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Here's who played Darth Vader without his helmet

The original Star Wars trilogy captured the imagination of audiences like no movies before it ever had, thanks in large part to the terrifying presence of its iconic villain, Darth Vader. Vader was famously voiced by the great James Earl Jones, with his menacing frame filled out by by 6"6' English actor David Prowse — but at the conclusion of 1983's Return of the Jedi, neither of those men were seen when Vader, having redeemed himself and sustained mortal injuries by saving Luke Skywalker from a grim fate at the hands of the Emperor, asked Luke to remove his helmet, saying, "Just for once, let me look on you with my own eyes." The man under the mask certainly looked the part of the Sith lord — but who was he?

His name was Sebastian Shaw, and while he wasn't exactly a household name, he was a veteran actor with a distinguished career onstage and in film. He had made his first appearance on the silver screen all the way back in 1930, in a British drama called Caste, and was a regular presence on television in the U.K. when he got the call to appear in Return of the Jedi.

For the scene — which was the emotional crux of not just Return of the Jedi, but the entire series up to that point — it had been determined that a seasoned vet was required. In an interview with Starlog magazine years later, Shaw said, "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... incidentally, Mark [Hamill] nearly took my ears [off along with the helmet]."

Shaw was sworn to secrecy about his role, even going so far as to offer up a vague response when asked about his presence on set by his friend Ian McDiarmid, who portrayed Emperor Palpatine in the film. "I don't know, dear boy," Shaw replied, "I think it's something to do with science fiction."

While he was only onscreen for roughly thirty seconds, Shaw invested his brief turn as Vader — or Anakin Skywalker, if you will — with great emotion and gravitas. The task was squarely on his shoulders to make the audience sympathize deeply with Darth Vader, a character that they had learned to look at as the epitome of evil, and he pulled it off — helping to bring a rousing, tear-jerking end to the original trilogy and forever securing his place in Star Wars lore.

Of course, the crucial nature of his small role made it all the more jarring for fans when creator George Lucas — for Return of the Jedi's 2004 Blu-Ray release — decided to replace the final image of Anakin's force ghost in the final shot of the film with one of Hayden Christensen, who had portrayed the young version of Anakin in 2002's Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. This seemed not only like a strange and arbitrary choice (Luke, after all, had never known his father as a young man), but something of a slap in the face to Shaw, who unfortunately passed away in 1994.

However, a rumor surfaced last year that indicates that this apparent diss may be remedied when Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters in December. Apparently, an unnamed party who snuck a peek at concept art for Rise of Skywalker revealed that director J.J. Abrams is toying with the idea of re-introducing Anakin's force ghost using Shaw's likeness.

The leaker described the concept art as follows: "A set of three Anakin force ghosts behind an anonymous figure in a cave. The obscured figure appears to be Luke; however, the face is shadowed. Each force ghost of Anakin shows a different phase, one with short hair, one with long, and the last, an older Anakin Skywalker wearing a hood."

Digitally inserting Shaw as the older Anakin would be a fine nod to fans, many of whom were upset with Lucas' alteration to Return of the Jedi (and, for that matter, all of the other alterations made to the original trilogy for the 1997 "Special Editions" and the Blu-Ray versions). It would also be a nice way of showing appreciation for the unsung hero of the original Star Wars trilogy — Sebastian Shaw, a man who made us all believe that even for the blackest of hearts, there remains the possibility of redemption.