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The untold truth of Darth Vader

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a legendary Sith Lord was born from the ashes of the defeated, disgraced young Anakin Skywalker. Darth Vader was—and is!— the most legendary villain in the Star Wars universe; there are few alive who don't know his name. But how well do you really know the onetime Jedi who became the Dark Side's most powerful asset? Here we have his untold story.

Darth Vader has been onscreen more than any other Star Wars character in history

When it comes to the most-revisited roles in Hollywood, Darth Vader is right up there with iconic characters like Batman in terms of providing work for actors. An awful lot of folks have done time under that big, black helmet, as the villainous Vader character has made official and unofficial appearances in more than 200 movies and TV episodes (including parodies and other properties), according to IMDb's count. To give you an idea of what a big deal Darth Vader is, consider that hero Han Solo only has around 100 screen credits to his name, according to IMDb.

Between the prequels, the spinoffs, the games, the animated series, the trilogy that started it all, and Vader's various crossover appearances in movies like Night at the Museum 2 and on shows like Robot Chicken, he's not just one of the most ubiquitous characters in Star Wars-related projects. He's one of the most recognizable pop culture figures on earth.

It took five men to bring the original Vader to life

The name most commonly associated with Darth Vader is James Earl Jones, who provided the menacing villain with his trademark baritone voice. But that's not Jones strutting around the Death Star in Vader's suit in A New Hope, or battling Luke on the bridge in The Empire Strikes Back—nor is that Jones' shriveled white head peeking out of body armor when Vader's mask finally comes off at the end of Return of the Jedi. Instead, a trio of men were responsible for creating Darth Vader's physical performance. Actor David Prowse wore the suit the most, playing Vader in a majority of his scenes, while fencer Bob Anderson stood in for the villain during his lightsaber battles. And Sebastian Shaw, a veteran stage actor, put on the helmet just once—in order to take it off again, in the scene where a dying Darth Vader is redeemed at last, in an emotional moment with his son.

And that's not all! Even after the contributions of one voice artist, two screen actors, and one stunt double, Darth Vader wouldn't have been Darth Vader without that freaky mouth-breathing effect — and for that, we can thank sound artist Ben Burtt, who created Vader's trademark panting with a microphone and a SCUBA tank regulator.

James Earl Jones didn't get credit for Vader's voice until Episode VI

Despite never appearing as Darth Vader onscreen, James Earl Jones will be forever remembered for the role—and he deserves the bulk of the credit for bringing the character to life. (Would Vader have been half as memorable without that voice?) But back in the day, Jones was the last to admit that his Darth Vader voice work was kind of a big deal. The actor declined to be credited on A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back, explaining his thinking to PopMatters in 2008 (via io9). 

Jones explained his reasoning, saying, "When Linda Blair did the girl in The Exorcist, they hired Mercedes McCambridge to do the voice of the devil coming out of her. And there was controversy as to whether Mercedes should get credit. I was one who thought no, she was just special effects." 

"So when it came to Darth Vader," he continued, "I said, no I'm just special effects." He relented by the time Return of the Jedi rolled around, and his name finally hit the credits.

Orson Welles almost provided his voice

While James Earl Jones eventually fessed up to providing the voice of Darth Vader, there was a point in time where someone else was considered for the role instead: Orson Welles. In 2015, George Lucas revealed that he auditioned two people for the role, but once the tapes were in, the decision pretty much made itself.

"I knew the voice had to be very, very special," Lucas said. "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 . . . [Jones] won hands down."

Good thing, too, considering Welles died in 1985, while Jones has been able to come back to voice Darth Vader again and again for years.

The original Vader suit design didn't include the iconic helmet

Can you imagine Darth Vader without his signature headgear? It almost happened. In George Lucas' original script, Vader's first appearance is described thusly:

The awesome, seven-foot-tall Dark Lord of the Sith makes his way into the blinding light of the main passageway. This is Darth Vader, right hand of the Emperor. His face is obscured by his flowing black robes and grotesque breath mask, which stands out next to the fascist white armored suits of the Imperial stormtroopers.

Note that there's no mention of a helmet in there; only Vader's respirator. Artist Ralph McQuarrie invented the signature headpiece, including the frightening mask with its grillework that suggested a set of skeletal teeth, when sketching the concept art for the first Star Wars film. Originally, the helmet was envisioned as an accessory that Vader would wear when traveling between ships in space, but something about it caught the imagination of the costume designer—and a masked, helmeted villain was born.

Vader's helmet is an amalgamation of military fashions from around the world

The headpiece worn by Darth Vader is most clearly a sleek riff on traditional samurai headgear, complete with the signature sloping neck protector known as a shikoro. But costume designer John Mollo wanted a variety of influences visible in Vader's look, and the final result is a pure blend. From behind, he's all samurai; from the front, the Sith Lord's helmet resembles Nazi headgear from World War II. And if you've ever seen a photo of a World War I soldier suited up for trench warfare, complete with gas mask, there's no question that Mollo took a cue or two from those designs when it came to marrying up the helmet with the faceplate.

