LONDON – Dave Prowse, the British weightlifter-turned-actor who was the body, though not the voice, of arch-villain Darth Vader in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, has died. He was 85.
Prowse died Saturday after a short illness, his agent Thomas Bowington said Sunday.
Born in Bristol, southwest England, in 1935, Prowse was a three-time British weightlifting champion and represented England in weightlifting at the 1962 Commonwealth Games before breaking into movies with roles that emphasized his commanding size, including Frankenstein’s monster in a pair of Hammer Studios horror films.
Director George Lucas saw Prowse in a small part in “A Clockwork Orange” and asked the 6-foot-6-inch (almost 2-meter) actor to audition for the villainous Vader or the Wookie Chewbacca in “Star Wars.”
Prowse later told the BBC he chose Darth Vader because “you always remember the bad guys.”
Physically, Prowse was perfect for the part. Yet his lilting English West Country accent was considered less than ideal and his lines were dubbed by James Earl Jones.
Prowse donned Darth Vader's black armor and helmet for “Star Wars” (1977), “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “Return of the Jedi" (1983).
He expressed some regret that, thanks to Vader's mask, “I can walk around with complete anonymity."
“All actors crave recognition and I’d like to have some like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo,” he told The Associated Press in 1980. “Fortune tends to follow fame.”
Lucas said Prowse “brought a physicality to Darth Vader that was essential for the character.”
“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," the director said in a statement on the official “Star Wars” website.
“David was up for anything and contributed to the success of what would become a memorable, tragic figure. May he rest in peace.”
Prowse also worked as a trainer for other actors, helping Christopher Reeve prepare to be the Man of Steel in hit 1978 film “Superman.”
Prowse was also known to a generation of British children as the Green Cross Code Man, a superhero in road safety advertisements during the 1970s and '80s.
Prowse suffered from arthritis for many years and campaigned to raise money for research into disease. In 1999 he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to charity and road safety.
He was a regular at “Star Wars” fan events but was banned from official conventions by Lucas in 2010 after the pair fell out.
Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in the “Star Wars” films, tweeted that Prowse was “a kind man & much more than Darth Vader.” Hamill said the actor "loved his fans as much as they loved him. #RIP.”
“Shaun of the Dead” director-writer Edgar Wright also paid tribute to Prowse on Twitter.
“As a kid, Dave Prowse couldn’t be more famous to me; stalking along corridors as evil incarnate in the part of Darth Vader & stopping a whole generation of kiddies from being mown down in street as the Green Cross Code man,” he wrote. “Rest in Peace, Bristol’s finest.”
Prowse is survived by his wife Norma and their three children.