The wrath of Vader: Dave Prowse and his 30-year feud with George Lucas

Ed Power
·6-min read
Dave Prowse on the set of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope with Peter Cushing, George Lucas and Carrie Fisher - Corbis Historical
Dave Prowse on the set of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope with Peter Cushing, George Lucas and Carrie Fisher - Corbis Historical

The 1977 red carpet premiere of George Lucas’s Star Wars should have been the moment of greatest triumph in Dave Prowse’s life. Instead it proved to be the cruelest betrayal. This became horribly clear minutes in when Darth Vader – the character George Lucas had sought out the 6’ 6” Englishman to portray – spoke for the first time. 

“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness – that’s not me. I wonder what they’ve done?’” Prowse, who has passed away after a short illness at age 85, would recall.

What Lucas had done was hire James Earl Jones to redub Vader’s dialogue, originally delivered by Prowse in his West Country accent and muffled by that iconic black helmet. Apparently it was the rural twang that really got in the way. Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia, is said to have referred to Prowse on set as “Darth Farmer”.

“It wasn’t until afterwards that I tackled George,” Prowse lamented. “He said, ‘We got James Earl Jones to come in’.” 

The tragedy of David Prowse’s life was that he loved Star Wars almost as much as Lucas. The movie’s A-list cast had worked tirelessly to escape the shadow of the Jedi juggernaut. Through the Eighties, Harrison Ford, in particular, seemed to turn puce with irritation whenever Han Solo was mentioned.

Prowse, though, adored Star Wars and Darth Vader. And when he and Lucas had a falling out  – not directly related to James Earl Jones, though it can’t have helped – the former body-builder took it personally. And now, after struggles with arthritis, prostate cancer and dementia, he has taken the feud to the grave with him. 

“People ask, ‘What went wrong with George Lucas?’ but to be honest, I still don’t really know,” he told the Sun in 2015. “All I know is that I am one of the film’s best characters. It was Darth Vader people talked about the most, not Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher.”

Lucasfilm – the Star Wars studio which Lucas sold to Disney in 2012 – barred him from attending official Star Wars conventions in 2010 and thus interfered with his ability to make a living (like many on the sci-fi convention circuit Prowse's income came largely from signing autographs). The rumour was that Lucas had never been able to forgive Prowse for supposedly leaking to journalists the big reveal in the Empire Strikes Back that – 40-year-old spoiler alert – Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. 

Dave Prowse, as Darth Vader, reaches out to Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, 1980
Dave Prowse, as Darth Vader, reaches out to Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, 1980

He may have further soured the relationship by complaining to the press about not receiving the percentage of Star Wars profits he felt he was due. (Prowse was paid a basic wage of £13,000 for his five months’ work on the first film and did not get a cut of the profits for any Darth Vader merchandise.)  

Nor can it have helped that the actor agreed to be interviewed for the hyper-critical 2009 documentary The People V George Lucas. 

Prowse, however, might have argued that Lucas was in no place to claim the moral high ground. Having taken away his voice, he then essentially robbed Prowse of the right to claim Darth Vader’s likeness as his own in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. 

That film had concluded with Luke removing his father’s helmet – so that he, and we, could gaze upon the real Vader for the first time. But rather than use Prowse, Lucas swapped him out with RSC actor Sebastian Shaw. Maybe it was the accent again. Or maybe Lucas didn’t want his life’s work to conclude with the bombshell that the big baddie was actually the Green Cross Code Man (whom Prowse had portrayed prior to Star Wars).   

The version of events Prowse put forward was that it had to do with cash. Lucas was putting the actor in his place so that, when the director inevitably fired up the Star Wars machine again, Prowse didn’t hold him to ransom. Even in 1983 this theory didn’t really hold water. But perhaps it helped Prowse sleep better at night. 

He remained sidelined as Lucas took a step back from Star Wars and Disney gained the keys to the galaxy from a long time ago and far, far away. It was news to him, for instance, that Darth Vader – the original, black-masked version – was returning in the spin-off movie Rogue One. That despite the fact that he had made it clear he was still up for playing the character. The call never came. 

Prowse at a press event in Spain in 2015  - Getty Images Europe
Prowse at a press event in Spain in 2015 - Getty Images Europe

“I didn’t know anything about Darth Vader coming back, actually,” he told the Radio Times ahead of Rogue One. “It’d be nice to be offered the job again, because I’m still fit and healthy, and I’m still Darth Vader in and around the country. I get loads and loads of requests, you know, to do loads of personal appearances, both as myself and him.”

“There are accounts I’ve heard about Dave Prowse,” documentarian Jamie Stangroom told the Telegraph last year when interviewed about his film Empire Strikes Door (about the notorious/ celebrated scene in the original Star Wars in which a stormtrooper bangs his head running into a room). 

“There have been rumours of leaked plot lines. I’m not sure anybody knows the truth. After Return of the Jedi, I don't think there was any chance of his being asked to do any kind of role. It’s a strange one, the Dave Prowse situation.” 

Still, Prowse was surely born to play Darth Vader. He had established himself in the Sixties and Seventies portraying Frankenstein on three separate occasions. He was also once hired by the Kray Twins to visit their local boozer on the Whitechapel Road and drink with them for the night. This was to intimidate an associate of theirs in the pub (as Prowse’s then-agent revealed to his client after the fact). 

Body builder Prowse in 1981 - Hulton Archive
Body builder Prowse in 1981 - Hulton Archive

But it was his brief appearance as a bodyguard in Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange in 1971 that caught the attention of Lucas. He invited Prowse to his office in London and offered him one of two roles - that of walking carpet Chewbacca or heavy-breathing baddie Vader. Prowse didn’t hesitate. 

“I said, ‘What the hell is Chewbacca? It’s like a hairy gorilla’. The other one was a character called Darth Vader. I said, ‘Don’t say any more George. I’ll have the villain’s part’. You always remember the bad guy.”

Vader was indeed remembered. But to the person in the street – and even many Star Wars fans – it is James Earl Jones, with his Shakespearean oration, who is synonymous with the character. Prowse, whose physicality and menace, were so crucial to creating Vader, was reduced to a footnote. 

With news of his death, Star Wars icons such as Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels, aka 3-CPO, have been taking to twitter to pay tribute. “A kind man & much more than Darth Vader,” Hamill wrote. “Dave’s iconic figure dominated the finished film in '77 and has done so ever since,” Daniels added. 

Prowse, wherever he is, may have felt it is too little, too late. He may also have noted that, in the hours immediately following the announcement that he had passed, the official Star Wars twitter feed responded with a frosty silence.