Star Wars: Revealing the actors behind the masks

By Dave Gilyeat
BBC News

Image source, AP
Image caption, A host of unsung monster extras starred alongside the central trio in science-fiction classic Star Wars

Star Wars featured a plethora of supporting artists hidden under monster masks and space helmets, playing characters every bit as popular as the film's heroes. Now a new documentary speaks to these little-heard extras and asks them how the film changed their lives.

The man who gingerly approached Jon Spira from the back of his screenwriting class had an impressive confession to make.

"I've heard you like Star Wars. Well... I was in it."

John Chapman went on to recount a tale from a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away - or, more accurately - from 1976 in Elstree Studios.

It is where he spent four days as an X-wing pilot during the filming of George Lucas' epic space adventure Star Wars.

He featured in the pivotal briefing room scene that preceded the thrilling Battle of Yavin, which saw the rebel fleet take on and ultimately destroy the Death Star.

Image source, Sonny Malhotra
Image source, Sonny Malhotra
Image source, Sonny Malhotra
Image caption, The film features reconstructions of the actors backstage at Elstree Studios

Chapman took pride of place near the front of the briefing. Unfortunately for him, Lucas opted to shoot the pilots from the rear, where Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO and other, now iconic characters, were standing.

All that ended up on screen was a brief glimpse of the back of Chapman's head.

"I was really, really disappointed." he said in his amenable Cockney twang. "I felt like I'd missed an opportunity. I'd had a lick of the cherry but not a full bite."

"He was a really sweet and funny guy," said Oxfordshire filmmaker Spira, 38, who was blown away by meeting someone who had appeared in one of his favourite films.

"He opened the boot of his car and took out all these photos that he takes to conventions to autograph."

The chance meeting planted the seed of an idea that led Spira to film the forthcoming documentary Elstree 1976, in which he interviewed the unsung heroes of the science fiction classic, actors whose faces were obscured under helmets or behind creature masks.

They range from the legendary, such as Darth Vader and Boba Fett, to controversial fan favourite Greedo, and the Sandtrooper hypnotised by Obi-Wan Kenobi into saying the immortal line: "These aren't the droids we're looking for".

"That's what fascinates me," explained Spira. "The idea that we're very familiar with the iconography and these characters but we would walk past the actual people in the street."

One of those still talked about characters is a funny-looking alien called Greedo, casually killed in a bar with a single gunshot by smuggler Han Solo [Harrison Ford] in a seminal, much-celebrated scene.

Image source, Sonny Malhotra
Image source, Sonny Malhotra
Image source, Sonny Malhotra
Image caption, Blake, Chapman and Forrest were all immortalised as Kenner action figures

Its tone was altered in the 1997 rerelease, where special effects trickery made Greedo shoot at Han first, instead of being gunned down in cold blood.

Paul Blake, 65, who played Greedo, suggests the "moral majority" may have pressured Lucas into making the change.

"I've got the T-shirt that says 'Han Shot First'. If it's on a T-shirt it must be true.

"Harrison's character was doing the bad thing, but he was a space cowboy, so he just blew Greedo away like the bit of fluff he was.

"Had we been in some Western saloon bar it would have been the same. That's what was nice."

Blake said his death scene "was done last thing on a Friday afternoon when everyone wanted to get home".

"It was hot and we were all desperate to leave. We shot through the thing, and like all things you do under duress, stress, and strain, it turns out to be the most exciting thing.

"I saw it in the big cinema in Leicester Square and paid my 10p like everyone else. When my little bit came on I was so excited I jumped up and shouted 'That's me!'"

Blake said being a "sanctimonious young actor" he had taken Lucas aside to ask him how to play his character.

"He looked at me and said, 'play it like they do in the movies'. I thought that was pretty good advice for playing a green alien with a green head."

Blake, who is still in the business, is a popular figure at fan conventions.

"The character will live forever. For years I thought 'I'm a serious actor, I've played Macbeth, and on my tombstone it will say Here Lies Greedo'.

"And according to all my kids that's pretty cool, so I feel very good about that now."

Image source, AFP/Getty Images
Image caption, The masked characters continue to be popular with fans when dressing up at conventions

Anthony Forrest, 62, who played the Sandtrooper with the oft-quoted "droids" line, has valued his anonymity.

"I can still mingle and not have to suffer people yelling across the street," he said.

"It's been an amazing journey from when I first discovered how popular that particular scene had become. To do something with that kind of impact is very rare."

The film's success was no surprise to the singer-songwriter, who is a licensed busker on the London Underground.

He played opposite the Oscar-winner Sir Alec Guinness, who wrote to a friend at the time complaining about the film's "rubbish dialogue", but Forrest said he was "fantastic" to work with.

"To me personally he was very sweet, a very generous actor. He made everything extremely easy. I thought, 'what a great opportunity'."

Spira, who has turned to crowdfunding to complete the post-production on Elstree 1976, says Star Wars is like "baked beans, corduroy, and the colour brown".

"It's something from our childhood which means more to us. It was also the toy, the make believe, and playing in the playground.

"It's deeply ingrained. It has a weird and very special place in my heart and part of making films is exploring that."

"Every year Star Wars seems to grow and grow. Twenty per cent of the world's population know and have seen it," adds Chapman.

"Star Wars is going to live for hundreds of years. It will never disappear."

And perhaps the same can be said of the cast - every single one of them - who played their own small part on those large, cold, Elstree soundstages in 1976.

More on this story

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.