The Road to Rotich: Finding Nien Nunb, Part 1

Looking to make things right, one man decided to try to track down the original Sullustan -- Kipsang Rotich -- for The Force Awakens.

Christian Simpson has written before of curious on-set coincidences that seemed to be the Force at play. But what transpired on The Force Awakens was to be perhaps his most forceful fan adventure of all…

EXT. SPACE

A rollup slowly crawls into infinity:

Episode VII
THE FORCE NUNB AWAKENS
Luke Skywalker Nien Nunb has vanished. In his absence, the sinister friendly FIRST ORDER VOICE ACTOR has risen from the ashes of the Empire ADR session and will not rest until Skywalker Nunb, the last Jedi Sullustan, has been destroyed found.

To quote Ben (Kenobi, not Solo), my bumping into “old friend” Matthew Wood, Skywalker Sound’s supervising sound editor, at dinner at Star Wars Celebration seemed at first to be nothing more than a nice coincidence. But when he mentioned to me and fellow Star Wars actress Orly Schuchmacher that he possibly needed some union voice actors later that summer for a “mystery project,” it was to be the start of the next magical chapter in a Star Wars journey for me that had begun on the set of The Phantom Menace in a galaxy called 1997 — playing starfighter pilot Gavyn Sykes.

Starfighter pilots are relevant because, wonderfully, that mystery project was The Force Awakens, and when its ADR session did take place at Fox Studios in L.A. (and after I literally forgot to speak into the mic because Han Solo had just appeared on the screen in front of me for the first time in 32 years), Matthew mentioned that he was searching for another pilot — Nien Nunb himself.

tfa-adr-csimpson

The voices of Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

The team’s fitting wish was that, within the unique sound imprint of The Force Awakens, should be something familiar that — as with all the movies — felt like part of the same galaxy. That’s why I found myself in such esteemed company, but one person was missing from the galactic group – a Mr. Kipsang Rotich. He had voiced Nunb for Ben Burtt on Return of the Jedi 32 years earlier while interning at Skywalker Sound.

And nobody knew where to find him.

It was very important to J.J. Abrams, who is as big a fan as any of us, that Rotich reprise his role. I later had the chance to ask J.J. what the impetus was for that wish, and his straightforward answer could just as easily speak to the overall authenticity of The Force Awakens as to the search for Nunb: “We wanted the real deal,” Abrams told me.

Nien Nunb on the Falcon in Return of the Jedi

Nien Nunb on the Falcon in Return of the Jedi.

Matthew Wood, who was spearheading the search along with fellow Oscar-nominated sound editor David Acord, elaborates:

“This Star Wars movie was about connecting to the characters we know and love, following their paths into the current storyline, and illuminating their arc into the future. Kipsang Rotich’s performance in Return of the Jedi was always a bright spot in the Death Star attack … I wanted to make sure we paid respect to what had come before with [the late] Erik Bauersfeld as Ackbar and Rotich as Nien. As the postproduction schedule was tight and fully underway when I had these ideas, I was so happy to have a chance conversation with Lt. Gayvn Sykes — I mean Christian Simpson at our Loop Group recording session.”

After returning giddily home from that ADR session, something else Matthew had wanted to put right kept resonating with me, too. When I was just a 10-year-old superfan playing with my long-since missing Nien Nunb action figure (albeit not realizing along with my friend James that the laundry detergent powder we used as “Hoth snow” was highly flammable — boom), at that same time, young Kipsang Rotich had unfortunately not been credited for his role as Nunb. Who could have known his character and distinctive laugh would become such a fan favorite? While he and the late Richard Bonehill helped bring Nunb to life, only accomplished puppeteer Mike Quinn received an on-screen credit at that time.

And so for the fans, for the team, and for Kipsang Rotich, we determined to set that right and do everything possible to get this gentleman into the new movie, and to get him the credit he deserved — wherever the heck on Earth Endor he was.

Matthew asked Ben Burtt for as much information as he had so I could begin the ultimate treasure hunt whilst Matthew and co. finished the final mix. Call me Sullustan Wrangler! Ben got me started with some tantalizing tidbits. “Kipsang was a foreign student at the time,” he told me. “He was a friend of Pat Welsh — the voice of E.T. [OK, wow.] I know he was back in Kenya at one point … because he became, briefly, a local celebrity [there]. I might have … an address from back then. I will go to my storeroom and look tonight…”

And look he did, but he could only find Rotich’s original vocal tape [double wow] and it had the date on it of 30 December 1981, along with Rotich’s age at that time, thus telling me his age today. This was to prove crucial in the hunt.

