Interview: David Prowse, aka Frankenstein's Monster & 'Darth Vader'!

Having portrayed a television superhero and embodied several iconic movie villains, Dave Prowse certainly knows something about conveying screen presence. He was Frankenstein€™s monster twice for Hammer Studios, encapsulated the amiable Green Cross Code Man for 15 years and played the ultimate movie villain Darth Vader in the original 'Star Wars' trilogy. He has worked with such visionary directors as Terence Fisher, Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas and Irvin Kershner, shared the screen with legends Peter Cushing, Sir Alec Guinness and Patrick Magee and, as a personal trainer, helped bulk up Christopher Reeve for 'Superman'. And we haven€™t even mentioned his tireless charity work, which resulted in an MBE from Her Majesty the Queen in 2000. During our telephone interview Prowse was open and honest about his experiences working for Hammer, the endurance test of working for Kubrick and the highs and lows of working on 'Star Wars' including his thoughts on the latest trilogy. Talk also turned to his more recent roles in a couple of independent movies and some of the accolades he has received over the years. OP: First I would like to talk to you about your role as the Green Cross Code Man on television.
DP: It was the greatest job I€™ve ever had and it€™s the role I am most proud of. I was asked would I be interested in playing a superman character for children€™s road traffic safety. Well I was interested in childhood safety and as I had my own kids at the time I thought €˜why not?€™ They said €˜well you measure up so you got the job.€™ And so I ended up doing 15 commercials for 14 years and went on to do talks to school kids all over England, Wales and Scotland and then onto Australia and the United States. In total we saved about a quarter of a million children€™s lives. And I was awarded an MBE as a result of my association with the campaign.
OP: Tell me about your experiences working for Hammer Studios.
DP: Someone said to me €œyou€™re a big guy you would make a great Hammer monster, why not go and offer your services?€ So I went to their offices and they introduced me to {Executive Producer and Studio Head} Michael Carreras and I said €œI want to talk to you about€€ €“ and he said: €œno possibility at all €“ thanks goodbye!€ I later won the role of Frankenstein {in 'The Horror of Frankenstein', 1970} through my agent. In that film Peter Cushing was ill so they cast Ralph Bates as Dr Frankenstein. Ralph was a pleasure to work with but I felt they tried to make the film a little too comical, which is why it didn€™t take too well with the fans who wanted less of the tongue-in-cheek and wanted it to be taken more seriously. On the other hand the next film I did for them, 'Vampire Circus', {1972} was one of the great Hammer horrors, {Prowse was cast as a €˜circus Strongmen€™}. The morphing of people into animals is a particular highlight.
OP: You later returned as Frankenstein€™s monster in 'The Monster from Hell'. How did you approach the character and what was Terence Fisher like to work with?
DP: I€™m certainly not a Hammer aficionado but 'Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell' was one of the best Hammer horror films I have seen. You had this terrible suit that you had to get into€but I wanted people to feel really sorry for the creature. I watch one particular scene quite often, where the monster is recovering after the brain transplant {of that of a gifted mathematician and violinist} and he sits there and then smashes the violin and I always think €˜poor thing€™. Terence was a lovely person and he would talk and discuss how the part should be played. Unfortunately he wasn€™t a well man and I think he died shortly after the film was made.
OP: What was Peter Cushing like to work with?
DP: Peter was a gentlemen. He smoked a lot at the time and I saw that he wore these white gloves. And I asked €œwhy do you wear these white gloves?€ and he said he wore them when he smoked as he didn€™t want to give trouble to the make-up department people€he was like that €“ very caring, good natured and thoughtful.
OP: You also worked with the great Stanley Kubrick on 'A Clockwork Orange'.
DP: He {Stanley} phoned me up and said: €œI would like to see you€. The thing with Stanley is that I had heard all sorts of terrible stories€where he filmed dozens of shots for scenes and people tried to warn me off and I said €œthe thing is you just have to stand up to the guy and just give him what he wants.€ So I went to his office, he lived near Elstree Studios, and sat there and waited for two hours €“ and there was no sign of him appearing. So someone said €œhe€™s still working can you come back tomorrow?€ The next day the same thing happened again. So they said €œhe€™s terribly sorry can you come back and make another appointment at your convenience?€ So I thought €˜how about 8pm Sunday night at his house?€™ Then when the day arrived he was waiting for me and looked at the script and said €œcan you read this line?€ I read the line and he said €œI can tell you weren€™t acting.€ Well I didn€™t know what I had left myself in for...I had to carry Malcolm McDowell down three flights of stairs; we shot the scene all day 15 or 20 times! Then they rang me back the next day and said they wanted me for another scene with Patrick Magee {who played Mr Alexander}. So I thought to myself €˜the actor is at least 12 or 13 stone plus he€™s in a wheelchair€™. I said to them €œMr Kubrick€™s name is not €˜one take Kubrick is it?€ (laughs) I think we ended up doing it eight times and it took all day. By the end of it my arms were really killing me. But Stanley was very nice and invited me for tea at his home whenever I was in the Elstree area. So whenever I worked at Elstree Studios I took him up on his offer. Funny enough last year this lady approached me at the Movieum County Hall and said €œDave lovely to see you! I used to watch you film when I was a young girl.€ It turned out to be Stanley€™s daughter.
