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Why The Role Of Emperor Palpatine Was Recast In Star Wars

"Star Wars" is one of the most recognizable properties in the world. The franchise has entertained audiences for nearly half a century through various mediums, including television shows, video games, and books. At the heart of George Lucas' billion-dollar machine is "The Skywalker Saga" — nine films that form the basis of the franchise, showing the Skywalker family's place in the galaxy as they struggle with good and evil.

Emperor Palpatine is the only villain to make an appearance in each of the "Star Wars" trilogies. The Sith Lord is at the franchise's rotten core, threatening the Skywalker family and the galaxy at large, even after he seemingly perished in "Return of the Jedi." Though known to his evil clansman as Darth Sidious, Senator Palpatine quickly rose through the ranks of the galactic democracy, eventually assuming his position as Emperor, ushering in a new era of authoritarianism. Joining him in his rule as the galaxy's tyrant was Darth Vader, formerly known as the Jedi Anakin Skywalker.

Despite his importance as a looming figure over the entire franchise, the antagonist, who first appeared in the 1980 film "The Empire Strikes Back," was eventually recast, leading to one of the most iconic performances in pop culture.

Emperor Palpatine was originally played by a woman...and a monkey

"The Empire Strikes Back" sets up Emperor Palpatine as the big bad of the "Star Wars" universe, though his character wasn't fully fleshed out until the sequel, 1983's "Return of the Jedi," and the prequels. In the second "Star Wars" film's original release, Emperor Palpatine briefly appears as a hologram to guide Darth Vader. As detailed in the book "The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back," the hologram figure is actually female character actor Marjorie Eaton, though the voice of the Sith legend is Clive Revill. Funnily enough, chimpanzee eyes were superimposed onto Eaton's face to add an element of creepiness to the villain's visage. 

After it was decided that Palpatine would be a major force in the franchise moving forward, it became clear that the character couldn't be concealed using a hologram. With a full-fledged role in the prequel trilogy, "Star Wars" helmer George Lucas and director Richard Marquand landed on 75-year old British star Alan Webb (via The Telegraph) to portray the man pulling the galaxy's strings. Webb ultimately passed on the role after falling ill. The "Star Wars" creatives then tapped Ian McDiarmid to portray the villain. The rest is history.

Since then, McDiarmid has portrayed the villain in each of the franchise's trilogies. McDiarmid even stepped back into the role for the 2004 DVD edition of "The Empire Strikes Back," which saw him replace Eaton and Revill's performance. The villain was most recently seen in the 2019 J.J. Abrams film "The Rise of Skywalker," which was a particularly unexpected twist for fans, considering Palpatine was supposed to be dead.