“Star Wars” is a series of films that have defined entire generations, and pushed the limits of what special effects and storytelling could achieve on the big screen; when George Lucas set out to make the films initially, nobody had any clue the movies would become as big as they did, but the success of the Star Wars name propelled more acting careers than almost any other movie ever made: Lucas intentionally cast people with limited experience, and as a result he created an authentic and fresh experience for cheap, and made ridiculous amount of money in the process.
The first Star Wars movie premiered in 1977, which is bound to make a few of us feel particularly old; it’s odd to think that a decent portion of the original cast, who at one point made us feel like mystified kids in the theatre, has already passed away from old age. But whatever happened to the Star Wars actors who once blew us away in the theatres forty years ago, and what are they up to now? Here are the top 10 actors who made it big, and got their start a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.
#10 – Billy Dee Williams
Billy Dee Williams played the infamous Lando Calrissian, a complex character who served Darth Vader momentarily and then redeemed himself by rescuing the main cast on more than one occasion. Billy has over one hundred acting credits to his name, and was an already established actor at the time of his casting, but when he landed his role in Star Wars he had no idea just how significant of a career boost it would be: after the original trilogy completed he was being booked left and right.
Billy Dee Williams is 78 years old now and still acting his heart out; just this year he starred in two roles, and has even been reprising his old role as Calrissian on the animated Star Wars T.V. show, “Star Wars Rebels,” as well as a comedic star wars animation series (“Star Wars Detours”) that pits classic characters into sitcom-esque scenarios. It’s unknown how much longer Billy Dee Williams intends to make appearances in the Star Wars universe, but I guess it only makes sense to give back to the franchise that transformed your career.
#9 – Anthony Daniels
Not many people know who Anthony Daniels actually is, but most people certainly recognize his outspoken and posh character C3PO. When Anthony first landed his gig in Star Wars he was taking it for a quick buck; prior to 1977 he had only one official acting credit and it wasn’t exactly prestigious. Anthony had hoped that the popularity of Star Wars would open up his acting career to start appearing in more roles, but he didn’t exactly mean for it to get him the roles that it did. For 38 years Anthony has been the definitive voice of C3PO in just about every Star Wars movie, Video Game, and T.V. production: the character has become insanely more popular than he ever has as an actor.
To Anthony’s dismay even when he was offered a role unrelated to the Star Wars world he was still asked to make a cameo appearance as the stern robot. As much as Anthony regrets that he couldn’t fulfill his desire to be a big name actor he still can’t argue with consistent work, and will even be reprising his role (again) in the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII; maybe this installment will be Daniels’s last C3PO appearance, but as the robot once said himself: the approximate chance of that happening is roughly 751 to 1.
#8 – Peter Mayhew
It’s tough out there for an actor is over seven feet tall, so when George Lucas offered Peter Mayhew the opportunity to suit up and play an alien named “Chewbacca” he knew he had to take a shot in the dark. As it turned out Chewbacca became somewhat of an audience favorite, and his simple yet irresistible one liner role became a gateway for him to pursue the acting career he had always wanted (but this time outside of a burning hot fur suit).
Unfortunately for Mayhew it was impossible not to be typecast as some kind of giant or creature, but as long as he got to spend time on the big screen he was happy. Of course Mayhew got to reprise his role via several Star Wars themed cameos, but nothing excited him more than his most recent offer: to return to his roots and suit up for the next Star Wars installment; Mayhew is currently 71 years old so he probably doesn’t have the lungs recreate the classic wookie yell like he used to, but it’s still wonderful to see an actor with a heart of gold landing “big” roles.
#7 – Kenny Baker
If you’ve never seen Kenny Baker on the big screen then you probably just didn’t know it was him: either that or you just didn’t notice him there… after all he’s less than four feet tall! Kenny Baker is responsible for breathing life into R2D2, the compact droid with a personality larger than he was. Baker saw his original robot role as a way to make a fast paycheck, but when the mechanical extra was loved more than some of the main cast, he was soon bombarded with job offers.
Kenny Baker never got his opportunity to be the Peter Dinklage of dwarfism, but he still managed to play just about every type casted miniature role you can think of: goblins, a pickpocket, and even a literal mythological dwarf in the “Flash Gordan” films. After Star Wars Baker was never really hard up for money, but he couldn’t refuse the offer to return as RTD2 for the upcoming Episode VII, and said that the least he could do was offer a “little help” to the franchise that gave him his start.
#6 – Frank Oz
You might not recognize Frank Oz if you’re a younger reader, but remember his character you will…Oz was the Muppet master who controlled and voiced the iconic Yoda in the original trilogy. Frank was a huge name before Star Wars was even a twinkly in Lucas’s eye, since he was responsible for controlling and voicing a large chunk of the characters from the Muppets, including: Miss Piggy, Bert, Cookie Monster, Grover, Animal, Sam the Eagle, Theodor Roosevelt, Fozzie Bear, and a handful of small extras. It’s safe to say that without Frank Oz the Muppets would only be a shell of what they are today.
