James Earl Jones lent his iconic voice to the evil Darth Vader – and created the greatest villain in Hollywood history. Seriously, this Star Wars bad guy wouldn’t be half as cool without Jones’ menacing tones. Yet the veteran actor’s name didn’t actually appear in the credits for the first two Star Wars movies. Crazy, right? So was this just an oversight – or is it another sign of the curse that has seemingly followed the role around for decades?
It’s no surprise, of course, that so much discussion is focused on this iconic Star Wars villain. He is everybody’s favorite love-to-hate bad guy, after all. But did you know that, in the movies, Darth Vader was actually played by three different actors? Each player was responsible for different aspects of the role – but Jones provided arguably the most defining feature. So where was his credit?
He was a prominent member of the cast, too. At the time, you see, Jones was an Academy Award-nominated and Tony Award-winning actor, thanks to the play The Great White Hope – which had also been adapted for film. He trod the boards on Broadway throughout the ’70s, too, and – following Star Wars – would star in films such as Coming To America, The Hunt For Red October and Conan The Barbarian. He also voiced Mufasa in Disney’s beloved animated classic The Lion King.
But before Jones came along Dave Prowse was the man chosen to inhabit the intimidating Vader costume on-set. At 6 feet 6 inches and a former bodybuilder, Prowse was responsible for giving Vader his considerable physical presence. He gets credit in the finished film, too. Lucas had watched Prowse in A Clockwork Orange and had known he’d wanted the actor in Star Wars.
Amazingly, though, Lucas initially offered Prowse one of two roles: Vader or Chewbacca. In a 2013 BBC interview, Prowse joked, “I said, ‘What the hell is Chewbacca? It’s like a hairy gorilla.’” When he found out Vader was the film’s villain, he said, “Don’t say any more, George. I’ll have the villain’s part. You always remember the bad guy.” And he was right, wasn’t he? Yet only Prowse got a credit – and Jones didn’t.
This is even more baffling when you consider that the Star Wars cast was filled with a mix of well-known names and newcomers. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher were virtual unknowns when they first played Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, respectively. Harrison Ford was also fairly new – though he did have some experience, having played a small role in The Conversation. He also worked with George Lucas with American Graffiti. Other cast members had more established reputations, though.
Some of the more experienced stars of the film included Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. Guinness won an Academy Award in 1958 for The Bridge on the River Kwai and also starred in classics like The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob. Set decorator Roger Christian believed Guinness’ casting helped legitimize George Lucas, then still a young director.
“I honestly think he held the production together,” revealed Christian in Cinema Alchemist. “When Alec turned up – always on time, always polite – it gave a credibility to George that he might not have had without someone of Alec’s stature.” Christian felt Guinness’s mastery of his craft inspired the entire cast and crew to do their best work.
Cushing was similarly experienced and, in fact, even received billing in Star Wars above Guinness – despite his role being smaller. An extremely famous name in British horror, due to his association with the Hammer horror films, Cushing had also played Sherlock Holmes and starred in two Doctor Who movies. He reportedly mentored Fisher, which helped her navigate her way through her first huge movie role. So where did Jones fit in?
Well, while Prowse played Vader and delivered his lines on-set, he would be in for a nasty surprise when it came time for the film’s premiere. As he sat in the audience, horror dawned on him when Vader began speaking. He told the BBC, “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness – that’s not me. I wonder what they’ve done?’”
After the movie finished, Prowse revealed that he confronted Lucas, who allegedly only then confessed, “We got James Earl Jones to come in.” Most observers understood that the problem was Prowse’s accent. He grew up in Bristol, England, and had a thick country twang. Carrie Fisher admitted to the BBC in 2016, “We called him Darth Farmer.”
Prowse didn’t believe his accent was the issue, though. His understanding was that the Vader mask made his dialogue unintelligible and muffled, and Lucas simply couldn’t fly the Englishman out to Hollywood to re-record everything in time. Despite any personal disappointment, though, Prowse said Jones was a great choice for Vader’s voice and the two men even became friends.
Disappointment would rear its head again for Prowse when it was decided that he wouldn’t be the man under Vader’s mask for a pivotal scene at the end of Return of the Jedi. When Luke Skywalker came face to face with his villainous father for the first time, veteran English stage and screen actor Sebastian Shaw played him. He was only on screen for 30 seconds but made a huge impact.
