Two icons of the late 20th century, representing the extremes of good and evil, came to the screen in the unlikely form of the 6ft 6in former weightlifter and bodybuilder Dave Prowse, who has died aged 85.
The Green Cross Code Man, dressed in figure-hugging green joggers and a futuristic top emblazoned with a large cross, and giving road safety advice to children in British television commercials, was transformed into a global star as Darth Vader in the director George Lucas’s Star Wars sci-fi film trilogy.
The former Jedi knight who betrays his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, to help the emperor on his mission to destroy the Jedi was equally distinctive, wearing black flowing robes over body armour, plus a large, samurai-like helmet and a sinister mask. Lucas had briefed the concept artist, Ralph McQuarrie, to make Vader look like “a dark lord riding in the wind”. As a dreaded military commander in the New Order, Darth Vader struck fear into enemies and his own troops alike, using violence and torture to achieve his objectives.
Instead of being overshadowed by big stars such as Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness, Prowse made the character his own, despite Lucas’s apparent lack of initial enthusiasm for it. “As a director, he was not that interested in Vader,” said Prowse. “I developed the walk and mannerisms on my own and I suppose he approved, for I never received directions otherwise!”
Although onscreen Prowse was completely unrecognisable – his face covered and his own West Country burr replaced by the resonant tones of the American actor James Earl Jones – the part brought him a cult following that resulted in regular trips to fan conventions for more than 20 years. This might have seemed a million miles away from the actor’s English roots.
David Charles Prowse was born in Bristol in 1935 to Gladys (née Burt) and Charles Prowse, and brought up by his mother on a housing estate in the city after his father died.
He won a scholarship to Bristol Grammar School and, plagued by arthritis – as he would be throughout his life – was forced to wear a leg brace for two years as a teenager., He subsequently began pumping iron to make his body strong again and found fame as a bodybuilder and weightlifter, becoming Britain’s Strongest Man, Mr Universe and British heavyweight weightlifting champion in the 1960s.
After being invited to appear in a stage play, Prowse switched to acting and landed a string of screen roles that made use of his towering stature. He appeared, uncredited, as Frankenstein’s monster in the James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967) and later played the creature in two Hammer Films productions, The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974).
The director Stanley Kubrick used Prowse as a straight character actor in his legendary futuristic satire A Clockwork Orange (1971), based on Anthony Burgess’s disturbing novel, and his character had to lift Patrick Magee in a wheelchair up a flight of stairs. His other film roles included the torturer in Carry On Henry (1971), a strongman in Vampire Circus (1972) and the executioner in The People That Time Forgot (1977).
However, international fame came only when Prowse was picked to play Darth Vader in Star Wars (1977, retitled Episode IV: A New Hope following the release of the sci-fi film’s three prequels), which quickly became the cinema’s biggest box-office hit to that date. He revived the character’s battles with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in the other two films in the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). All the pictures drew their inspiration from 1950s Saturday matinée film serials and used gadgets and special effects to wow modern audiences.
When director George Lucas made Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), the first of the prequels, Prowse was not included because Darth Vader was seen in his previous guise as Anakin Skywalker (played by the child actor Jake Lloyd, a role to be taken over by the Canadian Hayden Christensen in the next two films).
On television, natural casting as a “heavy” brought Prowse guest roles in popular series such as The Saint (1969), Callan (1970) and Department S (1972) and, before Star Wars, he established himself in science-fiction and fantasy series on the small screen with bit-parts in Ace of Wands (1970), Doctor Who (as Minotaur in “The Time Monster” story, 1972), The Tomorrow People (as an android, 1973) and Space: 1999 (as the Cloud Creature, 1976).
He also played a strongman wearing trunks and showing off his muscles in the wishing-well sketch screened in the first series of The Benny Hill Show made for Thames Television (1969), which quickly became an international best-seller. The sequence was included in the film The Best of Benny Hill (1974).
After being seen in 1970s television commercials as the Green Cross Code Man, Prowse continued to visit schools and make public appearances as the character until 1990. He also acted Charles in the “BBC Television Shakespeare” production of As You Like It (1978), Jem Pollock in A Horseman Riding By (1978) and bodyguard to the intergalactic rock’n’roller Hotblack Desiato’s in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981).
His final film role was as Frank Bryan in The Kindness of Strangers (2010).
In the same year, Prowse announced that George Lucas had banned him from attending official Star Wars fan conventions. The actor claimed that he was told by the producer’s company that he had “burned too many bridges”, possibly a reference to Prowse’s criticisms of Lucas over the years, including that of having his voice dubbed in the original trilogy.
Having opened his own Star Gym in 1969, he trained Christopher Reeve for the role of Superman in the 1978 film after being turned down for the part himself. “The director told me I was perfect,” said Prowse, “except, of course, that I was British and not American, and that the Americans wouldn’t accept an Englishman as this great American hero.”
In the 2004 documentary Empire of Dreams, actress Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in the original trilogy films, quipped that they nicknamed Prowse “Darth Farmer” (a jibe regarding his urban Bristolian accent).
A book published under Prowse’s name, Play Safe with the Stars: Child’s Guide to Safety (1981), featured advice from celebrities such as John Cleese and David Bellamy, as well as pictures of Prowse as the Green Cross Code Man demonstrating the principles of safety. For the road safety campaign and his charity work, Prowse was appointed MBE in 2000. He also wrote Fitness Is Fun (1979) and a 2011 autobiography, Straight from the Force’s Mouth. In 2009, he received treatment for prostate cancer.
Prowse is survived by his wife, Norma (née Scammell), whom he married in 1963, and their three children, Steven, James and Rachel.
David Charles Prowse, actor, born 1 July 1935, died 28 November 2020
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