After his initial run of Yoda, Lucas decided he wasn’t the best bet for the continuation of the character, and Oz returned to his beloved Muppet set pieces, which is where he continued to work until the creation of the new Star Wars trilogy; Lucas apologized to Oz for cutting of his run so soon and said he would love to have to reprise the role for the next three films. Currently Frank is 71 years old, so his puppet controlling hands aren’t what they used to be, but both Lucas and Sesame Street have continued to enlist his talent for various voices: a good decision, it was.
#5 – David Prowse
David Prowse was a fairly recognizable actor when he was first cast into Star Wars, as he had already made particularly noteworthy appearances on shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Boy Meets World,” and “Doctor Who.” It was incredibly confusing to Prowse when he was told that they wanted him to hide his face and not speak his own lines: after all, without his face or his voice how would Lucas capitalize on his star power to draw in audiences? Lucas maintained that his character would be noticeable enough and so David was cast into the role of Darth Vader.
Prowse finally did get his chance to show his face on screen in Star Wars, but the role wasn’t really the career boost he was hoping for: since no one recognized him for his roles in the movie it was continuously difficult for him to get parts. David Prowse is 80 years old now and has been away from Star Wars altogether for 18 years; in his words he is just too old for the role nowadays: he’s old enough to be everybody’s father.
#4 – James Earl Jones
David Prowse didn’t get to voice Darth Vader because Lucas already had a plan: enlist one of the most iconic voices of all time to embody the face of evil. James Earl Jones didn’t believe that Star Wars would be a success so he didn’t make as much bank as some of the other actors, and he didn’t want his acting future to be defined by some kind of Science-Fiction film: despite this he has continued to reprise his voice role in future installments, although I’m sure his follow-up paychecks were much more substantial.
James Earl Jones has one of the most impressive film histories of all the Star Wars cast members, with 189 current credits to his name (and accounting): not bad for an 84 year old guy. Jones has been involved with everything from “The Lion King” to “Conan the Barbarian” and is one of the golden voices which still holds up after all these years. You don’t hear James Earl Jones as much as you used to, but that’s all right, we still have Morgan Freeman to sooth all our souls.
#3 – Carrie Fisher
Carrie Fisher was the crush of just about every teenage boy in the 70s and 80s, and even after forty years I still can’t help but appreciate a girl in a slave-Leia outfit; I mean say what you will about Jabba the Hut but the guy really knew how to accessorize. When Lucas was originally casting for the the film’s primary trio he was intentionally looking for people with limited screen time, and Carrie fit the bill perfectly: at the time she had only made two very small appearances prior.
After Star Wars she was one of the hottest leading ladies on the market and she quickly racked up several acting credits in rather large films. Most recently Carrie has starred in the TV series “Mia” as the titular character, and will be reprising her famous space role in the upcoming Episode VII, although at 58 years old I’m hoping they’ll be a little bit more conservative with the outfits: the blasters just aren’t what they used to be.
#2 – Harrison Ford
Harrison Ford is a real man’s man: he’s been Indiana Jones, Rick Deckard, and of course the infamous smuggler, Han Solo. Prior to Star Wars Ford had actually quit acting all together, and decided to focus on more consistent work as a carpenter, until a good friend of his thought he would be perfect for Han Solo and got him commissioned to work on the film’s set. When Lucas met Ford he immediately had him try out for the part of Han, and the rest was movie history.
Star Wars revitalized Ford’s interest in cinema, and after his stand out performance as renegade Han Solo he was swarmed with potential roles; Ford has been acting ever since, and even though he is currently 73 years old, he is still considered to be an older male sex icon. Like many others of the original Star Wars cast, Ford will be reprising one of the most important roles of his life in Episode VII, but he made sure to finish all of his scenes before the rest of the cast showed up on set: Han always shoots first!
#1 – Mark Hamill
Mark Hamill is a living legend; it is every day you get to portray two legendary characters and give performances that people will remember well after you pass away, but that’s precisely what Mark Hamill did. Hamill had mainly appeared on T.V. shows prior to Star Wars, but his career defining performance as Luke Skywalker ensured he would have his pick of the roles in everything thereafter. Hamill has built up 275 acting credits in his career thus far, and at only 64 years old he still has a long way to go before retirement.
After Mark finished his work with Star Wars he went on to give a performance as The Joker in the Batman series, which would become the most well received performance until Heath Ledger gave him a run for his money in “The Dark Knight.” Hamill is loved by fans of both Star Wars and Batman since he has continued to appear at conventions and panels all over the world, and has continued to meet casually with fans. Hamill will reprise his role as Luke in Episode VII, and honestly I don’t think we’re even close to ready enough to see his brilliance again on the big screen: may the Force be with you.