20 February 2012

'Star Wars': Men Behind the Masks

George Lucas obviously has an eye for talent, even for actors whose faces never appear onscreen. These faceless actors rely on their presence, movements, and distinctive voices to bring life to the masks they wear (even if sometimes those voices are overdubbed). And yet these men behind the masks remain, for the most part, mugless. Sure, what they lack in recognition they more than make up for in appearance fees on the "Star Wars" convention circuit. But still, in honor of the 3D re-release of "Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace" (1999), we wanted to officially recognize these all-important men behind the masks.

Jeremy Bulloch – Boba Fett

Before becoming an intergalactic bounty hunter, Bulloch was a household name in the U.K., where he acted frequently on stage and television and in some popular films, including the James Bond movie "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1977). Boba Fett's suit was actually constructed before Bulloch was cast, as Lucas already knew he was going to use the character, who originally appeared in a cartoon during "The Star Wars Holiday Special" (1978). Bulloch got the job in part because the suit fit perfectly. Even though Boba Fett was sucked into the Sarlacc Pit and killed off in "Return of the Jedi," Bulloch still managed to appear in "Revenge of the Sith" (2005) in a small role as Captain Colton.

Bruce Spence – Tion Medon

Apparently, to get cast as one of the guys behind the mask, it helps to be either really tall or really short. In Spence's 6-foot-7 case, it's the former. Spence plays Tion Medon, the Utapau inhabitant who welcomes Obi-Wan Kenobi to the planet. Spence got his start in theater, doing set construction mostly, when he was asked to fill in for someone playing a tiny role. From there, he has gone on to appear in, among many other titles, the third installment of five hugely successful franchises: "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" (1985), "The Matrix Revolutions" (2003), "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2003), "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" (2005), and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" (2010).

Peter Mayhew – Chewbacca

While working as a hospital orderly in London, the 7-foot-3 Mayhew was spotted by a producer who cast him in "Sinbad & the Eye of the Tiger" (1977). When Mayhew attended a casting call for "Star Wars," he got the job the moment he stood up to shake Lucas's hand. Mayhew was actually offered both the part of Darth Vader and the 200-year-old Wookie, Chewbacca (Lucas got the idea for a gentle, hairy, non-English-speaking co-pilot when he saw his dog, an Alaskan malamute, sitting in the passenger seat of a car). Mayhew chose the latter because he wanted to play a hero. He's been playing that hero, in four of the six films and on the convention circuit, ever since.

David Prowse – Darth Vader
While most people know that James Earl Jones gave voice to Anakin Skywalker's dark side, it was the 6-foot-7 David Prowse who gave Darth Vader his menacing stature. Prowse originally wanted to be a body builder, but he decided to focus exclusively on competitive weightlifting after he was told his ugly feet would hold him back. When Prowse failed to make the 1964 Olympic team, he decided to develop an act to showcase his feats of strength. He soon made the jump to television and film with roles in "The Horror of Frankenstein" (1970) and Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (1971). After he signed on to play the part of Darth Vader, Prowse went through principal photography in ignorance of the plan to overdub his voice in postproduction. Then midway through production of "Return of the Jedi" (1983), Prowse learned that when Darth Vader was finally unmasked, the part would be played by yet another actor. Prowse became vocal about his disappointment with Lucas--he was particularly vexed by the lack of profit sharing--and was finally banned from appearing at "Star Wars" conventions.

Ray Park – Darth Maul

Ray Park knew he wanted to kick butt when he was just 7 years old, after watching Bruce Lee films with his dad. Park competed in martial arts worldwide before being recruited to do stunt work for "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation" (1997). From there, Park went on to don the mask of Darth Maul, who many believed was the coolest part of "Phantom Menace" (1999). Though he was unfortunately killed off, Park parlayed his performance into what continues to be a successful Hollywood career, playing such awesome parts as Toad in "X-Men" (2000), Snake Eyes in the upcoming "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" (2012), Edgar on the TV series "Heroes" (2009-2010), and most notably as Chuck Norris on the TV series "The Legend of Bruce Lee" (2008). Anyone who can play Chuck Norris must be one bad mutha.

