Sidelined, suffocated, and nearly baked alive: The story of the man who didn’t want to play C-3PO

As the neurotic, gold-plated robot, Anthony Daniels was an accidental witness to a great interstellar story, writes Louis Chilton. In his new memoir, the actor recounts his life and career in a galaxy far, far away

Friday 01 November 2019 12:36 GMT
The British actor with a model of his character in Paris last month
The British actor with a model of his character in Paris last month

Anthony Daniels was never meant to be a sci-fi star. Much like the neurotic, gold-plated robot C-3PO – whom the actor would portray in nine Star Wars films, and countless spin-offs – he was a victim (and beneficiary) of circumstance, an accidental witness to a great interstellar story. In his new memoir, I Am C-3PO: The Inside Story, which is out now, Daniels recounts his life and career in a galaxy far, far away.

Daniels remembers intimately the moment he met George Lucas, the mastermind of the Star Wars saga, in 1975 to discuss a role in what would eventually be called A New Hope. Expecting a cigar-chomping media mogul, Daniels – a novice to Hollywood who had never seen a film script before – was taken aback by the mild-mannered film enthusiast who off-handedly agreed to give him the part.

In many ways, Star Wars was an unlikely choice for Daniels. He was 24 years old when he enrolled in drama school to pursue his childhood dream of becoming an actor, and his classes included improvisation and mime – skills which would later become invaluable when he donned the metallic “Threepio” suit. Out of school, he appeared in a production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – a rehearsal of sorts for Star Wars. “[Guildenstern’s] relationship to Stoppard’s more blunt, gung-ho creation, Rosencrantz, was like a mirror of the two droids... R was Artoo [R2-D2]. G was Threepio.”

But Daniels had never been a fan of the genre. He recalls walking out halfway through a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey and asking for his money back. The stage actor worried that the role was “beneath him”. Still, he was ensnared by Ralph McQuarrie’s striking concept art, particularly the image of C-3PO.

Translation from page to outfit proved tricky, however, and the memoir details the many steps it took to fit, mould and assemble the 19-piece Threepio suit. In its first incarnation, it took more than two hours to put on. Daniels would have to remain suited for the entire day’s filming, unable to sit or relax. By the time The Force Awakens rolled around, technical advances meant it took just six seconds for him to don the costume.

The book is replete with memories from behind the scenes of the Star Wars saga, such as the time Harrison Ford, bored during a long wait on the Millennium Falcon set, picked up a carpenter’s saw and idly cut into the cockpit’s sliding door. The former carpenter caused a lengthy delay while the set was repainted.

Fans of Anakin Skywalker’s wretched “I hate sand” speech in Attack of the Clones – memetically placed among the worst film dialogue of all time – will have plenty to enjoy here; Daniels grouses about the unpleasantness of Tunisian sand in his suit on several occasions throughout the book.

With R2-D2 in ‘A New Hope’

Daniels speaks highly of many of his fellow actors, especially Sir Alec Guinness – who offered him a share of his generous per diem when they arrived in Tunisia for Episode IV – and Mark Hamill, for whom he felt an instant affection. He is less warm about the late Kenny Baker, “the diminutive actor, cast to animate some of Artoo’s scenes”. Even the character of R2-D2 seems to inspire no real affection, with Daniels recalling a time the motorised prop nearly nudged him down a flight of stairs. Quite the malfunctioning little twerp.

His regard for the film crew wasn’t great, either – spending much of the day motionless in his Threepio cladding, Daniels was treated by many as a sort of humanoid prop. As a reminder, he handed out customised matchboxes with “3PO IS HUMAN!” written on them, to no real avail.

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The role also took its toll on the actor’s health. As well as the perennial danger of falling down, the suit risked permanent nerve damage, and nearly suffocated Daniels on a number of occasions. When the suit was first being elaborately fitted, the actor had to make “mooing” sounds to alert the crew-members whenever an errant hand impeded the small airway to his mouth. Another time, a malfunctioning battery pack caused the actor to start being “baked alive”.

