The little, round eye faded to black, and the familiar chirps and beeps went silent as the Star Wars franchise mourned the passing of one of their family members; Kenny Baker, who donned the R2-D2 robotic shell for the first six episodic films, passed away on Saturday, August 13, 2016. Warwick Davis, who acted alongside Baker in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi and Labyrinth, tweeted, “Sad to say goodbye to a small man with a huge heart and personality. He paved the way for short actors for a generation.”
Like so many others, I first “saw” Kenny Baker act as the lovable and feisty R2-D2 in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977, George Lucas). I remember quite vividly the head-spinning, beeping, and chirping short barrel-shaped robot and his taller, golden companion C-3PO as they lumbered along in the sweltering heat of the desert locale of a distant planet called Tatooine. At the time, I don’t think I even realized there was an actor inside C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) much else R2-D2. Baker, with a background in vaudeville and ice skating, came to embody the robot with human-like qualities and emotions. “He brought #R2D2 to life,” director Kevin Smith explained; I could not agree more.
Baker had no idea what he was getting himself into when George Lucas asked him to play R2-D2. It was a fortuitous meeting for Lucas who was looking for a short actor who had the strength to move the robot and could work the long hours needed; a child actor wasn’t the right fit. For Baker, it was the beginning of a long association with the franchise, where he appeared in the first six episodes and the supporting franchise documentaries, special appearances as R2-D2, and served as a consultant in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, J.J. Abrams). In addition, many lifelong friendships were forged with his co-stars. “I loved his optimism and determination. He WAS the droid I was looking for!” tweeted fellow Star Wars actor Mark Hamill who played Luke Skywalker and shared many scenes with Baker.
While he is associated most often with R2-D2, digging into his filmography revealed that Baker could be found in several films spanning a number of genres, ranging from smaller projects to big-budget, critically acclaimed movies. Highlighting some of Baker’s projects, they include Flash Gordon (1980, Mike Hodges), The Elephant Man (1980, David Lynch), Fidgit in Time Bandits (1981, Terry Gilliam), Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman), Brighton Busker in Mona Lisa (1986, Neil Jordan), part of the Goblin Corps with fellow short actor Warwick Davis in Labyrinth (1986, Jim Henson), Willow (1988, Ron Howard), and the period film 24 Hour Party People (2002, Michael Winterbottom). In addition, Baker lent his voice to a number of animated projects, as well as appearing in a variety of television series.
At Baker’s official website, there’s a lengthy interview with Baker as he reminiscence about his career, his friendships, and his convention experiences. It’s a particularly poignant document of 1960s English vaudeville through his personal testament. He mentioned meeting David Prowse at a bowling alley during a publicity stunt, where several pictures were taken of the two (with Baker sitting on Prowse’s upraised arm). Many years later, Prowse wrote the foreword to Baker’s biography written with Ken Mills titled From Tony Acorns: The Kenny Baker Story (2013, Writestuff Autographs). Unfortunately, Baker had been having health issues for some time which caused him to miss the Los Angeles premiere in late 2015. At his website, he expressed his thanks and appreciation for the good wishes. He ends with, “I have had a fairly quiet year, and when the sunshines allowed, I have enjoyed the peace and tranquility of my garden.”
Rest in peace and may the force be forever with you.
Image(s) courtesy of Google Images.