David Prowse, strongman actor who played Darth Vader and the Green Cross Code Man – obituary

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David Prowse in the 1970s -  Barry Breckon/Shutterstock
David Prowse in the 1970s - Barry Breckon/Shutterstock

David Prowse, who has died aged 85, was a body-builder and actor who cut an imposing figure as the evil overlord Darth Vader in the space epic Star Wars; in Britain he became familiar in the 1980s as the first Green Cross Code man, telling children: “I won’t be there when you cross the road, so always use the Green Cross Code.”

A hulking 6ft 6in, as Darth Vader Prowse brought his experience as a body-builder to the character’s smooth, deliberate movements – partly out of necessity. With his body clad from head-to-toe in black leather and his face enclosed by a mask, he was functionally blind on set. The mask had to be filled with foam so that it would move with Prowse whenever he turned his head. Filming at the height of summer in 1976 meant that he lost several pounds in sweat.

David Prowse as Darth Vader in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977), with Al Lampert and Carrie Fisher who revealed that the cast had nicknamed Prowse 'Darth Farmer' -  CAP/KFS
David Prowse as Darth Vader in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977), with Al Lampert and Carrie Fisher who revealed that the cast had nicknamed Prowse 'Darth Farmer' - CAP/KFS

The set-up also meant that his dialogue was muffled, and in the event the American actor James Earl Jones provided Vader’s voice for the final cut. Prowse knew nothing of this decision until the first film in the trilogy, A New Hope, aired in cinemas. Later, his co-star, Carrie Fisher, claimed that the actor’s unthreatening Bristol burr had caused much amusement among the cast, who had nicknamed him “Darth Farmer”.

“I don’t go around saying: ‘Orl roight, moi dears’,” Prowse protested in an interview. “I think they just wanted a big, black voice for a big, black character.”.

Though Prowse took pride in his work, he was vocal in his dislike of the third Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, and of the subsequent “prequels”. The final straw came in 2010, when Prowse featured in a documentary examining the relationship between the director George Lucas and his fiercely passionate fan base. Lucasfilms banned him from attending official conventions, but he continued to make a living selling autographs through his website. His role in the 2017 Star Wars “equal”, Rogue One, was taken by a Welsh kick-boxer called Spencer Wilding.

David Prose as the Green Cross Code man, meeting the Prince of Wales at Silverstone - Alpha Press
David Prose as the Green Cross Code man, meeting the Prince of Wales at Silverstone - Alpha Press

The second of three children, David Prowse was born in Bristol on July 1 1935. His father Charlie ran a drapery shop, but when that went under the family relocated to the suburb of Southmead. They suffered a still greater upheaval, however, when Charlie Prowse died unexpectedly in 1940, following complications from surgery. In order to make ends meet, his widow Gladys took in Bristol Aeroplane Company apprentices as lodgers.

At school David distinguished himself as a talented athlete. Aged 12 he became the highest try scorer in the history of Bristol Grammar School, though his knowledge of rugby was limited. “I just thought that when you got the ball you simply ran like hell to get it over the other team’s line”, he recalled. In 1948, however, his sporting career came to a halt when he developed severe knee pain. Diagnosed with tuberculosis of the joints, he underwent surgery and spent a year in a sanatorium with his leg in a brace.

On leaving hospital he turned to bodybuilding to aid his recovery. A shot at the Mr Universe title was unsuccessful, and his confidence suffered a knock when one of the judges told him that he had ugly feet and would never be rewarded for his physique. Prowse therefore directed his energies into pure strength training, and was soon performing bench lifts of 500lb. A malodorous diet of baked beans and raw onions made him unpopular with fellow competitors but helped him to the British Weightlifting Championships in 1962. He was placed first in the heavyweight class.

The subsequent publicity got him his first big-screen part, in the James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967). He worked steadily in television for the next decade, his imposing physique ensuring that he was frequently in demand for “monster” roles in science fiction shows such as Doctor Who and Space: 1999.

He landed a job as a fitness consultant to Harrods department store, where the director Stanley Kubrick spotted him demonstrating exercise equipment and cast him as the muscular bodyguard to Patrick Magee’s vengeful writer in A Clockwork Orange (1971) – a role light on dialogue but heavy on physical menace.

One particular scene, in which Prowse carries Magee down a flight of stairs and then sits glowering over a fraught spaghetti dinner, prompted George Lucas to approach him for Star Wars. Prowse was given a choice of playing Darth Vader or the hirsute alien Chewbacca; he choose the former since filming in a gorilla-like suit in high summer sounded too arduous.

Prowse was also hired by Richard Donner to help Christopher Reeve bulk up for the role of Superman in the 1978 film, a training programme that lasted six weeks: “I took him from 170 lb when we started and he was 212 [lbs] when he went into the suit,” he recalled proudly.

David Prowse at a Star Wars convention in 2013 -  THIERRY ZOCCOLAN/ AFP
David Prowse at a Star Wars convention in 2013 - THIERRY ZOCCOLAN/ AFP

In later years David Prowse suffered from declining health. A weightlifting accident in 1989 curtailed his career, and he developed severe arthritis. Though he did not renounce his association with Darth Vader, he never thought of it as his most influential role. That, to his mind, was the Department of Transport’s Green Cross Code Man – a job that had him performing road safety demonstrations across Britain for 14 years. He was incensed when the role was scrapped in favour of reinstating the 1970s favourite Tufty the squirrel, but in 2000 he was appointed MBE for services to charity and to road safety.

David Prowse is survived by his wife Norma, whom he married in 1963, and by their three children.

David Prowse, born July 1 1935, died November 28 2020

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