We need to talk about Porkins

We need to talk about Porkins

X-Wing pilot Jek Porkins has been a whipping boy for Star Wars fans for decades now — but the actor who played him was no joke. 

It’s hard not to make fun of Porkins. Sure, the Rebel pilot played a part in destroying the first Death Star, but he’s also, well, a burly guy named Porkins. 

The first Porkins parody on YouTube seems to date back to 2006, but it’s not like ol’ Porkins was getting a lot of respect before that. If we’d had YouTube in 1977, you can bet he would have been an even bigger viral sensation than the Chewbacca Mask Lady.

Well, laugh it up, fuzzballs — because the actor who played Porkins, William Hootkins, had a more interesting life than any of us.

Hootkins got his first taste of showbiz in school plays at St Mark’s in Dallas County, Texas. He realised early on that he was destined for supporting parts, because one of his classmates was better looking than him and snagged all the lead roles.

That classmate? Tommy Lee Jones. 

Robert Hoffman, the co-founder of National Lampoon, went to St Mark’s at the same time as Hootkins and Jones, and musicians Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs were just a few years ahead of them. 

But they weren’t the only people of note at St Mark’s. In the summer of '63, Hootkins was the only student to enroll for a Russian class taught by a Mrs Ruth Paine at the school. 

Ruth had recently split with her husband, Michael, and had invited her friend, Marina, to stay with her. Marina and her husband, Lee, were living apart at the time, although Lee would often stay at the Paine house on weekends. Ruth even helped Lee find a job at the Texas School Book Depository.  

It was an arrangement that seemed to work out for everyone — until it turned out Lee had been using the Paine garage to store the 6.5mm calibre Carcano rifle that he would allegedly use to assassinate US President John F Kennedy from the sixth-floor, southeast corner window of the Book Depository.

As the sole student of Ruth Paine’s Russian class at St Mark’s, Hootkins was interviewed  by the FBI about the assassination, but it was eventually determined that Ruth and Marina didn’t know what Lee was planning, and they were in the clear. 

Lee Harvey Oswald, of course, was killed by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby on live television just two days after JFK’s death, pouring gasoline on an inferno of conspiracy theories.

After all that excitement, Hootkins went to Princeton to study astrophysics, before transferring to Oriental studies. That’s when a friend of his, aware that Hootkins’ true passion lie in acting, suggested he should move to London to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. 

That friend, by the way, was John Lithgow.

Hootkins ended up taking Lithgow’s advice. Not only did he study in London, but he ended up living there for most of his life, playing host to the likes of Marlon Brando and Martin and Charlie Sheen at his home in Pimlico. 

Star Wars was Hootkins’ third film role, after bit parts in Big Zapper and Twilight’s Last Gleaming, and he almost wasn’t in it at all. 

He had initially been offered the role of the human precursor to Jabba the Hutt in a scene with Harrison Ford (you know, the one that ended up being re-inserted with a digital Jabba into the Special Edition), but — as he told Star Wars Insider in 1997 — he “took one look at the script and decided this was going to be the biggest disaster in the history of filmmaking”. 

He passed, and took on a different job altogether. But when that job wrapped, Star Wars was still shooting and still in need of Rebel pilots — and Hootkins, apparently no longer worried about appearing in the biggest disaster in the history of filmmaking, decided to get on board. 

When Hootkins saw his character’s name, however, he had the same reaction as everybody else. 

“I saw the word ‘Porkins’. I thought, because I was a heavy guy, what’s this word, ‘Porkins’?” he told Insider.

“I saw all the amazing creature effects they were doing and I thought, wait a minute, if they are giving me a name like Porkins, is somebody going to come over and stick ears and a snout on my face?”

The ears and snout turned out to be unnecessary, and the distinctly human Hootkins got into the cockpit of the X-Wing — the only one on set, which means each member of Red Squadron was actually sitting in the same cockpit — to take his turn being filmed in it. 

