David “Dave” Prowse, the former weightlifter and towering figure who was best known for playing Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy, has died. Per the New York Times, the actor’s agent, Thomas Bowington, confirmed that he died on Saturday in a London hospital, but did not confirm the cause of death. He was 85 years old.
Standing at 6-foot-6, Prowse was known as a gentle giant within the film and fitness industries. As a British heavyweight weightlifting champion, Prowse parlayed his unforgettable stature into a career in character acting. An uncredited role in Casino Royale marked the start of his impact in a number of immovable works in both TV and film, including the Frankenstein series, Doctor Who, and A Clockwork Orange. In fact, it has his role as a guard in the Stanley Kubrick classic that garnered the attention of George Lucas and would lead to the biggest role of his career.
When Lucas approached Prowse about appearing in Star Wars, the fitness champ was actually given a choice of roles to play between Darth Vader and Chewbacca. For Prowse, the choice was simple. “I said, ‘Well, don’t say any more, George, I’ll have the villain’s part,’” Mr. Prowse recalled in a 2013 interview with BBC. “You always remember the bad guy.” Additionally, the famously furry Chewbacca costume left a lot to be desired: “I thought, ‘Oh, God no, three months in a gorilla skin, no thank you very much.’” Little did he know that his commanding figure paired with the vocal talents of James Earl Jones would culminate in one of the most resonant villains in cinematic history.
Outside of Star Wars, Prowse’s thumbprint can be found in classic movies like 1978's Superman and The Princess Bride, as he trained both Chris Reeves and Cary Elwes for their roles, respectively. In Britain, he was a fitness consultant for the department store Harrod’s and became a local superhero in the form of Green Cross Code Man, a benevolent figure who promoted road safety. Participating in government PSA campaigns and school tours throughout the country, Prowse gained so much local notoriety in his role as a safety advocate that the British government was concerned that his role as Darth Vader would serve as a major conflict—so much so that he was almost fired from the Green Cross Code Man role because of it. “When I became Darth Vader, I almost got the sack from the government because they thought that my image as Darth Vader would have a detrimental affect on my image as the Green Cross Code Man,” Prowse shared in a 1980 interview with Jackie Collins. He then joked, “but in fact, the reverse has been the case.”
Throughout much of his life, Prowse lived with chronic arthritis and endured a number of surgical procedures because of it. His experience contributed to his advocacy work with multiple arthritis and disability organizations in Britain, including Physically Handicapped and Able-bodied Association, where he became vice president. He was also diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009, for which he underwent radiation therapy. The actor and advocate retired in 2016 for unspecified health reasons. His last onscreen appearance was in Welsh musician Jayce Lewis’ sci-fi music video “Shields.” Prowse is survived by his wife, Norma Scammell, and three children