How Darth Vader competed in the Olympics

The May the 4th (be with you) edition of CBC Sports' daily newsletter looks at the sports connections for two of the men who played the iconic Star Wars villain.

A fencer and a weightlifter played the iconic Star Wars villain

Former Commonwealth Games weightlifter Dave Prowse brought physical heft to the character of Darth Vader. (Thierry Zoccolan/AFP via Getty Images)

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May the 4th be with you

On this unofficial holiday for Star Wars fans, here's a fun fact: Darth Vader competed in the Commonwealth Games. And the Olympics.

As everyone knows, James Earl Jones voiced the iconic villain. But he's not the man underneath the black costume. Star Wars creator George Lucas needed someone more physically imposing on the screen, so that role was filled by Dave Prowse, a 6-foot-6 actor/bodybuilder/weightlifter.

Prowse was a good enough athlete to have represented England in weightlifting at the 1962 Commonwealth Games. And he was able to pull off the rudimentary lightsabre battle between Vader and Alec Guinness' Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars film, released in 1977. But the sequel, 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, features the pivotal duel between Vader and Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker, and Lucas decided that Prowse just couldn't cut it. So the casting team turned to a seasoned swordfighter who also had movie experience.

Though several inches shorter than Prowse, Bob Anderson had represented Great Britain in fencing at the 1952 Olympics, where he made the quarter-finals in the men's individual sabre (of course) and also helped Britain reach the semifinals in the team sabre event. Anderson had also competed in two world championships and won five medals (including two gold) in various team and individual events at the 1950 British Empire Games (later renamed the Commonwealth Games). He went on to work for the Canadian Fencing Association in Ottawa, and his swordsmanship landed him jobs as a stuntman and/or swordfight choreographer for several movies, including a couple in the James Bond franchise.

Dave Prowse in 1978, the year after the original Star Wars movie was released. (Colin Davey/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

After donning the Vader costume for lightsabre scenes in Empire and 1983's Return of the Jedi, Anderson's movie work included The Princess BrideThe Three Musketeers and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He died in 2012 at the age of 89. Read more about Anderson here.

As for Prowse, if you're wondering, he is not the man you see when the dying Vader asks Luke to remove his father's mask near the end of Jedi. That part was handled by veteran English actor Sebastian Shaw, who brought more dramatic weight to the climax of the original trilogy. Prowse died in 2020 at the age of 85. Read more about him here.

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