At just three feet eight inches tall, he may not be the tallest person in the world. But what he lacks in height, he more than makes up in personality and charm. Born in 1934 in Birmingham, England, Kenny Baker celebrated his 80th birthday at the end of August and with it, 64 years in show business.
At 16 he was performing with Burton Lester’s Midgets and later joined Billy Smart’s Circus as a clown and shadow Ringmaster. He then spent almost a decade appearing on and off the ice performing in dazzling ice shows and pantomimes. It was after this that he then formed The Minitones, a musical comedy act with friend Jack Purvis, which toured the country performing cabaret twice nightly.
It was only then that he landed the role of R2-D2 (Artoo) in Star Wars, some 27 years after his career began, insisting that he’d only take on the role if something was found for Jack, too. Both went on to appear in all three of the original trilogy films and Kenny reprised his role for the prequels, as well as for the Disney ride Star Tours, and he’s also returning to Star Wars for Episode VII.
My first major article for Star Wars Insider in 2009 was an interview with Kenny. When I caught up with him, he’d been very ill for over a year but I was pleased to see that he’d recovered from pneumonia and near death. Here’s an excerpt from that 2009 interview.
Did you always want to be an entertainer?
No, not really, I wanted to be a draughtsman or an artist.
What did you make of the original script for Star Wars?
I wasn’t given a script and George just explained what he wanted me to do as we went. He would direct me with a megaphone, there were no electronics inside Artoo, that’s why C-3PO was a little bit annoyed with me because I couldn’t respond — I just couldn’t hear it. Even if I had heard him, he wouldn’t have been able to hear me back.
Did you know how Artoo would sound?
No, I didn’t know how he was going to sound at all. The first time I heard Artoo “speak” was at the premiere of the film, and I thought it was fantastic. I wasn’t the only person who was dubbed, Dave [Prowse]’s voice was dubbed, too, and he didn’t know it until he saw the film.
What was it like working with the other members of the cast?
Well there were four of us who were really close. Jeremy [Bulloch], Peter Mayhew, Dave Prowse, and myself. I went out with Alec Guinness and his wife a few times; she was a great artist and would spend a lot of the time drawing landscapes of the surrounding areas in Tunisia where we were filming.
During Episode I, Liam and I got drunk on a bottle of red wine one night during filming. There was a wrap party in the desert, it was a very good night, and then the stars were out and Liam and I just sat there, drinking.
Is it true you took Mark Hamill out on the club circuit during the making of the original films?
Yep, that’s very true. We took Mark out to Stevenage and to Luton and we sort of showed him the ropes. He was very young and he’d never been to working men’s clubs before, and it was a whole new experience for him, and he got to see and learn a lot about life in the UK.
You appeared in a number of fantasy and sci-fi movies — would you say they all came about because of your Star Wars fame?
I was famous in the UK long before Star Wars but I was only known in the US for Star Wars and later Time Bandits, so I guess these roles mainly came about because of Star Wars and also a lot of the parts that I played required a smaller person and I obviously fit the bill. I was one of the only famous small people in the UK and people knew to ask for me by name.
Talking about Time Bandits, was it as much fun to make as it was to watch?
It was such good fun, I was always in trouble. I wasn’t happy about the water scene in the Pinewood tank because I can’t swim and I was floundering about on a box standing in the water. Jack was with me in the water and he promised to sort me out if I fell in. They also had to give me quite a few brandies to get me up into the crow’s nest for some of the shots. Apart from Star Wars this is probably my favorite film that I’ve been in.
How did Paploo compare to playing Artoo?
Forget the Ewoks! They were just a bundle of rubber and fur in all that hot Californian heat. The character was a cute, beautiful thing, but to work with was a nightmare and you’d just melt in the costume. I was supposed to have played the role of Wicket but I was taken very ill with a stomach upset, at first everybody thought it was appendicitis, and Carrie [Fisher] was only on set for a limited time which is why they gave the role to Warwick Davis. I wasn’t too upset because I much preferred playing the role of Artoo.
Do you have a favorite Artoo moment?
Goodness me! I thought the funniest bit was one of the first shots when we are in the desert and Anthony kicks me and walks away. And I said to George, “Why didn’t you have me going “ouch” but he didn’t like the idea. And then, in the Podracing scene in Episode I, I was watching the race like a tennis match with my head going backwards and forwards, and because I was doing it so quickly, Artoo’s head rose. If you slow the film down you can actually see my face in between the dome of the head and the body of Artoo.
Do you have a favorite Artoo toy or piece of memorabilia?
I’ve got an Artoo telephone in my lounge, that’s probably the only thing that I’ve actually bought. I’ve also got an original Artoo cookie jar and loads of other small things. One of my favorite things is a Darth Vader that breathes when you push a button on his hand and then his arm rises up and he says, “Very interesting, but you’re not a Jedi yet.”
Finally, do you have a message for your fans?
It would have to be “May the Force be with you”… whatever that means?
We wish Kenny a belated Happy 80th Birthday and hope he remains healthy and well, and we look forward to “seeing” him in Episode VII next December.