Because his mouth was muffled by Threepio’s headpiece, all of the android’s dialogue was recorded in post-production. At first, Lucas didn’t warm to Daniel’s take on the voice, inviting 30 other actors (including Richard Dreyfuss) for auditions. “I… errr… never thought of Threepio being a British butler,” he said, although, of course, he would come around to the idea.

After Star Wars’ unexpected, overwhelming success, the man in the gold suit found himself left behind. While the film’s human stars – Hamill, Ford and Carrie Fisher – were bathed in media attention, Star Wars’ publicity team seemed all too happy to let audiences forget C-3PO was not in fact a real robot. When Daniels found his name as the answer to a question on Trivial Pursuit, he thought “it was official – I truly was a triviality”. He had the card framed in gold and hung in his toilet.

Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker - Trailer

In the memoir, he outlines the many off-beat spin-off projects spawned by Star Wars’ popularity, including The Donny and Marie Star Wars Special (in which he personally cut almost all of Threepio’s lines from the “unspeakably awful” script), the infamously dire Star Wars Holiday Special, an appearance on Sesame Street, and an anti-smoking public service announcement, starring C-3PO and R2-D2. Daniels also recalls some of the many strange Star Wars merchandising choices, including a C-3PO-branded cereal, and a ceramic statuette of a haunched Threepio, sticky tape streaming from between his parted legs.

As a Star Wars ever-present, Daniels was witness to many of the feuds and mishaps that occurred throughout the saga. The original films were plagued by tensions between producers and directors. In a case of life imitating art, Ford brushed up against the machismo of co-star Billy Dee Williams, who played Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back.

Surrounded by Ewoks in ‘Return of the Jedi’

Daniels was at the centre of a dispute himself – with Richard Marquand, the director of Return of the Jedi. Tensions ran high, culminating with the actor telling him, “I would prefer you not to speak to me for the rest of the shoot.” Marquand is the only director to incur such a reaction; all the other filmmakers, from Irvin Kershner to Rian Johnson, are spoken about in reverent terms.

More frivolously, Daniels got into a prank-based tit-for-tat with the film’s still photographer, Ralph Nelson, even once rigging an explosive squib under the sleeping Nelson’s chair. Indeed, the actor seems far removed from his uptight metal counterpart – with tales of sneaking off in a dune buggy while on the set of the Sarlacc pit, wandering on to the snowy set of The Shining during Return of the Jedi, and breaking into a Star Wars prop exhibition to correct a misassembled Threepio suit.

Autograph-hunting is a lucrative business, and there are no shortage of false signatures floating around the internet. One time, the FBI contacted Daniels as part of Operation Bullpen, asking for help convicting a forger. The accused man had slipped up when he told an undercover agent he could procure a personalised signature from Alec Guinness – who had been dead for many years.

In I Am C-3PO, we see a snapshot of a changing industry. Disney’s recent sequel trilogy brought a friendlier, more enthusiastic atmosphere to the set, but also new problems, like the media drones which would fly over the sets, hoping to snap pictures of the cast in action. Despite Threepio’s diminished role in 2017’s The Last Jedi, Daniels also ran a “droid school”, instructing and coordinating the film’s other robots-to-be.

Towards the end of the memoir, he discusses the forthcoming Rise of Skywalker, the ninth and final Star Wars film in the so-called trilogy of trilogies. In a page-long email sent to director JJ Abrams in January 2018, Daniels asks for details of his character’s involvement, suggesting the ways in which the pernickety droid could be best deployed in the story. The response was just a sentence: “You’re either going to love or hate how much you have to do in this new movie.”

He would, foreseeably, love it, and writes eagerly of his time on the Episode IX set. One day saw the cast and crew set upon by a plague of tiny insects; another saw them travel to Jordan for a shoot, to create the desert planet of Pasaana. After recruiting local soldiers to dress up as alien species, select members of the cast and crew were invited to dinner with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania.

In the end, the memoir paints a picture of Daniels’ life as a charming double act. Not, as many would assume, between C-3PO and his squat robot counterpart R2-D2, but between Daniels and his own character – the fussy golden droid who helped change the face of sci-fi cinema forever.

I Am C-3PO: The Inside Story by Anthony Daniels is published by DK, and is available in hardback now

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