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When Darth Vader made his iconic entrance in the very first Star Wars film, he certainly made an impression. The black armor and helmet were striking, and there was also that signature breathing. We didn’t hear his voice in this first moment, but we did see how he moved. He immediately sucked up any and all status that there was to suck up.
The breathing and the look are essential, but without the man within the suit, Darth Vader would not have had that impressive, most impressive, physical stature. Thankfully for everyone, David Prowse, who has passed away at the age of 85, was the man in the suit.
A British actor and body-builder, Prowse played the role in all three films in the original Star Wars trilogy. His voice was never intended to be used for the final cut— no slight to him, but when you see and hear dailies in various documentaries, it’s clear why creator George Lucas always intended to dub someone else in, much to the dismay of Prowse. James Earl Jones ended up famously giving voice to the man who was once Anakin Skywalker, and when he was finally unmasked, Sebastian Shaw swapped in to be the actor whose face you saw.
In the finished films, you never see Prowse’s face, and you never hear his voice. His presence, however, is always felt. Jones is naturally a huge part of Vader’s power, as is the look and the breath. The way he moves, and his imposing demeanor, however, are just as essential. Without Prowse, Vader would not have worked.
One of my favorite elements of Darth Vader is all Prowse, really— his effortless, evil stride.
Vader doesn’t run. He struts. He has a confident, long-legged walk, and this alone usually has the rebels running in fear. This is very clearly depicted in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, when Vader personally leads the Imperial troopers through Echo Base.
The troopers are running and jumping around because they are vulnerable. They can be taken down. Vader can’t be taken down, and he knows this full well. He strides into Echo Base, his cape billowing behind him (propelled by Vader’s own grandiosity), and he only has one thing on his mind. He’s there for Luke Skywalker, and he’ll tear the place apart if he needs to.
Vader doesn’t lead from the back of the army. He’s the biggest, baddest, most untouchable force that the Imperials have, and pretty much nothing the Rebels can throw at him will make any difference. Vader knows this. He doesn’t need to run, he only needs to stride with purpose. If he ran, he wouldn’t be as much of a threat. If he is striding up to you? You’re probably dead.
This may feel like an easy thing for an actor to do, but it isn’t. Behind all of that armor, under that helmet, David Prowse was milking that confident strut for all it was worth. Just as he should have. At this point (while shooting the second film) he knew that his voice would not be heard, so he almost doubled down on making Vader’s physicality as great as it could possibly be. Empire is Vader’s movie. Thanks to Prowse, he glides through it like an evil ice-dancer.
His walk, his turns, and his body language are easily overlooked when far sexier things like Jones’ voice are in play. It’s easy to forget about the man in the suit, especially when many of the film's actual creators didn’t pay much attention to him. The iconic line of, “No, I am your father” was never said on set by Prowse. He didn’t know anything about it. Lucas told Mark Hamill to ignore the words that Prowse spoke in the scene, and he secretly let Hamill know what he should really react to. Prowse said something different on the day, and maybe three people knew the truth, which would be dubbed in later.
Despite not knowing, Prowse makes a gesture here that if taken away, would make the scene incomplete. As we hear Jones’ say “…rule the galaxy as father and son…”, Vader reaches out a hand to Luke. He does it quickly, and forcefully, and it is loaded with power and longing. Prowse was utterly committed to this moment. After Luke decides to fall down the shaft, Vader's arm instantly drops. These choices (and the way they are edited together) help so very, very much to make the scene as good as it is.
James Earl Jones deserves all the credit in the world for, well, everything he does. That said, Vader was a team effort. Jones himself would be the first one to tell you that. Prowse was the point person on that team. No other villain is able to evoke such terror simply by striding towards you. As I’ve said, the stride tells you that he’s not afraid of you. You’re not gonna harm him in any way, you’re just gonna die. He is an unstoppable force of wicked nature and no villain in any movie has ever topped him in this department.
It works the other way, too. At the end of Empire, Luke and his friends escape. For the entire movie, Vader has been choking people to death who fail him. It should be noted, that Prowse’s force-choke gestures are small, nuanced, and like the rest of Vader, instantly iconic.
Does he choke Admiral Piett after the Millennium Falcon escapes? He doesn’t. Something in him has changed. He turns, his cape swirls around him, and he strides off of the bridge. He says nothing, but the way he stalks off in this moment speaks volumes. He’ll never be the same again.
Within the story, Anakin Skywalker was always hidden inside of Darth Vader. In the real world, David Prowse was the one inside the suit. Without his commitment, Vader would have been a lesser villain.
Prowse gave it everything he had, and Darth Vader was able to confidently strut past all other film baddies to become the most iconic and memorable villain of all time. The imposing stride of David Prowse will live forever.