He has his own castle

If you've seen Rogue One, you might have been surprised when the film suddenly took an unexpected detour into Mordor. But that wasn't Sauron's Tower of Barad-dûr, it was apparently Bast Castle, Darth Vader's secret getaway—sort of like an evil Fortress of Solitude. And this wasn't a weird bit of revisionist history; concept art for Bast Castle has been floating around since the late '70s, with Ralph McQuarrie's design originally slated to appear in Empire Strikes Back. One minor change: the location of Bast Castle has seemingly been moved from the acid rain planet of Vjun to the lava-drenched doomscape of Mustafar, where Anakin Skywalker had his legs lopped off by Obi-Wan Kenobi. We're guessing real estate prices were reasonable.

Darth Vader built the most pedantic droid in the galaxy

Before he succumbed to the power of the Dark Side (and indeed, before he even knew there was a Dark Side), young Anakin Skywalker created the fussy, squeamish droid fans know as C-3PO. Unfortunately, he also simultaneously created one of the more irritating plot holes in the Star Wars universe: if Vader (née Anakin) made C-3PO, it's retroactively peculiar that he didn't recognize the droid when they ran into each other in the original trilogy.

The man who played Darth Vader onscreen didn't know he was going to be dubbed

For most of the original Star Wars trilogy, the man behind the mask was David Prowse, a bodybuilder whose six-foot-five-inch build was perfect for creating Vader's imposing physical presence onscreen. But due to an unfortunate communication breakdown between Prowse and George Lucas, the actor reportedly didn't realize that his voice would be replaced by James Earl Jones' in post-production—and he wasn't happy when he learned the truth. Prowse was rumored to be difficult on set thereafter, refusing to learn lines for The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, and his feud with George Lucas eventually reached the point where Prowse was no longer invited to participate in events with the rest of the cast. However, Prowse does deserve credit for his contributions to the series, particularly the climactic scene in which Darth Vader redeems himself to save Luke; the athletic actor needed only one take to pluck the Emperor off the ground and pitch him overboard.

And dubbing Darth Vader was, sadly, very necessary

While David Prowse had the perfect build to play a physically imposing Sith Lord, his speaking voice—which was high-pitched and West Country-accented—didn't fit the bill at all. If you're wondering what Lord Vader would have sounded like as an Englishman, there are a few pre-dub scenes (like the one above) still floating around that feature Prowse speaking Vader's lines. The result was so profoundly un-intimidating that Carrie Fisher, ever the cheeky one, started referring to Prowse on set as "Darth Farmer."

Darth Vader's true identity was an off-script secret

At this point, there's probably not a single human being on Earth who doesn't know Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's dad. But when The Empire Strikes Back came out, Vader's famous revelation—"I am your father!"—was huge, earth-shattering, and one of the best-kept secrets in the history of cinema. Knowing that the real line was going to be overdubbed in post-production anyway, George Lucas put a big red herring in the script. When David Prowse read his line in the climactic scene, what he said (and what the crew heard) was "Obi-Wan killed your father."

In other words, even the guy inside the Darth Vader suit didn't know that Vader was Luke's dear old dad until the movie hit theaters. The only person in the scene who actually knew the truth was Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker, and even he was only told minutes beforehand so he could react with the appropriate level of anguish (which probably seemed pretty excessive to everyone else at the time).

The name is a clue. Or is it?

According to Lucas, the name Darth Vader has a secret meaning. ""Darth" is a variation of dark. And "Vader" is a variation of father. So it's basically Dark Father."

That seems like it might be a clue to the big secret that Vader would actually turn out to be Luke's dad. But skeptics have pointed out that the whole "Vader is Anakin" thing wasn't added to the storyline until well into the writing process for The Empire Strikes back, years after Vader was first named. So is Lucas full of it? Or did the name just turn out to be a happy coincidence? You be the judge.

Vader may have been swiped from Jack Kirby

Luke isn't the only member of the Skywalker family whose parentage may hold a shocking secret. In a case of art imitating life, it turns out that Darth Vader's real father might not be George Lucas at all, but rather legendary comic book creator Jack Kirby. According to the book Tales to Astonish, during a fateful dinner meeting in the early 1970s, Kirby told Lucas about a massive space opera he was planning called The New Gods, which features a helmeted villain named Darkseid facing off against a champion of light named Orion, who turns out to be Darkseid's own son and who struggles to overcome his family's legacy of evil.

Sound familiar? According to Ahmet Zappa of all people, Kirby was none too pleased with Stars Wars, feeling that Lucas had mined not just The New Gods, but all of Kirby's work for inspiration. "He told my dad stuff like, 'Darth Vader was Doctor Doom and the Force is the Source' and that George Lucas ripped him off." Well, you know what they say: if you're going to steal, steal from the best.

Vader is forever immortalized on the National Cathedral

You'll need binoculars to spot him, but he's there: Darth Vader's head is one of the grotesques (the Gothic stone carvings that deflect rainwater on old buildings) on the U.S. National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. In the 1980s, the Cathedral ran a contest through National Geographic World magazine inviting children to design grotesques to appear on the building's newly-constructed west towers. Back then, Darth Vader was the third-place entry; now he's the most popular part of the entire building. You can see the Vader grotesque high up on the northern-facing exterior, which is the dark side of the cathedral.