OP: And you later worked with another eccentric: Terry Gilliam €“ what was he like?
DP: Another funny fellow€he was nice though and I liked him. We were doing this film called 'Jabberwocky' {1977}. He was interested in me playing the red knight who fights the black knight. He mentioned there would be a little bit of horse riding. I said €œno problem.€ Then later he said €œDave I forgot to tell you, you will also be playing the black knight as well.€ I thought €˜I would have to kill myself then?€™ Then later I got another request: €œcould you also play the dragon?€ So I said €œI would be only too pleased to try.€ But in the end they got someone else to do to the dragon part. Anyway the scene where I am fighting the red knight fighting the black, well I had to fall off the horse and I got my foot stuck in the stirrup and the horse dragged me€I was lucky to get out alive. Anyway it was a great film €“ especially for the performance of Max Wall {who played €˜King Bruno the Questionable€™}.
OP: Let€™s move onto 'Star Wars'. What was the suit like to wear and was it easy to maneuver in it?
DP: The suit was made to measure so it fitted perfectly but the helmet was the biggest problem as it was miles too big. When I moved my head it didn€™t move. But Lucas said it was perfect and just what he wanted so they padded it inside, and of course as a result it got very hot and sweaty. Then they could see my eyes and Lucas said €œno eyes!€ So they changed the opaque lens to amber and then I couldn€™t see out of it; only during very bright scenes. It became quite claustrophobic.
OP: What about the body language €“ how important was that and did you do any preparation for the role?
DP: Being a weight-lifter/body-builder body language was all part and parcel and something that you are always very conscious of anyway. I knew how to hold myself and walk around in a certain way. The hardest part was learning my lines. I had no methods for preparation, I just learnt the script. I knew this was a real baddie €“ so I used my own stride to a certain extent but I used it more purposefully. In the first scene I did, where I walked down the corridor, I really strode out and they told me €œyou€™ve got to slow down!€ as the camera couldn€™t keep up with me.
OP: What was it like working with Sir Alec Guinness?
DP: Well we used to sit and chat quite briefly on the set of 'Star Wars' and then I would say €œlet€™s go and practice the fight sequence€ which we did. Later a lunch was arranged between George Lucas, {producer} Gary Kurtz, Alec and myself. Then later we met up with the stunt coordinator Peter Diamond at the studios. Alec was strange in that he never wanted to discuss the film with anyone. He was at the National Theatre once and a person from the audience asked him something about 'Star Wars' and he just said €œnext question please!€ When I saw that his memoirs had been published in a biography I wondered whether he had mentioned me. So I looked in the index and I saw €˜Dave Prowse€™ and I went to the page and there was one line and it said: €œHad lunch with David Prowse today, a giant of a man who will be playing Darth Vader, I fear he is not an actor!€ (laughs).
OP: How did George Lucas compare to working with director Irvin Kershner on 'The Empire Strikes Back'?
DP: You couldn€™t get two different people. Lucas didn€™t really talk to you but with Kershner you could sit down and talk to him about anything. With Richard Marquand {director of Return of the Jedi} there was no contact whatsoever and they went out of there way to avoid working with me. I did very few of the scenes.
OP: But you had such a presence throughout 'Return of the Jedi'. How did that work?
DP: Well they used footage left over from the previous film and edited it in there. I did the scene where I throw the Emperor. Apparently I had said something to the press about the ending of the film, which I hadn€™t, which upset Lucas and so that€™s why I was involved very little.
OP: What about James Earl Jones who lent his voice to Vader. Have you finally met up with him?
DP: It€™s a well known fact I have never met the guy. I tried very hard to meet him when he was over in London last year doing a production {'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'} in the West End. We had arranged to meet but it was during the ash cloud fiasco and I got a call from his son to say the ash cloud had lifted so he had to take the next available flight back to New York. So I didn€™t get to see him. Then a couple of weeks later I got a call {putting on a deep voice} €œHello its James Earl Jones here. I am in New York, apologies for not meeting you. If you ever come to New York we must meet up.€ So I said €œWell actually I am going to New Jersey in late October to receive an award with the Oldtime Barbell Strong Men Association.€ And he said €œwell lets have a get together, let€™s have dinner.€ So we€™re trying to make an arrangement.
OP: That should be quite a unique moment in history€
DP: Well it should be an interesting one. It will be great for the voice and body to finally meet.
OP: If they would have asked you to return would you have donned the black mask again for the last film 'Revenge of the Sith'?