When interviewed by Starlog magazine in 1987, Shaw admitted, “I’ve no idea why they fixed on me. The point was, they decided that they needed a very experienced actor to play that very difficult scene. It wasn’t easy to bring off.” Shaw also revealed that his casting as Anakin Skywalker/Vader was an extremely cloak and dagger affair.
Shaw told Starlog that he wasn’t permitted to see the script of the scene he would be filming until he officially signed on to the role. He added, “So secret was it that my actual contract said that I was to disclose my role to nobody, not even my nearest and dearest.” Shaw abided by his obligations and didn’t say anything publicly until Lucas gave him the green light in the aftermath of the film’s release.
All in all, even though Prowse was the predominant person playing Vader on-set for three movies, his relationship with Lucas ended badly. In fact, during a 2007 interview with The Void, he admitted they hadn’t said a word to each other since 1983. What happened that soured things so badly? Well, some think Lucas could never forgive Prowse for allegedly revealing an enormous Empire plot spoiler to a journalist.
Prowse told The Void, “Star Wars became this huge phenomenon and when we started working on The Empire Strikes Back they got paranoid about secrecy. To the point where they’d courier the script pages down to you and you’d have to learn your lines the night before.” During the course of the hush-hush production, Prowse was contacted by The Daily Mail.
The journalist, according to Prowse, was ostensibly there to write about his weightlifting career. But Prowse claimed the reporter ambushed him by asking, “You know you’re being killed off in this movie, don’t you? And another guy’s playing the dying Darth Vader?” Prowse didn’t believe Lucas would do that to him, so the journalist asked if he had a call sheet to inspect.
Prowse revealed, “He looked at it and it said, ‘Dave Prowse, Darth Vader, Studio 1,’ and underneath it, ‘Sebastian Shaw, Anakin Skywalker, Studio 10.’ He finished the interview abruptly as soon as he’d told me all this and the next day The Daily Mail had the headline: ‘Darth Vader to be killed off in the next movie, in an exclusive interview with Dave Prowse.’”
“And that ruined my association with Star Wars,” lamented Prowse. “I was ostracized while on the movie, the producer and director wouldn’t work with me and Lucas wouldn’t speak to me. I had six weeks of purgatory.” Even though Prowse did work on the third movie, he claimed things were never the same between him and Lucas.
“As much as I’ve tried to tell my story, Lucasfilm had set their minds to what they wanted to believe,” alleged Prowse. “I never received an apology from them.” In 2015 Prowse addressed the feud again when he said, “People ask, ‘What went wrong with George Lucas?’ but to be honest, I still don’t really know. All I know is that I am one of the film’s best characters.”
In truth, Prowse’s sad story likely started the fan rumors of a Vader curse. But they went into overdrive after the trials and tribulations faced by the two Anakin actors in the prequel trilogy. Both Jake Lloyd, who starred in 1999s The Phantom Menace, and Hayden Christensen, of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, have had a tough time since being in Star Wars.
Lloyd, who was 10-years-old when he played Anakin, was widely lampooned for his acting by fans and critics alike. In 2012 he told The Sun, “My entire school life was really a living hell,” as he was bullied by schoolmates. As an adult, Lloyd was diagnosed with schizophrenia and in 2015 was involved in a high-speed chase with police that saw him crash his car.
Christensen hadn’t even been on a major movie set when he was plucked from obscurity by Lucas and his reward was a couple of Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Supporting Actor. In 2015 he told The Los Angeles Times that he felt undeserving of his fame and Hollywood status, so he purposely retreated from Hollywood. His most high-profile movie after playing Anakin was 2008 sci-fi Jumper.
One man who avoided any supposed curse of being associated with Vader was sound designer Ben Burtt. He was a key individual in the creation of Vader’s iconic voice. In the script, Lucas had written that the Sith Lord, “speaks in an oddly filtered voice through his complex breathing mask.” It was Burtt’s job to translate that description into reality.
Burtt’s initial take was to focus on Vader needing his suit because it kept him alive. In this iteration, it was a full life-support system, meaning Vader would have made a lot of noise as he moved, with motors loudly humming with each movement of his head. Burtt soon realized that this would have been too much, though, and dialed back on the noise considerably.
