Heroes and Villains of Hollywood’s Greatest Space Opera
The Star Wars films created by GEORGE LUCAS have grown into one of the longest-running serials in movie history.
The original space adventure Star Wars (1977) was a such a sensation that plans for sequels began immediately. Lucas often said he imagined nine separate episodes to the saga, and with the 1977 film being episode four (subtitled “A New Hope”). Subsequent films have been known by their episode titles: the sequels The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983), and the prequels The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005).
16 years passed between the release of The Return of the Jedi in 1983 in 1999. In 2012 Lucas sold his company, Lucasfilm Ltd., to the Walt Disney Company, which began making more Star Wars films on its own. The first was The Force Awakens (2015), which takes place 30 years after the events of the original 1977 movie.
Here are some of the primary characters and actors in the Star Wars saga.
He started out as the despicable villain, but then DARTH VADER emerged as the central figure in the Star Wars saga. In the earliest films he was the black-robed nemesis of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, but in the prequels was a (supposedly) sympathetic figure under his pre-Vader name, Anakin Skywalker. The young Anakin has been played by boyish JAKE LLOYD (in The Phantom Menace) and dashing teen HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN (in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith).
Vader was played by two different men in the very first film. The Vader helmet was worn by DAVID PROWSE, a former weightlifter with an appropriately menacing frame and height (6’7″). But Prowse’s voice was deemed insufficient for the role, and so his lines were dubbed by basso thespian JAMES EARL JONES. The pair repeated their roles in the next two films, and Prowse became a regular on the sci-fi convention and nostalgia circuits.
Darth Vader is joined in episode five by another colorful villain: the bounty hunter BOBA FETT, who does his hunting at the behest of the larva-like villain Jabba the Hutt. Though Boba Fett’s role is rather small, he has become a favorite character among Star Wars fans online.
Now on to the heroes. NATALIE PORTMAN is Queen Padme Amidala, the enemy of the budding Empire and yet somehow the love interest of Anakin Skywalker. It’s no secret that in later films Padme and Anakin become the parents of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia — as revealed in Darth Vader’s famous “I am your father!” line from The Empire Strikes Back. Portman managed the neat trick of quietly attending Harvard University while starring in episodes one and two.
Anakin Skywalker grows up to be Darth Vader, and his children grow up to be his greatest foes. Luke Skywalker is the hero of episodes 4-6, a naive flyboy who grabs his chance to save the beautiful Princess Leia from the clutches of Darth Vader. (Luke and Leia don’t discover that they’re related until the end of Return of the Jedi.) Luke was played by a relative unknown, MARK HAMILL, and the role became the defining moment of his career. Leia was played by CARRIE FISHER, who has since become known as a tart-tongued writer and script doctor for Hollywood films.
HARRISON FORD played smuggler Han Solo, Luke and Leia’s scoundrelly ally, in Star Wars episodes 4-6. Ford had worked with Lucas before, playing scoundrelly hotrodder Bob Falfa in American Graffiti (1972). Star Wars put Ford on a rocketship of his own: it helped him score the plum role of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a 1981 film by Lucas and his chum Steven Spielberg. Raiders spawned two blockbuster sequels of its own; between that series and Star Wars, by the end of the 1980s Ford was at the center of six of the top-grossing movies of all time.(Trivia note: George Lucas’s mentor, director Francis Ford Coppola, used Ford as a bit player in his 1974 film The Conversation and in 1979’s Apocalypse Now.)
Luke Skywalker’s mentor was the aged Jedi warrior Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Gandalf-like figure played by venerable English actor SIR ALEC GUINNESS. Guinness was one of the few “names” in the original cast, having starred in the Oscar-winning Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and other distinguished films. In the prequels a younger, more hot-blooded Obi-Wan is played by the Scots actor EWAN McGREGOR. (Ewan McGregor, center, as Obi-Wan Kenobe. Hayden Christiansen is at left, and Samuel L. Jackson at right. Photo: Lucasfilm, Ltd.)
Young Obi-Wan Kenobe has a mentor of his own in episode one: Qui-Gon Jinn, a Jedi knight played by Irish thespian LIAM NEESON. Like the Irish, the Jedi are an ancient sect of peaceful-minded warriors who channel the natural powers of The Force. A non-Irish prequel Jedi was council leader Mace Windu, played by SAMUEL L. JACKSON.
The Jedi were assisted in The Phantom Menace by Jar-Jar Binks, a computer-generated character voiced by actor AHMED BEST. Jar-Jar turned out to be controversial among fans: a few considered him a thinly-veiled African stereotype, and many more simply found him too dopey to be sharing the screen with the Jedi. Nonetheless, Jar-Jar made appearances in Star Wars episodes two and three as well.
(Photo of Jar-Jar Binks: Lucasfilm, Ltd.)
The top-dog Jedi of all is YODA. Shrunken and pointy-eared yet strangely distinguished, Yoda is the master Jedi who trained Obi-Wan Kenobi. In The Empire Strikes Back Yoda also trains Luke after the young pilot finds him on the planet Dagobah. Yoda is performed and voiced by puppeteer FRANK OZ, better known as one of the leading players in the late Jim Henson‘s troupe, the Muppets. In Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Yoda was created by computer animation rather than puppetry, though Oz continued to supply the voice.
When director J.J. ABRAMS took the helm of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he cast newcomer DAISY RIDLEY as the main heroine, REY. Little was revealed about her before the movie debuted; trailers showed her as a scavenger of sorts, but also firing a blaster and generally doing heroic deeds.
Alongside Rey in the The Force Awakens was a new character named FINN, played by British actor JOHN BOYEGA. As with Rey, little was revealed about his character before the film’s debut, but he was shown in a stormtrooper’s white outfit and presumed to be a former stormtrooper who had deserted his post.
Another diminutive figure, KENNY BAKER, remains a regular at Star Wars fan events. Kenny Baker is David Prowse’s opposite: at 3’8″ he was just small enough to fit inside and operate the cute droid R2-D2, who becomes Luke Skywalker’s assistant, protector, and right-hand bot. In later sequels R2-D2’s onscreen movements were often handled by electronic control, but Baker was still used in some scenes.
R2-D2 and C-3PO had the cute droid landscape to themselves in the first six films of the Star Wars series. But in The Force Awakens, a new cute droid arrived: BB-8. This new droid got around by rolling, with his dome-like head balanced somehow on top of the rolling sphere of his body. As R2-D2 was associated with Luke Skywalker, so BB-8 is associated with Rey.
Also linking all six Star Wars episodes are rousing scores by the same composer: JOHN WILLIAMS. Williams is a favorite of both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and so, like Harrison Ford, he’s a been a player in many of Hollywood’s biggest money-makers. And as with Natalie Portman, Williams has a Boston connection: He was chief conductor of the Boston Pops from 1980-1993, and occasionally conducted the orchestra in playing music from the Star Wars films.
Ready for still more blockbuster film notes? See our feature on The Lord of the Rings.