Obituary: Kenny Baker, British actor best known as R2-D2

Kenny Baker, British actor best known as R2-D2 in Star Wars. Picture: PA
Kenny Baker, British actor best known as R2-D2 in Star Wars. Picture: PA
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Born: Birmingham, England, 24 August 1934. Died: Preston, England, 13 August 2016, aged 81

Kenny Baker was an English actor whose name became iconic to a generation of fans through his role in Star Wars, although it wasn’t until later years and his active engagement with the franchise’s worldwide legion of multi-generational followers that he became known as a personality in his own right. Born with dwarfism, Baker played the role of the impudent droid R2-D2 in the first three Star Wars films and its later prequel series, in the sense that he was one of the only performers small enough to fit inside the awkwardly shaped robot costume.

Despite the anonymous nature of the onscreen role, however, Baker was already an onstage performer when cast in the part by George Lucas, and he went on to appear in many significant films both in full-body costume and in parts where he was recognisably himself. Most famous of these was Terry Gilliam’s 1981 fantasy film Time Bandits, where he appeared as Fidget, one of a group of six adventuring little people who take a young boy on a quest through the myths of history. It revealed him as an actor of warm personality and real comic timing.

Most of his other roles were not what might be called starring parts, yet he amassed an impressive list of credits to his name, particularly around the first flush of Star Wars’ success in the late 1970s and 1980s. He appeared in Mike Hodges’ kitsch Flash Gordon reboot (1980), David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), Milos Forman’s Mozart biography Amadeus (1984), Neil Jordan’s crime thriller Mona Lisa (1986) and Jim Henson’s fondly-remembered, David Bowie-starring fantasy Labyrinth (1986).

R2-D2 wasn’t his only Star Wars role. He appeared in another droid costume in The Empire Strikes Back and was scheduled to play Wicket, the most-seen of Return of the Jedi’s teddy bear-like warriors the Ewoks, but had to withdraw due to ill health. The part was taken by Warwick Davies, another performer with dwarfism who has since gone on to create a career as an actor in his own right , away from the feature-obscuring costumes of sci-fi. Together, and to a lesser extent alongside fellow Star Wars actors like Jack Purvis, Baker and Davies helped shift the role of little people onscreen away from being physical oddities and towards being viewed as people and characters in their own right.

Kenneth George Baker was born in 1934 in Birmingham, England. His parents separated when he was eight years old, and his mother moved to the United States while his father remarried.

In his youth it was uncertain if Baker would survive into adulthood, given the difficult medical prognosis at the time for many born with dwarfism. Crediting the Shaftesbury Society in London, a Christian group, for helping him with what he termed his “height difficulties”, he overcame his unsureness of what to do after school when he saw the Burton Lester’s Midgets show come through Hastings. A troupe of 20 performers, all similarly little, it was a show which would certainly be termed exploitative now; yet in 1950, to the 16-year-old Baker, mugging and clowning onstage with a group of people in the same position was a means of escape.

Between his first appearance onstage and the arrival of Star Wars, Baker spent two and a half decades in showbusiness. He was a DJ, a clown and occasional ringmaster with Billy Smart’s Circus, a pantomime and ice show performer, and a member of his own comedy act, the Mini Tones. During this time he met the Queen, and on a personal level formed a double act and enduring friendship with Jack Purvis; the pair later joked about the fact that Purvis (as a scavenging Jawa) got to shoot Baker (as R2-D2) in Star Wars. The pair also appeared together in Time Bandits.

The role of R2-D2 was almost one which Baker didn’t take, so unimpressed was he by the ignominy of “sitting in a bucket”. Yet Lucas and the producers persuaded him by pointing out that it was a job which only he was capable of doing, due to both his size and his experience with performance. He embraced a second career from the mid-90s onwards, when he was already into his 60s, of appearing at conventions and meeting fans around the world, and published an autobiography in 2009.

Baker’s first Star Wars appearance was in the original film, Star Wars (1977), and his last was in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). Too elderly and ill to take on the role of R2-D2 in Episode VII: the Force Awakens (2015), he was instead credited as a “consultant”; the British actor Jimmy Vee will assume the role in 2017’s Episode VIII.

Even without Star Wars, Baker enjoyed a creditable showbusiness career. A statement on his website said he has worked with “Dickie Henderson, Leslie Crowther, Ken Dodd (as a Diddyman), Little and Large, Russ Abbot, Ben Elton, Dick Emery, Dave Allen… and I have even met Laurel and Hardy.” In later years he took parts in the BBC medical drama Casualty, Charlie Higson’s sitcom Swiss Toni and the music docudrama 24 Hour Party People (2002).

After a period of illness, Kenny Baker died at home in Preston, Lancashire. He was a widower, having been married to the late actor Eileen Baker, who he met on the set of Wombling Free in 1977; she also had dwarfism, but neither of their children do.