Posted on 04 Feb 2014
9 min read
A friend recently suggested Gymtalk run a piece on David Prowse.
At the time, I had no idea who this was, and stated so.
My friend looked at me like I had spent the last 26 years in an underground sex basement.
“He was Darth Vader, you know, the most iconic screen villain of all time, and a famous bodybuilder.”
“I thought that was James Earl Jones?”
“Well, yes, he did the voice. Prowse was the guy wearing the suit.”
“You mean the guy with a face like a maltreated testicle at the end of Return of the Jedi?”
“No, no, that’s someone else again.”
Poor old Dave.
This conversation must be symptomatic of the recognition he has received over the last 25 years.
Indeed, unless you’re an avid enthusiast of 1960s British bodybuilders or have a tawdry folder on your computer labelled ‘Leia Pics’ (I presumed the latter for my friend), it is unlikely you’ll know who the ruddy hell this guy is.
So, just who the f**k is David Prowse?
And should you care?
The first question I can help you with.
The second, maybe not so much.
In brief, Prowse was a champion weightlifter and bodybuilding personality who, like many of his peers, dallied with the Silver Screen in the 60s and 70s.
He achieved a modicum of fame, his most notable role, of course, being Lord Vader, but he also appeared in A Clockwork Orange and Casino Royale (the shit one).
David Prowse also earned renown in the UK for his role as the ‘Green Cross Code Man’, a budget superhero who imparts road safety advice to kids.
These days, however, Dave seems to spend most of his time charging £50 for an autograph at Star Wars conventions and pissing off George Lucas.
It’s the classic career progression: bodybuilder, mildly successful actor, failed actor, bitter old man.
This is his story…
David Prowse was born on July 1, 1935 in Bristol, England.
As a schoolboy he excelled at sport and his big dream was to play rugby for England.
However his hopes were crushed after being diagnosed with tuberculosis of the knee at the age of 13.
Although the tuberculosis tests came back negative, the condition of his knee was so bad that Prowse would have to spend the next 10 months in hospital, and a further two years after that, shackled to a leg caliper.
Prowse later reflected that this uncomfortable shackle prepared him well for the task of donning Vader’s suit and mask.
Once free of his leg brace, Prowse began swimming to regain strength in his leg.
On the way home from the local pool one day in 1951, Prowse caught a glimpse of a rippling torso on the cover of a muscle mag in a shop window.
From this moment on Prowse became determined to build a similar physique, and bodybuilding and weightlifting would become his passion.
Nine years later, in 1960, David Prowse had managed to build the monumental physique that he had pined for.
In 1962, weighing in at 250 pounds and towering over his fellow competitors at six feet seven inches tall, he was crowned British Heavyweight Weightlifting Champion, a title which he would retain for the next three years.
That year he also went on to represent the English weightlifting team at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth, Western Australia.
He also competed in the Mr Universe contest where he became close friends with Lou Ferrigno and Arnold Schwarzenegger who, like Dave, would go on to enjoy careers in the movies (albeit much more successfully).
As a result of his popularity, Joe ‘The Master Blaster‘ Weider offered Prowse a job directing sales of his universally popular weight training equipment, and, in the mid-to-late 60s, Prowse became a recognisable face in fitness advertisements and mailorder catalogues.
He also became fitness consultant to Harrods, ripped up phonebooks under the stage name ‘Jack the Ripper’, and opened a series of gymnasiums, notably ‘The Dave Prowse Fitness Centre’ in London.
On a less successful note, David Prowse also set up his own muscle mag, Power, which was a catastrophic failure, hemorrhaging cash and bringing Prowse close to a nervous breakdown.
In the late 60s and early 70s, Prowse’s well-regarded physique and muscle building prowess led to him being cast in a number of film and TV roles, including Casino Royale (1967), Up Pompeii (1971), and a handful of pretty atrocious Hammer Horror films, such as The Horror of Frankenstein (1970).
Typically, as glimpsed from a quick look at his IMDb profile, he would take roles with descriptions such as “big hairy monster”, “ape”, “bearded strongman”, or, as was the case in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), someone who could lift up people in wheelchairs.
Typecasting: sometimes it can be your friend.
Anyway, here’s Dave talking about his role as ‘Julian’ in A Clockwork Orange:
By the mid 70s, Prowse was a well respected fitness guru and had become something of a household name in the UK.
In light of this, the British Road Safety Committe offered him the role of ‘The Green Cross Code Man’, a superhero who would teach road safety to children.
This role (which he later claimed to be his favourite) would see Prowse travel the world until the 1990s, giving talks, demonstrations and filming television spots such as this:
Aside from looking like a giant bottle of bathroom detergent, the Green Cross Code Man’s main superpower seemed to be:
a) Teleporting across the British road network (still a better superpower than this)
b) Being an annoying twat
Presumably the budget didn’t stretch to cool alien hammers, web slingers and laser eyesight.