Darth Vader's fighting style is unique in the Star Wars universe

Compared with other Jedi—and even with his younger self—Darth Vader's two-handed lightsaber swordplay is distinctly brutal. As a young Jedi, Anakin Skywalker favored the same Form V lightsaber technique that Luke Skywalker would one day use against him. But once Anakin became Vader, he modified his Form V style to accommodate the limitations (and channel the full weight) of his life-supporting armor.

Vader had an apprentice

It may come as a surprise to learn that Darth Vader himself had an apprentice, given that the Sith supposedly follow a really stupid rule limiting them to only two members at a time. Not to mention the fact that there has been no mention of any such apprentice in any of the live-action films. But there's a simple explanation: she was his apprentice before he became a bad guy. And also, she's from the cartoons.

Fans of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels know, of course, that we're talking about Ahsoka Tano, who is one of the main characters in the cartoons. Nobody knows exactly what Ahsoka's final fate is, but considering she was thrown out of the Jedi order before the Purge, it's possible she may still be alive even in present continuity. Could we see her pop up in Episode VIII? Considering the Clone Wars character Saw Gerrera played a major role in Rogue One, we wouldn't bet against it.

Darth Vader's Imperial March is a ubiquitous presence on the playing field

John Williams' famous Star Wars theme might be one of the most iconic pieces of movie music in history (you can probably hear it in your head right now as you're reading this), but the piece of the Star Wars score you're most likely to hear in a sports stadium? That would be the fierce Imperial March, also known as Darth Vader's walking-around music. It's a staple of marching bands in college football games; in the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens use the March themselves to signal a powerplay; and elsewhere, it's often used to signal the arrival of the visiting team. The South Sydney Rabbitohs, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers, and New York Yankees have all used the march to introduce their foes on the field.

Volkswagen loves Vader

The folks in charge of Volkswagen's memorable Super Bowl advertising machine have always appreciated the awesome power of the Dark Side. (Was the Death Star actually a feat of German engineering? DISCUSS.) In 2012, they stole the show with this commercial featuring a pint-sized Darth Vader and a Passat powered by the Force...or a remote car starter. And when it came time to tease their next Star Wars-themed ad, they did it with yet another nod to the greatest Sith Lord of all time, by getting a bunch of dogs to bark the Imperial March with perfect pitch.

Vader's big Rogue One moment was a last-minute addition

Although the Sith lord's appearance onscreen midway through Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was written into the script from the get-go, his most incredible scene came at the very end: an intense hallway battle sequence in which a besieged ship full of rebels raced to escape with their stolen blueprints for the Death Star while Darth Vader advanced on them, lightsaber in hand, cutting down every last man with casual brutality. It's an incredible moment, made that much more remarkable by the fact that it was tacked on at the last possible moment after the Rogue One editor argued Vader needed more screentime.

"We were cutting the film together and my editor, Jabez Olsson, he said, 'I think you need to see one last moment with Darth Vader,' like one more bad-ass moment with him," director Gareth Edwards explained. But the timeline was extraordinarily tight; said Edwards, "When he mentioned this, it was about four months maybe from release." Ultimately, the sequence was shot in three days—an incredible feat for a last-minute edit that ended up being among the best and most memorable scenes in the entire film.

Old Darth didn't learn any new tricks for Rogue One

Darth Vader was downright terrifying in Rogue One, which took place in the timeframe between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope and told the story of the first intrepid Rebels who uncovered the secret architectural weakness that would ultimately bring down the Death Star. But if you look closely at his deadly stroll down the hallway of a Rebel ship in the final moments of Rogue One, you'll realize that you've seen all of these moves before—and according to director Gareth Edwards, that was entirely on purpose.

"I think the golden rule was not to let Vader do anything that hadn't been seen or established in the original trilogy," Edwards explained. Hence, Vader was seen wielding a light saber and using the Force to choke the life out of some dudes—but not, for instance, breakdance fighting.

Vader is the only human character to appear in every main Star Wars feature film in some way, shape, or form

Although future installments of the Star Wars series will necessarily feature new villains (most notably Kylo Ren, the emo Darth Vader wannabe of the First Order), every movie so far has included an appearance by the Dark Side baddie who started it all. Obviously, Vader was central to the first three Star Wars films—and of course, his origin story formed the entire backbone of Episodes I, II, and III. But thirty years after Darth Vader's death within the Star Wars universe, he remains so important that he even showed up in The Force Awakens...or at least his mangled helmet did, which is more or less the same thing.

..All of which makes it pretty crazy that he had only 12 minutes of screen time in the first film

That's right: Darth Vader, the fallen hero around whom the entire film franchise revolves, the most iconic villain in all of sci-fi, the Sith Lord whose rise and downfall will overshadow every Star Wars film ever made for the rest of time, was in the movie for a mere 12 minutes during his first outing onscreen. Even Chewbacca got more time in front of the camera than Vader in A New Hope. But those 12 minutes were all it took to leave a lasting impression, and create a villain whose legacy will outlive us all.