 The original tape of Kipsang Rotich’s recordings for Return of the Jedi.

The original tape of Kipsang Rotich’s recordings for Return of the Jedi.

Pat Welsh had sadly become one with the Force, passing away in 1995 at 79 years young, but “Force-tuitously” just a few months ago her memoirs had been published by her friend, L.D. Goldberg. And so I reached out to him. Although he had all her files and many fascinating tales to tell, “Kipsang Rotich” didn’t ring any bells. But he did mention that Welsh went on a Hemingway safari in Kenya in the ‘70s. I figured this was where she’d been acquainted with Rotich’s family, and so I reached out and hoped to hear back from an 87-year-old Patrick Hemingway. Yes, the son of Ernest Hemingway.

The other step for Detective Sykes (his night job when not on duty for the Naboo Royal Security Forces) was to enquire with the Alumni department at Rotich’s old US college. Ben Burtt had given me its name. Guess what! They had an e-mail address on file and said they would reach out to Kipsang! Yipee! This was it!

But it bounced straight back. Poodoo! The Force was not with us.

The only photo that could be found of Kipsang Rotich (circa 1983).

The only photo that could be found of Kipsang Rotich (circa 1983).

Worse, I was told by a P.I. that without a location or a current photo, the chances of finding Rotich were “nil.” Oh yeah? He’d obviously never seen Star Wars. George Lucas had trained me otherwise. “Try not. Do.” I determined that I was going to find him, the only question was whether it would be in time. It was November and Matthew had just informed me that there were seven days left for us to get Rotich in the movie. No pressure then.

I went back to L.D. Goldberg and asked if he could double his efforts. He searched deeper in the voice of E.T.’s papers, and incredibly found a Kenyan Embassy letter relating to Kipsang Rotich, and a postcard from Kipsang himself, inviting Pat Welsh to his wedding!

Kenyan Embassy Letters

This gave me his wedding date, country of marriage (not Kenya), and his wife’s name. If I ever found Rotich and he also confirmed shrimp farming through the Kenyan embassy and the late Ambassador Wafula Wabuge, there’d be no doubt it was the right guy!

I inquired at the Kenyan and Dutch Embassies, and while I won’t go into specifics for privacy reasons, the papers crucially also gave me a more specific locale to search in. Wizard!

Ideally, Lucasfilm and I didn’t want people to know it was him in the movie until after it came out. But needing to pick up the pace, and knowing Rotich had spoken in the Kikuyu (Haya) and Kalenjin dialects for Jedi, it seemed it was necessary to make a VERY discreet public request on ONE small local acting Facebook page, NOT mentioning Star Wars at all, and ONLY requesting contact info “for a voice actor named Kipsang Rotich” perhaps still living in that locale. Seems reasonable right? What could go wrong?

This.

Nien Nunb Headline

“What the…!” A Kenyan blogging site had somehow connected dots I hadn’t even dotted. Or had someone else started investigating? Either way, aside from confusing an old article they’d found as being a quote from me that was not, as I sat in front of my Mac in California, the Kenyan news read:

Segment of Nien Nunb Article

Gah! This was then picked up by a couple of other news blogs, too.

Then an e-mail came in:

Email from NBC News

I started to question whether I was a “top producer” and I had flown to Kenya without realizing it. Hyperspace perhaps.

I handled things appropriately, and out of love for fellow fans and our not wanting to spoil any possible surprises, steered the publications away from the story. I thank them for their understanding. The news rapidly went away to line the next day’s fish ‘n’ chips.

A New Hope - Lando and Nien Nunb in the Millennium Falcon

Luckily too, I had taken the forum organizer’s advice. He had warned me that it was likely I’d get many responses from people claiming to be the real guy, just to book whatever “small” voiceover job it was. And so I’d set up a temporary e-mail and politely requested genuine responses should include Rotich’s USA college and his current age in the subject line of the e-mail (thanks to Ben Burtt’s detailed records.) Anything else was auto-filtered out. (Like the e-mail I later found from this guy — come on, he seriously deserves his own show!)

Despite all that, with just hours until the deadline, all leads had dried up.

But suddenly one message pinged through the e-mail filter….

…to be continued tomorrow in part two!

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