Also, as this was the 70s, a decade when Saville et al were at the height of their paedophilic powers, surely Operation Yewtree should be investigating this leotard-clad man who had a telepathic connection with every minor in the country?
A little dodgy if you ask me.
As principal photography for the first Star Wars film drew closer, George Lucas still hadn’t filled the role of the film’s main antagonist, a certain Darth Vader, in addition to a number of other characters.
In the casting call for the part, Lucas stated that he wanted a ‘strongman’ to play the role.
As an accomplished bodybuilder who had played a number of small bit-part roles, Prowse fitted the requirements.
Plus Lucas had reportedly been impressed by his intimidating screen presence in A Clockwork Orange.
Lucas initially offered Prowse two parts: Darth Vader and Chewbacca, or, as Prowse told a colleague at the time, a “hairy monster or a nasty black villain in a cape.”
Prowse quickly elected to play the part of Vader.
When asked why, Prowse coyly responded, “People always remember the villain, George.”
Oh, the irony.
Dave went on to play the role of Vader for the filming of all three films, however it didn’t all end in hugs and handjobs for our favourite Bristolian…
In addition to being cackhanded with a lightsabre (a skilled swordsman replaced Prowse for the battle scenes), there was a major issue with Dave’s voice.
To put it mildly, his shrill Westcountry accent sounded a bit ridiculous, and not at all like an intimidating Sith Lord.
Imagine a cross between Kermit the Frog and Justin Lee Collins and you’ll get the picture.
Have a look at this footage below, and you’ll have some idea why his co-stars dubbed him ‘Darth Farmer’.
In post-production, Dave’s performance was, unbeknownst to him, dubbed over with that of James Earl Jones.
Prowse only discovered this when he saw the film for the first time.
This move was the first in a long line incidents which caused Dave’s relationship with George Lucas and Lucasfilm to deteriorate.
In addition, Prowse became infuriated by the lack of recognition he was receiving for his performance, a gripe which was later exacerbated by the fact that someone else was asked to don Vader’s suit to place his footprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
Feeling he had become a victim of neglect by Lucasfilm, Prowse became involved in an ongoing feud.
He became a dissenting voice, and speaking of the final installment in the trilogy years later, sneered,
“They killed me off. They killed Yoda off. They killed Boba Fett off, and they had all these silly little Ewoks. It was designed to clear up the odds and ends. [It was] by far and away the worst of the three. I hated it.”
This bad blood and Lucas-bashing led to Prowse being banned from all official Star Wars conventions, with a statement from Lucasfilm declaring he had “burned too many bridges”.
To make matters worse, Prowse also alleges he has never received payment for his role as Vader, even though his contract stipulated he was entitled to a share of the profits for his role in Return of the Jedi.
He commented that he gets “occasional letters from Lucasfilm saying that we regret to inform you that as Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) has never gone into profit, we’ve got nothing to send you.”
Well that’s Hollywood accounting for you, Dave.
After Star Wars, Prowse became an in-demand personal trainer, coaching celebrities such as Vanessa Redgrave and Daniel Day Lewis.
Around this time, Prowse was also furiously lobbying Richard Donner for the role of Superman in the upcoming movie.
Donner had no intention of giving Prowse the gig, however he did pacify Prowse by asking him to get Christopher Reeve into shape for the role.
Reeve was very slim at the time – so much so that one producer suggested adding foam padding to his suit!
With six weeks to go until filming commenced, Prowse smothered Reeve in a regime of intense weight training, gallons of milk and a mountain of red meat.
The shock on Reeve’s body was so extreme that he would end every workout with a bout of vomiting.
Nevertheless, the training paid off, and Reeve gained 20 pounds of muscle mass, increasing his bench press (allegedly) from 100 to 350 pounds.
In recent years, Prowse’s health has seriously declined due to inflamed arthritis in his knee, leaving him unable to walk.
So bad did things get that in 2009 he underwent an operation to replace his knee, femur and hip – all in one go!
To make matters worse, during this operation it was also discovered that Prowse had prostate cancer.
However, after a series of radiotherapy treatments Prowse was able to make a quick recovery.
Yes, it seems the force is still strong with this one.
(Urgh, I cringed as I typed that – still, more tasteful than using the subtitle ‘Your powers are weak old man’, which I did originally intend.)
Dave recently published his autobiography, Straight from the Force’s Mouth (2011), and he now travels the world appearing at (unofficial) Star Wars conventions.
He currently resides in Croydon, Surrey, England with his wife and three children.
So, there we have it.
Next time David Prowse comes up in conversation, or if you bump into him at the salad bar of your local Harvester, you’ll be able to respire menacingly and repeat:
“David Prowse is Darth Vader”.
“David Prowse is Darth Vader”.
“David Prowse is Darth Vader”.