DP: Well I was never asked but I actually tried very hard to get in touch about returning to the role after I heard Darth Vader would be unveiled in the third episode€so I thought they would need someone to give the character that bulk and powerful presence. But when I phoned there was no interest whatsoever. Funny enough they were filming in Australia and I happened to be there at the time so they could have used me. But they told me some story that Hayden Christensen had it in his contract that when Anakin turns to Darth he would play him€I mean I stood almost 7ft tall in the costume and it was a very very impressive character€with presence, but this I felt was diminished in the new film. And the bit where he transforms into Vader was too much like Frankenstein to convince.
OP: So overall what did you think of the last three films?
DP: I didn€™t really like them. One of the major problems was the technology, it didn€™t mesh with the previous films as we didn€™t have the technology you have now and then there was that annoying character Jar Jar Binks. What a waste of time he was!
OP: You have spent the best part of your career concealed behind a mask or a suit of some kind. Did you ever want more exposure in serious acting roles?
DP: I would have loved to have done more serious acting. Well in my last film, 'The Kindness of Strangers', I played a father which was a really good role for me. Things could have been different as I was linked to both the part of Conan {the Barbarian} and €˜Jaws€™ from James Bond. With Conan it was an interesting situation as I was getting well known in the business. The producer and head of AIP, Milton Subotsky, had gotten friendly with me, and he rang me up and said €œdo you like science-fiction?€ And I said €œnot really€. Then he said €œhave you heard of the Conan stories? I would like you to read this book€. So I started reading it but I hated it and after about 30 pages I put it down.€ He wanted me for the lead role but he died before he secured the rights to the movie. And so in the end a US company bought the rights and wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger. With the €˜Jaws€™ role I received a call from {veteran Bond director} Guy Hamilton and he asked €œhave you ever done a Bond film?€ And I said €œnot really. I had a small part in the spoof 'Casino Royale' {1967} but it wasn€™t a real part.€ He said €œI have a lovely part for you, a character called €˜Jaws€™.€ But then Guy got fired from the movie€and the new director Lewis Gilbert wanted Richard Kiel. So I could have been Jaws as well.
OP: Tell us about some of the more recent roles you have done.
DP: Well I had a great little part in a small film called The Perfect Woman where I was this gardener who chops up girl€™s bodies€girls who have entered a beauty talent contest. I played a Dr Frankenstein type character which was fun€but it was a terrible film. More recently I did a film called 'The Kindness of Strangers'. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and I have received an award for best supporting actor along with a lifetime achievement award which is to be presented by Robert Powell. It€™s funny I am up for three awards in the space of two weeks. The film was small but beautifully shot in the south of France and Rome. It€™s a nice little film€I filmed in Burton-on-Trent. I was appearing in Leicester at a convention and the following week I got a call from Debbie Groves {the film€™s writer, producer and director} saying €œjust to let you know when you had finished filming we went to a Private House to film.€ And I said €œwell how does that affect me?€ and she said €œwell someone reported there was a porn film being shot to the police€ And of course the press got wind of the story and printed €˜Suspected Porn Movie Staring Dave Prowse€™. (laughs). And so she said €œdon€™t worry about it€ and I said €œdon€™t worry about it? I don€™t want to be associated with a porn movie!€ and then she said €œwell you€™re 74 what do you think the public will think of you that at 74 you are able to star in a porn movie?€™
OP: Looking back over your life and career is there anything you would have changed?
DP: I have had a great career and have been lucky in some respects and unlucky in others. The only regret is that I had to take a year out of my education due to an illness when I was 13 in Grammar School€so I missed an entire year. But I was never really that academically interested. I was more interested in sport and bodybuilding. I think I have done everything I wanted to do €“ although I missed out on those two major roles {Conan and Jaws} and perhaps as a result things would have been different and I would have been in a different position€but I am not complaining€I would also have liked my association with Lucasfilm to have been better.
OP: Thanks so much for your time. It was an honour speaking to you.
DP: A pleasure!
On the 28th October, David Prowse is due to attend the International Filmmakers Festival of World Cinema in Broadstairs, Kent to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award and Best Supporting Actor for 'The Kindness of Strangers'.
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Oliver Pfeiffer is a freelance writer who trained at the British Film Institute. He joined OWF in 2007 and now contributes as a Features Writer. Since becoming Obsessed with Film he has interviewed such diverse talents as actors Keanu Reeves, Tobin Bell, Dave Prowse and Naomie Harris, new Hammer Studios Head Simon Oakes and Hollywood filmmakers James Mangold, Scott Derrickson and Uk director Justin Chadwick. Previously he contributed to and has had other articles published in Empire, Hecklerspray, Se7en Magazine, Pop Matters, The Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle and more recently SciFiNow Magazine and The Guardian. He loves anything directed by Cronenberg, Lynch, Weir, Haneke, Herzog, Kubrick and Hitchcock and always has time for Hammer horror films, Ealing comedies and those twisted Giallo movies. His blog is: