Darth Vader’s Voice: The Original Voice Versus the Vocals of James Earl Jones

The hulk­ing black-caped fig­ure, “a walk­ing iron lung,” as George Lucas called him in 1977, Darth Vad­er more than right­ly tops a list of the 50 best movie vil­lains of all time as the “gold stan­dard of vil­lainy,” but it took more than inspired cos­tum­ing to make him so. Vad­er is a com­pos­ite cre­ation of sev­er­al dif­fer­ent tal­ents. The qual­i­ty by which we most know (and fear) him – the boom­ing voice that com­mands and kills from afar — came, of course, from James Earl Jones. As one of the 20th century’s great­est actors, it’s fair to say that Jones not only pro­vid­ed Vader’s voice, but he also pro­vid­ed the vil­lains soul, inas­much as the Sith Lord had one left.

Although he redeemed him­self at the end of Return of the Jedi, Vader’s human­i­ty was an open ques­tion through­out most of the tril­o­gy. When he “nat­u­ral­ly … want­ed to make Darth Vad­er more inter­est­ing, more sub­tle, more psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly ori­ent­ed,” Jones says,” Lucas report­ed­ly replied, “No, no. What we’re find­ing out is you’ve got to keep his voice on a very nar­row band of inflec­tion because he ain’t human, real­ly.”

While he wor­ried about cast­ing the only Black actor in the first Star Wars film in the role of a dehu­man­ized vil­lain, Lucas ulti­mate­ly decid­ed that no one else, not even Orson Welles, could con­vey Vader’s seri­ous intent.

But first, actor David Prowse under­stand­ably thought he had the role when he put on the heavy black suit, hel­met, and cape. Best known for his role as the Green Cross Code Man, a well-loved pub­lic ser­vice announce­ment hero in the UK, the for­mer body­builder Prowse per­formed Vader’s lines from inside the cos­tume, his voice muf­fled, as you can hear in the clips above, by the mask. Dur­ing the film­ing of Star Wars: A New Hope, Prowse was told that Vader’s lines would be re-record­ed. He did not know that some­one else would play the role.

Jones him­self asked for no cred­it and did not receive any until Return of the Jedi. Paid $7,500, he thought of the 2 ½ hours spent in the record­ing booth for the first film as “just spe­cial effects.” (The real effects artist, sound design­er Ben Burtt, cre­at­ed Vader’s icon­ic mechan­i­cal breath­ing sound by sync­ing record­ings of his scu­ba gear to Jones’ breaths.) Jones once told Star Wars Insid­er that David Prowse “is Vad­er.” And while the six-foot-sev­en Prowse, who passed away last Novem­ber, might have been per­fect­ly cast as the impos­ing form, no one on set could hear him as Darth Vad­er.

“With a strong Devon­shire accent that earned him the nick­name ‘Darth Farmer’ from the crew,” Force Mate­r­i­al notes, “the real­i­ty is that Dave Prowse was nev­er going to be called upon to pro­vide the voice of Darth Vad­er.” We might digress on the dis­tri­b­u­tion of accents in the Star Wars uni­verse. Maybe Prowse wasn’t the right Eng­lish­man to play the part, but why didn’t Lucas cast anoth­er British actor, as he had for every oth­er major bad guy in the film, begin­ning a tra­di­tion that con­tin­ues in Star Wars movies and relat­ed media over forty years lat­er?

There’s hard­ly any ques­tion. No one can com­mand atten­tion with his voice like James Earl Jones. And per­haps no oth­er actor could give such endur­ing­ly human men­ace to a char­ac­ter described by its cre­ator as a walk­ing iron lung.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Earl Jones Reads Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

The Com­plete Star Wars “Fil­mu­men­tary”: A 6‑Hour, Fan-Made Star Wars Doc­u­men­tary, with Behind-the-Scenes Footage & Com­men­tary

The Orig­i­nal Star Wars Tril­o­gy Adapt­ed into a 14-Hour Radio Dra­ma by NPR (1981–1996)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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