David Prowse: The Man in the Suit — in memoriam

Of all the people who were involved with the movie, I only ever met one in person and shook his hand.

I was there in the summer of 1977 when the imposing figure of Darth Vader boarded the captured Rebel starship at the beginning of Star Wars (a movie that didn’t become “A New Hope” until later). The character was part Black Knight, part Doctor Doom, part Darkseid. His shiny black armor stood out in stark contrast against the white armor of the Stormtroopers, and he moved with the kind of confidence you just can’t fake while wearing a cape. His theme music was also great.

Vader also spoke with authority, although at the time I didn’t know that the voice, which was slightly muffled and augmented with mechanical respirator effects, belonged to James Earl Jones, who was not the man in the suit. Jones may not have been initially credited, in fact. This was too long ago for you to expect me to remember everything correctly.

I would go on to watch the movie several times during its first run in the theaters. Then again later, after it was re-released and suddenly rebranded as Episode IV: A New Hope. Then on VHS video tape. In the theater again after Lucas tinkered with it. On DVD. Television. Blu-Ray.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched the movie. Suffice it to say, a whole buncha times. I am a fan. Sometime between that initial viewing and the release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, I learned a lot of behind-the-scenes things about the brainchild of George Lucas. I learned the names of the various actors. I don’t mean the obvious actors such as Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. I’m talking about the actors you wouldn’t recognize on the streets, such as Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew and . . . David Prowse.

I wasn’t trying to learn all of these names, you understand. I believe most of the information infiltrated my brain through osmosis. It’s a nerd superpower. When you immerse yourself in the films, the novelizations and the slick fan magazines, you learn a lot of information, including the names of the actors, through repetition.

Fast-forward to the mid-1990s. I’m thinking 1994 or ’95. I was working for Hills Department Stores, at an ill-fated mall location I helped open in Wilson, North Carolina. The unit’s entire life cycle would be one year, ending when the company decided to scrap its much-ballyhooed Southern Expansion (a leveraged buyout would soon follow, then the company would be bought by Ames, which, in turn, would eventually go belly-up . . . it’s a long, sordid—yet familiar—story). I was working as the operations manager, which was just a fancy title that meant I was one of several assistant managers.

Professional retail managers—at least, in those days—led a kind of gypsy existence. Since graduating college, I had already pulled up roots and relocated my family seven or eight times by 1995. I would continue to move until 2002, when Sharon and I purchased our home here in central Arkansas and I made a vow to stay in one place for a while. That was eighteen years ago, and I’m still here.

But, back in 1995, I had already become accustomed to moving to new places, meeting a lot of new people and making new friends and acquaintances. None of these relationships would stand the test of time, sadly. I was a rolling stone, and I am the world’s worst at keeping in touch. But, man is a social animal and these human connections were important to me, whether it was with co-workers, outside vendors or customers. It was in fact, one of the customers I had struck up a friendship with who introduced me to David Prowse.

The customer, whose name I cannot remember, was somehow involved in a convention nearby. Raleigh, North Carolina, was only forty miles or so from Wilson, so the convention may have been there, or even over in Rocky Mount, about sixteen miles away. I don’t know if it was a comic book convention or a science-fiction convention, or what. I do remember that it was late afternoon or evening, and I was working on the salesfloor when my friend the customer approached me, accompanied by a tall stranger.

“Firewater,” my friend never said, because he used my real name rather than my nom de guerre, “I just wanted to introduce you to somebody. This is David Prowse—”

I was already shaking the tall man’s hand. It was something we did in the days before the plague.

I never allowed my friend to finish his sentence. I knew the name, if not the face.

“Darth Vader,” I said, with genuine respect. In my memories, I’m certain I saw the twinkle of admiration in the eyes of both my customer-friend and Mr. Prowse. Or, it could be that what I interpreted as admiration was just the sudden realization of how big a nerd I actually was. And am.

For the life of me, I can’t remember why this customer thought I was someone he should introduce Mr. Prowse to. Perhaps we had bonded over Star Wars previously. I usually attempt to find common ground with new people I meet. My usual go-to subjects are Bronze Age comic books, the Pittsburgh Steelers (who lost the Super Bowl to Dallas in 1995, by the way), classic rock music, Monty Python, Star Trek or Star Wars. This may not be the stuff from which lasting friendships are formed, but it’s more than enough for casual acquaintances.

As I recall, Prowse was staying at the customer’s house while the convention was going on. This was a quarter century ago, so he would have been only a few years older than I am now, which is a more difficult sentence for me to write than you may imagine.

As a Brush with Fame story, this one is lacking, I know. The entire episode was little more than a handshake and the exchange of a few pleasantries. My first impressions were that he was a tall, well-mannered man who sounded nothing like James Earl Jones. He seemed to think more highly of North Carolina than I did (when you’re from South Carolina, it’s difficult to shake that old rivalry). I didn’t pester him for an autograph or a photo. Nor did I ever attend the convention he was a special guest at, wherever it was.

Which means, of course, that I have no proof to present to you, Constant Reader. You have to trust that if I were going to make up a story about meeting a celebrity, it would have been a better one. When I found out, yesterday, that David Prowse had passed away at the age of 85, this memory just suddenly crashed back upon me like a rogue wave. News of his death also carried a bit of melancholia with it. I felt the same when Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew and Carrie Fisher passed. But, Prowse is the only one I ever met in person.

I will accept the criticism that I’ve managed to make an actor’s death all about me in this post. Everything is biased when viewed through the prism of personal experience. I know that David Prowse was in other things that I’ve seen, including A Clockwork Orange and a couple of Hammer films. I also know that he was a bodybuiding champ and well-known in the UK as the first Green Cross Code man, who taught children about road safety in public service messages. These are all admirable accomplishments. But, it’s safe to say that most of the obituaries written about him will lead with the most salient information.

He was the man in the suit. Rest in peace, David Prowse (1935 – 2020).

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