You’re likely familiar with the most infamous masked face in popular culture, Darth Vader. But did you know the actor who portrayed him, David Prowse, was an accomplished body-builder and true-to-life badass long before ever taking the role? It’s understandable – what would become the most recognizable villain of all time had to have the right actor behind him.
However, the road to stardom for Dave Prowse began long ago in a galaxy far, far away, when he just a young man growing up in Bristol, England. As a young man, Prowse set his sights on becoming as physically fit as he could. After raising in the Southmed housing section of Bristol, he worked diligently in his studies to earn a scholarship and attend the storied Bristol Grammar School in his hometown. He discovers his home here, and excells in his fitness goals introducing to weight training, fitness, and bodybuilding from his early teen years. This likely had a strong influence on his ambitious journey and encouraged him to take on an early job as a bouncer, where he would later meet the love of his life and future wife.
Dave’s energy and enthusiasm for weightlifting eventually led him to participate in many bodybuilding and strength competitions. This paved the way for his future participation in high-profile events, which included the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, where he took the championship title for three years in a row from years 1961 to 1963. The early success didn’t end there, and Prowse eventually even made a run for the highest title in the world of weightlifting and bodybuilding – Mr. Universe.
The Brand-new World Of Achievement
This brand-new world of achievement earned David Prowse massive exposure into the world of stardom, and he would eventually become buddies with The Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as top movie producer and Hollywood legend Stanley Kubrick. Rivals to Prowse such as world-renowned bodybuilder and Incredible Hulk actor Lou Ferrigno was one of Prowse’s fiercest competitors in the business, only to later become a close friend and source of encouragement as both men continued pursuing their careers in high-profile acting roles.
For David, the road to screen stardom started with an appearance in the cult-classic and shock jock Kubrick drama and thriller, A Clockwork Orange, in 1971. Six years later, in 1977, he cements his role in American culture as George Lucas’s masterpiece Star Wars introduce, with Prowse making his appearance as the dark lord of the Empire.
David isn’t the only “big man” on set however, sharing the stage with actor Peter Mayhew, who will forever be famous within the movie world as everyone’s favorite hair-covered hero, Chewbacca. Not only that, but fellow Englishman Anthony Daniels, who hails from Salisbury, just to the southeast of Prowse’s hometown, was the actor who brought the witty android, C-3P0 to life.
The Role Vader With Glee
Prowse took to his role as Vader with glee, relishing in the opportunity to remain anonymous while the world around him was falling to pieces. Nobody was able to project the powerful, menacing presence of Vader quite like Dave Prowse, and when combined with the tonal perfection of James Earl Jone’s voice-acting, the one-of-a-kind figure of Vader was complete. While Prowse’s role as Vader most certainly propelled him into the status of timeless movie legend, it was not his only powerful role on screen, and just one of his stops in a truly marked career in the world’s highest arena of film and television.
Though his role as Vader stands as the pinnacle to a truly robust and storied career, perhaps his most formative years as an actor took place between the years 1967 to 1977. In the decade prior to his blockbuster and career-defining role in Lucas’s Star Wars, he made his acting debut in the James Bond hit, Casino Royale. Prowse would also become known for his part as Frankenstein’s creature, capitalizing on his stature and presence on-stage, in what would be a returning theme throughout his life and career. This role continues in future productions that includes the Hammer film series as well as Horror of Frankenstein, and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell in 1974.
Doctor Who And Space 1999
Television series that gained devoted fanships such as Doctor Who and Space 1999 also saw him making appearances, and his early success put him on the radar of many Hollywood legends. One fateful day in 1977, George Lucas invited him to audition for both Darth Vader and Chewbacca after recognizing his talent through Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange. For Prowse, the decision was obvious to choose the Sith Lord, because as he put it, “You always remember the bad guys.”
On the set of A Clockwork Orange, the actor challenged Kubrick’s obsessive tendencies by insisting that endless takes weren’t necessary to achieve the right shot. Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will also appreciate that Prowse played a part in the 1980’s mini-series adapted from the famous novel, long before the more well-known 2005 film based on the same work ever came into production.
At 6 feet, 7 inches in height, it’s hardly difficult to understand what made Prowse such an alluring figure for filmmakers needing a strong physical presence on screen, a fact that also landed him his role of Minotaur in Britain’s iconic “Doctor Who” series during the 1972 episode, “The Time Monster.”
Superman In 1978
After gaining incredible respect and experience with the Star Wars franchise, Prowse took on a mentorship role in the industry. He shared his training and understanding of how to prepare for major roles with high-profile Hollywood stars like Christopher Reeve, who would go on to play Superman in 1978. Prowse’s role as a mentor to Reeve was arguably as crucial to the success of the film as the actor’s own contributions.
Interestingly, Prose considers to play the star role in the original Superman film, but passed-over due to the assumption that a British actor would have less resonance with the American public than a native-born lead.
As late as 1987, David Prowse was also called on to train and prepare actor Cary Elwes in the hit movie, Princess Bride.
Before David Prowse was making monumental strides as some of the most memorable figures in film, he had a humble beginning as a mock superhero. A public safety campaign led by the British government created this hero to alert students of the dangers involved with crossing the street without first looking both ways. This campaign started in 1971 and continued through 1990. For his efforts serving the community, Prowse eventually gained notoriety from the Queen in the form of an MBE, Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, in the year 2000.
While it may seem at first glance that David Prowse’s path to riches and fame was a cakewalk, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, his road to on-screen achievement wasn’t without its fair share of challenges. From an early age, he was forced to wear a leg brace during his tenure at Bristol Grammar School in order to deal with chronic arthritis, a condition that would continue to be a significant health factor throughout his life and career.
Darth Vader In 1977
Quite recently, Prowse made headlines for more unfortunate reasons as his health faced decline toward the latter years of his life. At the age of 80, he was facing significant pain after a lifelong struggle with arthritis, and stated that his health, career, and marriage had all suffered ever since choosing to play Darth Vader in 1977. Because of this, Prowse vehemently refused to see the updated Star Wars: The Force Awakens film, instead choosing to dawn a green cape once more as Britain’s favorite road-crossing superhero, the Green Cross Code man. As Dave put it – he no longer even owned a Darth Vader mask.
David’s health problems continued to plague him in his later years, including severe memory loss and the need of a wheel-chair to travel. He also received a leg operation and stated that the fondest memory that remained for him from the Star Wars trilogy was, “when his very first cheque arrived.” On November 29, 2020, David Prowse finally passed away, but will forever be enshrined in film allure as one of movies most unforgettable characters to ever be placed on screen. While health challenges and a bitter break-up between him and George Lucas marked his final years with us, he will be fondly recalled by his countless fans world-wide.
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