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Although he played one of the most famous movie characters of the 20th century, David Prowse's face remained largely unknown to all but the most rabid fans of "Star Wars" (1977), following his chilling performance as super-villain, Darth Vader. In reality, Prowse was a gentle giant who spent most of his downtime away from the camera running a London fitness center and raising money for charity. A child of the Second World War, he built up his slender frame with weightlifting as his ticket out of the English provinces. Though he never realized his dream of winning the Mr. Universe bodybuilding competition, Prowse parlayed his success as Britain's Heavyweight Weightlifting Champion into roles on television and in films. After memorable turns in Hammer Studio's "The Horror of Frankenstein" (1970) and Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (1971), Prowse was one of several oversized and undersized actors brought in to audition for "Star Wars." Though he was considered first for the part of the yeti-like Chewbacca, it was as the black-caped Lord of the Sith that Prowse attained pop culture sainthood through his return in "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) to the trilogy's completion with "Return of the Jedi" (1983). Though his performances were revoiced by James Earl Jones, Prowse's association with the character made him a beloved personality among the international science fiction and fantasy community.
David Prowse was born on July 1, 1935 in the town of Midsomer Norton, in the southwest England county of Somerset. Raised in the riverside city of Bristol, he attended Bristol Grammar School. When Prowse was 15 years old, his brother-in-law sent away for a Charles Atlas bodybuilding kit, which famously promised to turn weaklings into he-men via a patented system of isometric exercise dubbed "Dynamic Tension." Impressed with the results, Prowse bought bodybuilding magazines and joined a local weight training club, later adding free weights to his regime, which he hoisted in his family's disused backyard coal shed. Although he failed to place in his first competition, the Junior Mr. West Britain contest, he persevered in subsequent contests, graduating to the Mr. West Britain competition and routinely winning distinction as a second or third runner-up. By 1960, the 6'7" Prowse continued to lose competitions to shorter but more powerfully muscled rivals; additionally, he was told by a contest official that his ugly feet would forever prejudice judges against him. Prowse eventually turned away from bodybuilding to focus exclusively on competitive weightlifting.
Between 1960 and 1963, Prowse excelled in Olympic level weightlifting competitions, winning the Western Counties title in his first year on the circuit and going on to world championship status. When he failed to make the grade for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Prowse walked away from the circuit. Living in Croydon at the time, he developed an act that he called Britain's Strongest Man, making public appearances to demonstrate feats of strength. He also signed on as the director of weight training at the National Sports Center at Crystal Park in south London and found work within the international organization of Charles Atlas' bodybuilding rival Joe Weider, then the leading publisher of weight training magazines and manufacturer of bodybuilding equipment. Prowse also opened his own gym in London, which he would operate for the next 30 years and where he would train such American and British actors as Albert Finney, Christopher Reeve, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cary Elwes and Vanessa Redgrave for physically demanding film assignments. The high wattage of Prowse's star-studded client roster prompted one British newspaper to dub him the "World's No. 1 personal trainer."
Prowse's success as a bodybuilder led to his casting in films, initially in a run of physically imposing, shirtless walk-ons. He was made up to resemble the Frankenstein Monster in Columbia Pictures' all-star James Bond spoof "Casino Royale" (1966). Shortly thereafter, he brought headshots and full body photographs of himself to the Wardour Street offices of Hammer Studios, the United Kingdom's premiere maker of Gothic horror films. Prowse hoped to make a place for himself as Mary Shelley's undying creation within the independent studio's long-running Frankenstein films, which had begun in 1957 with "Curse of Frankenstein" and ended in 1974 with "Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell." In spite of his obvious physical qualifications, Prowse was shown the door. Less than three years later, and at the request of director Jimmy Sangster, he would play the monster in Hammer's "The Horror of Frankenstein" (1970), a reboot of the series with younger actor Ralph Bates replacing the aging Peter Cushing as the recurring antihero, Victor Frankenstein. Prowse would play another variation on the character in "Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell" opposite Cushing.