Burtt revealed in Anakin Skywalker: The Story of Darth Vader that keeping things simple was a better way to go. He said, “We learned what we really wanted was just an icy, cold, mechanical breathing.” In the end, Burtt used the regulator from his scuba gear to achieve the sound he was looking for. Yes, that’s right, Vader’s iconic heavy breathing sound was actually the sound of Burtt breathing through a scuba regulator.
The sound supremo explained, “Then I’d edit those breaths into every scene with Darth Vader and try to match the breathing rhythm of the speech, which of course was the voice of James Earl Jones.” Jones’ bass-heavy, Shakespearean delivery wasn’t Lucas’ only option for the Dark Lord, though. In fact, it came down to Jones or a legendary actor/director.
At the 2015 American Theater Wing Gala held in honor of Jones, Lucas made a speech that referenced the other actor in the running to voice Vader. Lucas revealed, “I created a villain. I knew the voice had to be very, very special. And I had to make a choice – a choice that was a tough choice, but an easy choice, really – between Orson Welles and James Earl Jones.”
As tough as that may be to believe, yes, Lucas really did consider Citizen Kane’s Orson Welles to voice Vader. Luckily, he went with Jones and the rest is history. In terms of his recollection of events, though, Jones told Mail On Sunday in 2010, “He thought about using Orson Welles but realized he might be too recognizable, so he hired me to do the voice, by just reading the words off the page.”
So, we’ve established that Jones was hired over Welles, but why did he receive no credit in the first two movies? To get that answer, we need to go back to 2008, when Jones spoke with Newsday and they asked him that very question. He replied, “You know the story, don’t you? When Linda Blair did the girl in The Exorcist, they hired Mercedes McCambridge to do the voice of the devil coming out of her.”
Jones continued, “And there was a controversy as to whether Mercedes should get credit.” In a move that may surprise modern voiceover actors, Jones had an interesting opinion on the nature of the job. He said, “I was one who thought no, she was just special effects. So, when it came to Darth Vader, I said no, I’m just special effects.”
But by the time Return of the Jedi rolled around, the public suspected Jones was the voice of the galaxy’s most feared villain. He revealed that he had previously denied it, even going so far as to agree with fan theories that the voice was Geoffrey Holder, who played the Bond villain Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die. Jones laughed, “But for the third one I said okay, I’ll let them put my name on it.”
A few years later Jones was interview by Star Wars Insider magazine and reiterated his stance on his voice being a special effect. But he also added another reason into the mix for turning down a credit. He said, “I was basically hired as a special effect. Dave Prowse was the guy acting as Darth Vader, okay? Why take that away from him?”
In December 2017 The Hollywood Reporter blog “Heat Vision” republished snippets of earlier interviews with Jones. In one, he spoke of an unexpected source providing some vocal inspiration for Vader during the recording of dialogue for The Empire Strikes Back. But it only came after he was initially rebuffed by Lucas over some of his ideas for Vader’s character development.
Jones remembered Lucas admitting that the production didn’t have a handle on what had worked about Vader’s vocalizations in the first movie, so just wanted to repeat the same style for the sequel. Jones wanted more, though. He revealed, “Naturally, I wanted to make Darth Vader more interesting, more subtle, more psychologically oriented.”
Lucas wasn’t having any of it, though, much to Jones’ chagrin. He said, “And he said, ‘No. No. What we’re finding out is you’ve got to keep his voice on a very narrow ban of inflection because he ain’t human, really.’ So, that was the answer.” To aid Jones with this performance, Empire director Irvin Kershner stepped up.
“Kershner gave me a soundtrack with him doing the voice of Darth Vader,” revealed Jones. “It was scary as hell. Kershner was scarier than I could ever be.” On top of this, Jones admitted that Prowse knew none of his line readings on-set would end up in the film, so he didn’t take great care over them. This made Jones’ performance, aided by Kershner, more important than ever.
There is one final revelation in this saga of Darth Vader’s voice and Jones’ credit, though. Jones opted to receive a flat fee for his vocal performance in the first movie, even though the possibility of a contract with a cut of box-office revenue was on the table. He revealed, “I got paid $7,000. Now that was for only two hours’ work. So, to me, that was like I was rolling in a bunch of clover.”
In hindsight, though, perhaps it was a bad call given how Star Wars went on to become one of the biggest franchises ever. Jones admitted, “Of course, at the time, I did not know that if I had asked for percentage points of the gross, I would have been a millionaire overnight.” A tad frustrating, maybe, but in truth no one knew the movie was going to be so successful; not even George Lucas himself.