One of Hollywood’s most best-loved performers has died, but he lives on a shiny and dinky droid who communicates in squeaks, chirps and bleeps. British actor Kenny Baker played astromech robot R2-D2, the companion of the high-strung C-3PO and the fellow adventurer of several key characters in George Lucas’s Star Wars films. Lucas cast Baker in the first three movies made between 1977 and 1983. In the prequels that were produced between 1999 and 2005, Baker was often replaced by computer-generated models. He died on August 13 at the age of 81 after a long illness.
The actor, who was 3ft 8in tall, was physically put into R2-D2’s frame for the shoot. He was initially reluctant to be “stuck in a robot”, and told Lucas, “I’ll help you out, I’ll do you a favour.” Baker proved perfect for the part. “They’d made the robot in rough form, and I was the only one around that was just right for it,” he said in an interview to Orvar Säfström in Stockholm a few years ago. “I got into it eventually and they put the lid on me … and I had nuts and bolts and screws into my head inside.”
Baker was born in Birmingham in England on August 24, 1934. As a teenager, he worked as a circus clown and pantomime performer. He was performing in the comedy act Minitones when Lucas hired him for the first Star Wars movie in 1979.
The droid’s name is credited to legendary editor and sound designer Walter Murch while working on Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973). He told the Film Freak Central blog in an interview, “When I was working with Dick Portman on Godfather, I had picked up his habit of voice-slating each reel: “Reel Four, Dialogue One,” for instance, would mean “Dialogue premix one for reel four,” and so on. Except he abbreviated it to “R-4, D-1”…One day I was mixing the second dialogue premix for reel two of American Graffiti and voice-slated it “R-2, D-2,” and George, who’s sitting in front working on the script of Star Wars, suddenly stood up: “What did you say?” “Ummm, I don’t know.. R-2, D-2—is that what you mean?” “R2D2!!....What a great name!” he shouted, and went back to writing his script. The rest is history.”
Popular from word go with children and adults alike, the character culled out a fan base for itself within the larger Trekkie universe and has encouraged inventors and robotics enthusiasts.
Baker also played Paploo, the Ewok that steals a bike in Return of the Jedi (1983). R2-D2 remained one the most-adored characters in the Star Wars universe, but some of his thunder was stolen by the droid BB-8 in the seventh movie, The Force Returns, in 2015. R2-D2 will be played by Jimmy Vee in the eighth chapter, which will be out in 2017.
Alongside Star Wars, Baker acted in several other films during the 1980s, including Elephant Man, Time Bandits, Amadeus, The Goonies and Mona Lisa. His wife Eileen Baker, who was also a dwarf, starred with him in Wombling Free (1977). She died in 1993, and they are survived by two children.
Although Baker’s own favourite role was as the dwarf Fidgit in Terry Gilliam’s treasure hunt comedy Time Bandits, he remains best-known for concealing his face and body beneath layers of metal and his bleep-boop-beep lingo.