For hundreds of actors, bit-part players, costume-dwellers, and droids, appearing in Star Wars in 1977 was the moment that would shape their lives—they were granted immortality.
While Harrison Ford was catapulted onto the Hollywood A-list, pretty much everyone else has succumbed to the lucrative allure of the Star Wars convention circuit.
And we’re not just talking about Luke and Leia. Scores of actors who were disguised by helmets, prosthetics, face masks, and voice-overs nearly 40 years ago can still pull in six-figure annual hauls on the global circuit—all they have to do is show up and sign their names.
With so many fan dollars up for grabs, and so many actors jostling for access, don’t underestimate the power of the dark side.
“There’s quite a lot of politicking,” Paul Blake, who played Greedo, explains in the mind-boggling new documentary Elstree 1976.
The film focuses on the lesser lights in the Star Wars family and how their lives have unfolded since that long hot English summer at Elstree Studios just north of London. Many of them are still cleaved to the bosom of the George Lucas empire.
Angus MacInnes, who played an X-wing pilot known as Gold Leader, said he was initially reluctant to cash in at the conventions. “When I first went to them I thought these people are going to be so bizarre,” he said. “And some of them were!”
Like many of his colleagues, the Canadian actor soon accepted that it was worth sitting at a fold-out table and signing your name if hordes of Star Wars geeks were willing to hand over wads of cash in exchange.
He says there is a clear hierarchy among the actors, who are infuriated that the men in masks often attract the most attention. “My face is in the movie, everyone who’s got a face in the movie—it drives us mad,” he said.
There are always long lines of fans to secure the signature of Kenny Baker, the man inside the R2-D2 costume. “Kenny Baker lived in a tin can!” said MacInnes, dismissively, before complaining about the size of the lines that build up in front of Jeremy Bulloch.
“Well, that’s purely because of Boba Fett,” said Bulloch. “I can’t say any more than that. It’s not my fault.”
It’s not just the unseen who appear on the convention circuit, they are joined by the uncredited extras. Again MacInnes is clear: “Extras? I’m afraid the extras don’t count.”
That’s not how the extras see it. In fact, Derek Lyons prefers the term “supporting artist.”
“I wasn’t a dot on the landscape, I was in shot,” the actor told The Daily Beast. “If you are uncredited it doesn’t mean you weren’t in the film.”
Lyons was actually in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope twice: You glimpse him at the edge of one shot as a medal bearer, and then he is seen beneath a helmet in the background of another scene playing a Massassi Temple Guard.
He now does at least five Star Wars conventions a year, with appearances as far away as Japan. “It got me out of the house doing conventions,” he said.
The British actor charges £15 ($23) to sign a photo, £25 ($38) to sign a poster. “Bit greedy of me, I must admit,” he said. “Some people charge £10—fine, I charge £15.”
Lyons says it’s not just the money, he loves the chance to get out on the road and meet fans who lap up his stories of long lunches with Mark Hamill and that time he interrupted Kenny Baker taking a nap inside R2-D2.
“It helped me a lot during my depression,” he confided. His wife left him in 2007, after 18 years, and he said he contemplated suicide many times. The Star Wars community was one of the things that kept him going, even if some of the more established actors look down on him: “They get kind of jealous that you’re taking some of the action.”
“Dave Prowse says he’s not in it for the money—that’s bullshit,” said Lyons. “But I’m not.”
Prowse is a bona fide Star Wars heavyweight even though neither his face nor his voice appeared in any of the films. The former bodybuilding champion was the man inside the Darth Vader suit in all three original movies.
While shooting the first movie, it was difficult to hear his West Country twang through the helmet on set and George Lucas explained that wasn’t a problem as they would go into a studio and re-record the voice afterward. “I naturally assumed it would be me,” he said in Elstree 1976. “Unfortunately for me they couldn’t have picked a better voiceover actor than James Earl Jones.”
That hasn’t stopped him becoming a regular on the circuit, however. “I put Dave Prowse is Darth Vader on my autograph, they said could you do ‘Dave Prowse as Darth Vader?’”
He declined. “They would have been quite happy for [Darth Vader] to have been nameless—but here I am now,” he said, although there have been a few hitches along the way. “I’ve been barred from the Star Wars Celebration weekends and Disney Star Wars say I’m persona non grata.”
Prowse belongs among the top echelon of Star Wars stars along with Carrie Fisher, Hamill, Baker, and Anthony Daniels—the man inside the C-3PO suit. John Chapman, who played an X-wing pilot, told The Daily Beast that there was big money up for grabs. “I’ve heard rumors that when they go to these conventions they come away with 15, 20 grand,” he said.
Although Chapman was only an extra, he was persuaded to go along to a signing by an aficionado who said he would be paid hundreds of dollars just for showing up.
“There were these whispers going around, ‘John Chapman was only an extra, what’s he doing here?’” he said. “I didn’t feel good about it so I dropped it.”
“I look at all these guys and they just sign for a living,” he said. “I find it a bit sad.”
Chapman, whose self-deprecating style makes him the star of Jon Spira’s Elstree 1976, now tours British schools with workshops based around his own space exploration series charting the adventures of Jonnie Rocket.
He jokes about the Elstree documentary putting him on the radar for the new movies despite his original screen appearance consisting of a lingering shot of the back of his head. “I want to be in the next Star Wars movie. Get directed by J.J. Abrams. J.J. might like to see the back of my head,” he said.
Then again, that might be too much exposure for Chapman. “To make sure I don’t get recognized in restaurants, I always sit with my back to the wall,” he laughed.