Dave Prowse: From weightlifting champion to ultimate screen villain

Weightlifting champion, trainer to Superman and dark Sith Lord – actor Dave Prowse was a force to be reckoned with.

The Bristolian’s varied life saw him achieve more than 70 acting screen credits and earn an MBE for playing the Green Cross Code Man to promote road safety.

But it was his portrayal of arch-villain Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy that came to define his career.

Prowse’s comment to director George Lucas on why he accepted the famous role rather than that of Han Solo’s furry sidekick Chewbacca has particular resonance following the announcement of his death aged 85.

“Everyone remembers the villain, George”, he reportedly said.

Prowse was born into a working class family in Bristol in 1935.

As a teenager he developed an interest in bodybuilding and weightlifting and spent nine years training before entering the 1960 Mr Universe contest.

Prowse took bronze at the British weightlifting heavyweight championships in 1961 before winning gold in the next three years.

Weightlifting – England v West Germany – Municipal Hall, Tottenham, London
Dave Prowse during the England v West Germany weightlifting contest in the Municipal Hall, Tottenham, London in 1963 (PA)

He was also selected to represent England at the British Empire & Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia in 1962.

Prowse moved into acting, with one of his first screen credits the role of Frankenstein’s Monster in spy spoof Casino Royale in 1967.

For the next decade Prowse clocked up TV and film roles playing villains and monsters, including appearing in The Saint, A Clockwork Orange, Up Pompeii and Doctor Who.

From the mid-1970s he became best known as the Green Cross Code Man in a long-running British road safety campaign that lasted until the 1990s.

Prowse once highlighted that road accident figures in Britain for children aged four to 11 fell from 40,000 a year in 1976 to under 20,000 by 1989.

“It’s the best thing I have ever done, I much prefer it to Star Wars,” he said of his safety role.

“I get a lot of enjoyment out of meeting the kids, going round schools. I must have talked to at least half-a-million children.”

Dave Prowse
In 1999, Prowse received his MBE for his charity and road safety work (PA)

Between acting roles, Prowse worked as personal trainer to celebrities including Christopher Reeves, who he helped build up to play Superman. Fellow former body-builder Arnold Schwarzenegger also pumped iron in his gym.

Prowse’s own impressive 6 foot 6 inch stature and 18-stone weight made him a perfect fit to portray the imposing figure of Darth Vader.

But after winning the role for the first film in 1977 his Bristol accent was judged not to be intimidating enough, with James Earl Jones provided the menacing Vader voice instead.

But it was Prowse’s formidable stature which also gave the character his power in the three-part intergalactic Star Wars saga.

When asked why he felt the films succeeded, Prowse once said: “It’s a classic story of good triumphing over evil.”

Prowse remained loyal to Star Wars fans and would tour conventions with other actors, such as Kenny Baker, who played droid R2-D2.

Later in life the father-of-three ran a gym in south-east London and put his energies into raising money for charitable causes, such as the Royal Marsden Hospital.

In 2009, Prowse revealed during a radio interview he was being treated for prostate cancer at the hospital.

Arthritic hip issues since the age of 50 also led him to support a national campaign to raise money for research into a cure for the disease in 1991.

Collect 99/Daivd Prowse
Dave Prowse at the opening of Collect ’99 at Wembley Exhibition Centre in London (PA)

In 1999, Prowse received his MBE for his charity work and contribution to child safety through the Green Cross Code Man campaign.

He said at the time: “I have had a wonderful career where I have been able to work with so many of the greats from both cinema and television.

“I’ve been able to tour the world helping to save children’s lives via my work with the Green Cross Code campaign, and also as Darth Vader – the role that I created in George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy and which is now acknowledged as the ultimate screen villain of all time.

“Because of this fame – or notoriety – I am able to continue lending my name to raise funds for charitable causes worldwide.

“The MBE is the icing on a wonderful cake.”