The Soul of the Droid, 1934 – 2016
The fact that there was a man inside of R2-D2 should surprise no one. Although the astromech droid is squat, with a trash can body type, and speaks only in beeps and whirs, the iconic character has undeniable personality. George Lucas knew from the very start that if audiences were to relate to this less human half of what’s been called science fiction’s greatest comedy duo, it couldn’t just be a glorified remote-controlled prop. R2-D2 needed Kenny Baker.
Today, news has arrived that following a long battle with illness, Baker has departed this Earth for the stars. He was 81 years old.
Standing only a few feet high, Baker was an unassuming and approachable man in real life. Back in 2003, I had the chance to meet him at a Chicago comic book convention. Somewhere, there’s a photograph of he and I together. As I entered the sprawling convention center that hot August morning, I glanced down from the skywalk window to see a grey haired little man standing at the street corner below, waiting for the light to change. He had in tow a standard sized rolling luggage bag that was as tall as he was. “I’ll bet that’s Kenny Baker!”, I announced to my party of fellow con-goers, none of whom knew who I was talking about. Later, they’d see him at his table and around the convention floor, greeting fans, shaking hands, and signing autographs (for a handsome fee). Then it clicked. (or beeped, or whirred.)
While meeting Baker was a personal highlight of this Star Wars fan (I got to meet several other Star Wars actors that day as well, but Baker was a stand-out), seeing him continue to perform in all of the Star Wars movies, barring The Force Awakens, for which he was “R2-D2 Consultant” is the real treasure, something we can all share. It’s always fun to look at the R2 scenes and try to determine whether or not Baker is inside. He wasn’t always (any time R2 is rolling on three legs, it’s a safe bet it’s the remote version), but when he was, he brought an undeniable spark that defined the droid.
Baker was born in Birmingham, England in 1934. Although opportunities in the entertainment business have always been slim at best for people of Baker’s physical stature, he worked where he could, as a circus performer and in various other live comedy acts.
Landing the R2 gig opened doors, leading to (ahem) small parts in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, Milos Forman’s Amadeus, Mike Hodges Flash Gordon, Ron Howard’s Willow, and Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, and more. But the blue and white droid with an attitude is the part he would return to again and again.
May of 2016, just a few short months ago, saw the passing of Tony Dyson, the man who built the original R2-D2 robot, based upon designs by the late famed illustrator, Ralph McQuarrie. Along with Baker, all three men are gone now. But R2, of course, adventures on into a new run of hotly-anticipated Star Wars films, and no doubt beyond.
George Lucas himself has proclaimed R2-D2 to be among his favorite Star Wars characters. Thanks to the work of Baker (It was, no doubt, hot and difficult work being inside the dome-headed rig. One can only imagine confinement in that “costume” amid the sand and sun of the Tunisian desert.), and the efforts of the others who also made R2 happen, it’s a common fact that Lucas was never alone in this sentiment. That R2-D2 will live on into screen immortality is a more than fitting legacy to the man inside, the very soul of the droid.