Anthony Daniels – C-3PO

A longtime veteran of the stage, Anthony Daniels's mime skills caused Lucas to request a meeting to discuss C-3PO. Daniels declined, as sci-fi wasn't exactly his thing. With some encouragement from his agent, Daniels read "The Adventures of Luke Starkiller." After landing the role, he was covered in body plaster to form the shape of his costume--an "extremely unlovely experience," recalled Daniels, who gave his performance without comment any direction from Lucas. In postproduction, Lucas tried to overdub Daniels's lines, but failed to find the right voice and finally asked Daniels to redub his own. Despite his difficulties working with Lucas and the studio's reluctance to reveal that there was actually a man inside the robot, Daniels signed on for the rest of the films--and remains a golden deity because of it.

Ahmed Best – Jar Jar Binks 

Best has the distinction of playing one of the worst characters in the entire "Star Wars" galaxy, or at least one of the most hated. Best was discovered when he was a member the "Stomp" theater troupe and picked by Lucas to do the voice and be the model for the computer-generated Gungan, Jar Jar Binks. Lucas thought Binks would be the most popular character of the new prequels, but alas, that wasn't the case; and ever the businessman, Lucas greatly diminished Best's part in the next two prequels. It's hard to feel bad for Best, though, as he continues to collect residuals on the three films, as well as on a number of "Star Wars" cartoons featuring his incredibly annoying voice.

Kenny Baker – R2-D2

Before becoming the toughest droid in the galaxy, the 3-foot-8 Kenny Baker was performing in a traveling comedy act called "The Mini Tones" with Jack Purvis (who would also find “Star Wars” work, as both a Jawa and an Ewok). On the set, Baker was lowered onto a seat inside his costume. Once inside, he manipulated two levers to move sideways--but only three inches at a time. When "George Lucas directs me, usually he just says 'look this way' or 'look that way,' 'look excited,' 'wobble slowly,' 'wobble quickly,' that kind of thing," said Baker. Aside from appearing in all six episodes of "Star Wars," Baker has enjoyed a fruitful career on stage and screen, appearing in dozens of films such as "Flash Gordon" (1980), "Time Bandits" (1981), and "Amadeus" (1984).

Frank Oz – Yoda 

Though he technically didn't wear a mask, Frank Oz is unquestionably the man behind the face and movements of the puppet who plays Yoda. Lucas approached Oz's boss, Jim Henson, to create a puppet character for "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), but Henson was too busy with "The Muppet Show" and "The Dark Crystal" (1982). So Oz was tapped to give voice to Luke's little green friend. Oz, who had a great deal of involvement in Yoda's development including his signature backward speech pattern, went on to operate and voice the live-action Yoda in "Return of the Jedi" (1983) and lend his voice to the CG version of the character in all three prequels. Aside from his Yoda work, Oz is also the genius behind the Cookie Monster, Bert, Grover, Fozzie the Bear, and Miss Piggy! He's even moonlighted as the director of such eclectic films as "Little Shop of Horrors" (1986), "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" (1988), "Bowfinger" (1999), and "Death at a Funeral" (2007).

Warwick Davis – Wicket

When he was 11 years old, the 2-foot-11 Davis successfully tried out for an extra role in "Return of the Jedi." After R2-D2 actor Kenny Baker, who was originally slotted to play Wicket, fell ill, Davis was given the part and earned his first acting credit. From there, Davis would go on to become one of the most successful little people in acting history. Aside from reprising the role of Wicket for several children's TV shows, Davis also starred in "Labyrinth" (1986) and "Willow" (1988) before taking on two roles in two extremely popular franchises: As the title character in "Leprechaun" (1993) and all its straight-to-video sequels, as well as Hogwarts professor Filius Flitwick in every big-budget installment of the "Harry Potter" series. And even though he's a busy man, he still found time to appear in "The Phantom Menace" as Wald, a Pod Race spectator, and a Mos Espa citizen. 

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