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Film

How James Earl Jones created the voice for Darth Vader

@Russellisation

Call it lightning in a bottle or an ingenious science-fiction wonder, Star Wars whipped audiences off their feet when the original film was released in 1977, sparking a cultural revolution in the Western world. Directed by George Lucas, once the student of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, Star Wars became more than a mere space opera, taking blockbuster cinema on a ride that would forever change the shape of the industry. 

As well as countless amounts of merchandise, including lunch boxes, shower curtains and pencil sharpeners, the original Star Wars film (later named A New Hope) would lead to two more sequels in the 1980’s, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. As the films gained cultural significance, so too did the cast members, with the likes of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill being catapulted to international acclaim.

Having made two low-budget films before the release of Star Wars in 1977, George Lucas was looking to change the contemporary blockbuster and infuse it with a sense of fun that had not yet been seen in 20th-century cinema. Speaking to Time in 1977, Lucas noted: “It’s the flotsam and jetsam from the period when I was twelve years old…The plot is simple—good against evil—and the film is designed to be all the fun things and fantasy things I remember. The word for this movie is fun”. 

Along with Harrison, Fisher and Hamill, the whole cast of the Star Wars films became cult icons among movie fans, including Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, Kenny Baker as R2-D2 and the original Darth Vader, David Prowse. Cast for his sheer height and stature as an actor, although Prowse can be seen performing throughout the original Star Wars trilogy, the character’s voice belongs to the iconic James Earl Jones.

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As the influential actor recalls in an interview with the American Film Institute (AFI), “George has admitted that when he hired David Prowse, he thought that was his Darth Vader”, describing the actor’s voice as “not a bass but more like a tenor”. Very different from Earl Jones’ final version, Prowe’s Vader sounded a little more human-like, as the actor recalled, “It was a very effective voice, but George thought he wanted a, pardon the expression, ‘darker’ voice so he hires a guy born in Mississippi, raised in Michigan who stutters and that’s the voice and that’s me”.

As James Earl Jones states, “I lucked out, from all these so-called handicaps” as he was chosen to take on the role of the franchises ‘big baddie’ thanks to his own iconic bassy voice. As Prowse continued to perform the lines on set as placeholders, Earl Jones was trying to decide on the final voice for the character, with even the Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner giving his impression that the actor called “scary as hell”. 

With grand plans for the character, the actor recalls thinking that he “wanted to make Darth Vader more interesting, more subtle, more psychologically oriented,” though Lucas fought back on this idea, asking for something far more traditional. Remembering the words of George Lucas, Earl Jones remembers him saying, “you’ve gotta keep his voice on a very narrow band of inflexion cus he ain’t human, really”. 

From this, cinema’s greatest ever villain was born.