His pilot’s uniform didn’t fit him, and had to be slit open down the back to maintain the illusion that it did. Hootkins also worried that the t-shirt he was wearing underneath — featuring the Keep On Truckin' artwork of cartoonist Robert Crumb — would be exposed, but luckily, he was able to hold it together.

Hootkins did eventually admit that Lucas was on to something. When he saw the film for the first time at the cast and crew screening, he realised he “had been touched by genius, but had just been too dumb to know it.”

The same year he played Porkins, Hootkins also appeared as disgraced entertainer Fatty Arbuckle in director Ken Russell’s Valentino.

If someone was trying to tell him something with these character names, he didn’t take it as an insult — Hootkins relished the role, and was even working on a script of his own about Arbuckle’s fall from grace at the time of his death. 

After Star Wars, Hootkins continued to pop up in small roles in virtually every beloved, geek-friendly franchise.  

Whenever a major production came to England, Hootkins seemed to be there. You’ll find him as  Munson, Dr Zarkov’s assistant, in Mike Hodges’ 1980 cult classic Flash Gordon

In ’81, he returned to the Lucasfilm stable for an appearance in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He played Major Eaton, one of the two Army Intelligence agents who tell Indy that the Nazis are looking for his mentor, Abner Ravenwood.

This was actually Hootkins’ third appearance in a Harrison Ford film — they were also in 1979’s Hanover Street, a poorly received wartime romance.

In ’87, there he was as nuclear strategist Harry Howler in Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, sharing the screen with Gene Hackman and Jim Broadbent in a short but memorable scene. 

In '89, Hootkins landed the other role geeks remember him for — corrupt Lieutenant Eckhardt in Tim Burton’s Batman.

Here, Hootkins got to chew scenery as a sleazy cop opposite Jack Nicholson. It was a performance that owed more than a little to Orson Welles’ turn as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil; Hootkins would later go on to play Welles in a BBC Radio Drama. 

I’ll be honest — I must have seen Star Wars and Batman dozens of times each, at least, when I was a kid, and I didn’t clock that Porkins and Eckhardt were the same guy until I was an adult. That’s acting.

He also appeared in two of Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther films (1982’s Trail of the Pink Panther and 1983’s Curse of the Pink Panther), and even dipped his toe in the Marvel universe by voicing the Crimson Dynamo in the ‘90s Iron Man cartoon. 

In 1992, he popped up in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles as a character who was completely unrelated to his Raiders of the Lost Ark role.   

But Hootkins did his best work at the tail end of his career. In the early 2000s, he earned rave reviews for playing Alfred Hitchcock on stage in Hitchcock Blonde, opposite Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike, first at the Royal Court Theatre, and then the West End. There was even talk of taking the show to Broadway. 

Variety marvelled that Hootkins was an "uncanny look-and-sound-alike", and noted that Pike — an accomplished actress in her own right — "has to work overtime to exert anywhere near the authority of the properly portly Hootkins' delicious Hitch, which transcends imitation to become both a witty and scary portrait of the creator as possible destroyer". 

The Guardian praised Hootkins' "astonishing recreation of Hitchcock, down to the jutting lower lip and porpoise-like walk". 

The Telegraph said "Hootkins is wonderfully watchable as Hitch — obese, pompous, every detail right from the protruding lower lip to the waddle of a walk". 

His final performance was an unabridged reading of Moby Dick that clocked in at 24 hours and 50 minutes. The Guardian’s audiobook reviewer, Sue Arnold, said it was the most extraordinary performance she’d ever heard. 

Sadly, Hootkins never got a chance to top that performance, and he never got a chance to take Hitchcock Blonde to Broadway. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2005. He was only 57. 

We’ll always laugh at Porkins in Star Wars. But there was certainly a lot more to William Hootkins than anyone knew in 1977.  

What was it Hootkins said, when he saw Star Wars for the first time?

We had been touched by genius… we just didn’t know it yet.

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