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This Is Who Played Darth Vader's Body

Darth Vader has been many things to many people over his 40-year history: an enigmatic icon of villainy; a tortured, failed hero; and once or twice even a stooge to be mocked. Our culture has an odd relationship with a character that was originally intended to be an avatar of fascism in a space opera borne of one man's fond memories of westerns and war movies. We care about Darth Vader in many facets and pieces, so it feels oddly correct that, while Vader is most wholly recognized by James Earl Jones' booming voice speaking for him, many have lived within the suit presenting him on screen. We forget that his physicality is also a substantial part of what makes Vader, Vader — and six men have been responsible for that.

Here's who played Darth Vader's body.

The foremost man as Darth Vader to most people's sense of trivia is, of course, David Prowse. Hailing from Bristol, England, Prowse began his career as a champion bodybuilder and evolved into acting later in the '70s. In 1975, he originated (and later reprised in 2014) a character called Green Cross Code Man for a public safety campaign in his native England, then expanded quickly into film from there. George Lucas selected Prowse to play Darth Vader's body following the actor's appearance in A Clockwork Orange, in which he portrayed Julian, the bodyguard to Patrick Magee's character Mr. Frank Alexander. According to Prowse, Lucas offered him two roles: Chewbacca, or Darth Vader. Prowse "wanted to play a part where people could see [his] face," so he turned down the role of Chewie and  accepted the villainous gig, not realizing he'd "also be wearing a mask" playing Vader. 

Prowse was chiefly responsible for most of Vader's presence on screen in the original Star Wars trilogy, but over time, what he was permitted to do changed for both stunt reasons as well as production reasons. The history is complicated and muddled, but to make a long story short, Prowse has largely been blamed for an accidental plot leak for Empire Strikes Back in 1982 — despite the script having not been printed or seen by Prowse, or even technically finished when the leak occurred. Rightly or wrongly, he became viewed as a risk on set. Prowse was sometimes given fake dialogue and other times asked to speak nonsense in scenes for his fellow actors to work off, since no matter what, Jones' voiceover was ultimately dubbed in during post-production. Today, Prowse's connection with Lucasfilm and related celebrations is strained and tenuous

An issue with Prowse's original performance as Vader was stunt challenges for fighting scenes, so another person stepped in to play Darth Vader's body. The Vader suit is made up of very heavy layers of leather and features a clunky mask, and if you're not terribly practiced in sword-fighting styles, your work isn't going to get any better. So for these scenes, celebrated stunt coordinator and fencing champion Bob Anderson wore the suit himself – in shoe lifts to make up for his and Prowse's differences in height — when it became clear Prowse couldn't quite get the lightsaber-swing of it. 

This remained a secret for a very long while, until Luke Skywalker Mark Hamill casually revealed the fact in 1983 during a press junket for Return of the Jedi (via ESPN). Hamill felt it was silly to "preserve the myth" of a single character actor in the role at the cost of no recognition for Anderson's work. Fans would know Anderson's expertise from other places, too: he coordinated the sword work in The Princess Bride, and developed the distinctive blade-based fighting styles for every one of the disparate fantasy races in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 

Anderson was born in Sussex in 1922 and, after serving in the Royal Marines, represented his country several times in the Olympics and other world championships for fencing before he turned to coaching and stunt coordination. He died in 2012.

The degradation of Prowse's professional relationship with Lucasfilm may have also contributed to the casting of another man for maskless Vader in Return of the Jedi: Sebastian Shaw. Prowse had reportedly been promised to be featured in the famous scene, but that obviously never came to be, and no official reason has ever been given as to why Shaw was chosen instead. 

Shaw only played Vader in the brief scene at the end of Return of the Jedi, which featured the character's Force ghost materializing with Obi-Wan Kenobi. It's a massive statement of skill to have that single moment and yet be so remembered for it, but that perhaps shouldn't come as a surprise when dealing with members of The Royal Shakespeare Company like Shaw. Melodramatic deaths are the bread and butter of that gilt echelon of actors, after all. 

Well after Shaw's death in 1994, controversy erupted after Revenge of the Sith was released and the 2006 remaster of Return of the Jedi replaced Shaw with young Darth Vader actor Hayden Christiansen. (The editing even digitally altered Shaw's face in the death scene to better match the injuries Anakin sustained on the planet Mustafar.) Lucas' infamous penchant for self-editing towards his perception of perfection notwithstanding, it feels more than a little callous to erase and otherwise modify a storied stage actor's performance specifically chosen for a momentous scene. 

On the subject of the Star Wars prequels of the 2000s, Darth Vader in his full get-up only appeared in 2005's Revenge of the Sith. Christensen actually performed in the suit for most of these spare scenes, apparently at his request. He, too, needed to wear lifted shoes to make up height difference and match Prowse's. 

Christensen retreated to his native Canada after his explosion to fame and has largely kept to himself. You probably would too if you were ripped to pieces as thoroughly as he was by popular culture opinion — opinion that persists today. When Star Wars newcomer Kelly Marie Tran abandoned Instagram in 2018 following attacks for her mere existence in The Last Jedi, Christensen made a rare public statement to press to support her. He's done a few oddball films since 2005, but for the most part, he works on his farm up in Ontario with his wife and daughter.

The most unknown behind the Darth Vader mask has the smallest part of all: Gene Bryant. He was on set for Revenge of the Sith and did pickup shots in the suit at the end of production. His takes made the final cut, too: a shot of him entering a Star Destroyer is of him — not Christensen — in the suit. It's a shame Bryant went uncredited for it, as probably nobody believes him when he talks about it at backyard barbecues. 

Bryant has continued working as an actor and stuntman post-Star Wars, but the pickups he did for Revenge of the Sith were by far his biggest role. However, in a fun bit of trivia, he did work on a short-lived reality TV show, The Glass House on ABC, which CBS sued for copying the format of Big Brother. CBS dismissed the suit after the show's ratings tanked, realizing it wasn't terribly worth the fight. Such times we live in. (If you're curious, Bryant didn't win, but he got into the latter half of the competition.)

Our final man behind Darth Vader's body is Spencer Wilding, who took over the mantle for Rogue One. At a truly massive 6'7", he has absolutely no issue filling the shoes of David Prowse. 

Born in the small town of St. Asaph, Wales in 1972, Wilding started out in a hugely successful career as a boxer. He had his first quantum-leap foray into acting as the body actor for the werewolf in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. From there, he has become one of the foremost creature actors for both television and film. Wilding sticks to these roles, consumed by makeup and latex suits, because he's severely dyslexic and dialogue-heavy parts are difficult for him. Pick a genre production with exotic creatures from the last 15 years, and he's probably in it, though: Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, and Jupiter Ascending are but a few. Clearly, Wilding has found his milieu and is thriving within it.