The Origin of Darth Vader: The Voice
The story of how one actor took just two and a half hours to make his mark on history.
This month, to celebrate the release of Rogue One, we’re taking a deep dive into the secrets and stories surrounding the creation of Darth Vader, starting with a look at the four elements that make up this iconic villain — the name, the look, the body and the voice.
On the set of Star Wars, David Prowse worried that his lines were being muffled by Darth Vader’s helmet. Not to worry, he was told – the lines would be re-recorded. But what nobody told Prowse, according to the actor, was that he wouldn’t be the one doing the re-recording.
With a strong Devonshire accent that earned him the nickname ‘Darth Farmer’ from the crew, the reality is that Dave Prowse was never going to be called upon to provide the voice of Darth Vader.
Instead, Lucas went through tapes of some of the finest voices in Hollywood, including Orson Welles.
Lucas eventually arrived at James Earl Jones’ distinctive baritone — although he probably didn’t have to go too far to find him, considering Jones had just starred in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, written by Lucas’ pals and collaborators Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins.
Lucas was initially worried about the implications of casting the film’s only black man as the villain, but eventually decided that Jones was too perfect for the part to worry about racial politics.
Jones was paid $7,500 for his contributions to the film, which were recorded in just two and a half hours on March 1, 1977. Jones chose to go uncredited for his performance, and he insists that his contributions were “just special effects”. Prowse, Jones once told Star Wars Insider, “is Vader”.
But there’s one other man who can lay claim to the definitive Darth Vader performance — sound designer Ben Burtt.
Lucas’ third draft mentioned that Vader “speaks in an oddly filtered voice through his complex breathing mask”, but it was Burtt that had to bring that voice to life.
Initially, Burtt was going to lean hard into the idea of Vader’s suit as a life-support system. The Dark Lord would have been one noisy individual, with audible motors whirring away every time he moved his head, a heartbeat that could be heard from across the room and a respiratory system like a wheezing windmill.
“We learned what we really wanted was just an icy, cold, mechanical breathing,” Burtt said in Steve Sansweet’s Anakin Skywalker: The Story of Darth Vader.
He found the effect he was looking for by breathing through his scuba tank’s regulator.
"Then I'd edit those breaths into every scene with Darth Vader and try to match the breathing rhythm of the speech, which of course was the voice of James Earl Jones."
The noise of Burtt breathing through his scuba tank became the most iconic sound in the film – and, probably, in all of film.
There was no real explanation for Vader’s laboured breathing in the film, but Lucas already had the details mapped out in his mind.
“It may be in one of the sequels... It's about Ben and Luke's father and Vader when they are young Jedi Knights,” Lucas told Rolling Stone in 1977.
“Vader kills Luke's father, then Ben and Vader have a confrontation, just like they have in Star Wars, and Ben almost kills Vader. As a matter of fact, he falls into a volcanic pit and gets fried and is one destroyed being. That's why he has to wear the suit with a mask. It's like a walking iron lung. His face is all horrible inside.
“I was going to shoot a close-up of Vader where you could see the inside of his face, but then we said no, no, it would destroy the mystique of the whole thing.”
December is Darth Vader Month at Force Material – check back throughout the month for more stories about your favourite Sith Lord, and follow @ForceMaterial on Twitter for plenty of great Darth Vader art, moments and factoids.
To go deeper into Darth, I recommend tracking down copies of The Making of Star Wars by JW Rinzler, The Complete Vader by Ryder Windham and Peter Vilmur, Anakin Skywalker: The Story of Darth Vader and Star Wars: From Concept to Screen to Collectible by Steve Sansweet, and Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy by Brandon Alinger.