Prowse enjoyed ornamental roles in the espionage thriller "Hammerhead" (1968), in Italian director Tinto Brass' Pop-Art psychothriller "Deadly Sweet" (1968), and in Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (1971), the expatriate American filmmaker's controversial adaptation of the dystopian novel by Anthony Burgess. A life-long sports enthusiast, Kubrick often invited Prowse to spend his time sitting with him behind-the-scenes. On the small screen, Prowse appeared in episodes of "The Benny Hill Show" (Thames Television, 1969-1989), "The Champions" (ITC, 1968-69), "The Saint" (ITC, 1962-69) and "Callan" (Thames Television, 1967-1972), playing an assortment of goons, strongmen and bodyguards. His association with the Frankenstein monster made him the British film industry's go-to guy for non-human roles; he was a horned Minotaur on the long-running "Dr. Who" (BBC, 1963-1989) and a body-painted android on the teen-oriented "The Tomorrow People" (Thames Television, 1973-1979). Prowse was in muscle man mode again for Hammer's "Vampire Circus" (1972), as a human minion of a carnival run by revenge-minded bloodsuckers, and appeared in Russ Meyer's "Blacksnake!" (1973) as a deaf-mute eunuch charged with keeping plantation slaves in line.
In January of 1976, the rise of child pedestrian injuries and fatalities in the United Kingdom prompted a public awareness campaign by the Department of Transport, featuring Prowse as The Green Cross Man, a superhero guardian of public safety. Patterned after the example of Superman, the Green Cross Man was a physical embodiment of the Green Cross Code, a six-point protocol drawn up by the U.K. National Road Safety Committee to ensure pedestrian safety. Prowse appeared in a run of TV spots and public information films, as well as made appearances at schools and playgrounds. The highly successful campaign was credited with halving the annual number of pedestrian accidents and lasted from 1976 until 1989. In 2000, Prowse was awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) for his contributions to road safety. Not long after the campaign had gotten under way, Prowse nearly lost the job due to his acceptance of an especially villainous role in an American science fiction fantasy filming at Elstree Studios.
Selected by writer-director George Lucas to fill the cloak and full-head mask of the nefarious intergalactic scourge Darth Vader in "Star Wars" (1977), Prowse was allowed to perform the imposing role through principal photography in ignorance of the plan to overdub his character in post-production. American actor James Earl Jones was retained to provide the infernal intonations of Lord Vader, whose character arc over the course of two sequels was often kept from Prowse by the filmmakers. Never shown a complete script, Prowse did not learn until watching "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) that he was, indeed, Luke Skywalker's father, and then midway through production of "Return of the Jedi" (1983) he learned that the character he had created would, when unmasked in the film's conclusion, be played by yet another actor. Furthering the insult was the increasing reliance on stuntman Bob Anderson to replace Prowse in action scenes, usually involving lightsabers. Candid in his disappointment with the duplicity and vocal in his bitterness at being denied a reasonable share in the profits from the astronomically successful film trilogy, Prowse ultimately became persona non grata with Lucasfilm and was in 2010 banned from appearing at "Star Wars" conventions. Despite the corporate censure, Prowse remained a fan favorite and a beloved presence at science fiction events and memorabilia shows worldwide.
By 1990, the fifty-something Prowse was hobbled by injuries sustained in a 1989 weightlifting accident and by a recurrence of rheumatoid arthritis, which had plagued him as an adolescent. Increased difficulty with walking limited his ability to appear in films and he underwent several surgeries, including bilateral hip replacement, which reduced his famous height by four inches and caused recurrent infections. In 2001, Prowse suffered partial upper body paralysis secondary to an allergic reaction to doctor-prescribed steroids. In 2009, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which was sent into remission after a course of radiation therapy. Despite his diminished abilities and advancing age, Prowse remained active on the international science fiction/fantasy/horror fan scene, contributing to documentaries and books and publishing a memoir, Straight from the Force's Mouth, in 2007. Channeling his modest profits from his films into arthritis charities, Prowse was invited to the White House to witness the signing of legislation benefitting the handicapped, was named Vice President of the Physically Handicapped and Able-Bodied Association, and authored the books Play Safe with the Stars and Fitness Is Fun to promote the cause of physical fitness and well-being. Prowse also made occasional film appearances, including a small role as himself in the comedy "Open Mic'rs" (2006) and a supporting role in the drama "The Kindness of Strangers" (2010). In November 2014, the 79-year-old actor revealed in an interview with Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper that he was suffering from dementia.