outcome for a literal giant of cinema. 

But Prowse was still feted by fans at unofficial conventions around the world, a source of succor as he beat back multiple bouts of severe arthritis and prostate cancer (he denied reports that he was also suffering from dementia). Though he retired from conventions in 2016, his towering presence will be remembered for years to come. 

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