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|Also Known As:||Died:||August 13, 2016|
|Born:||August 24, 1934||Cause of Death:||Undisclosed natural causes|
|Birth Place:||Birmingham, England, GB||Profession:||actor|
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His small stature of 3'8" - while possibly a hindrance for some - proved to be an asset for actor-comedian Kenny Baker, as it allowed him to portray one of pop culture's most iconic characters, the barrel-shaped droid R2-D2 in "Star Wars" (1977). Using his dwarfism to his advantage from an early age, Baker went directly from school to the world of entertainment, working in the theater, the circus, and even in a long-running ice show. Teaming with Jack Purvis, another similarly vertically-challenged performer, he formed the successful musical-comedy act The Mini-Tones prior to being cast in the blockbuster "Star Wars." Baker returned for the sequel "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), in addition to appearances in "The Elephant Man" (1980), "Time Bandits" (1981) and "Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi" (1983). There were other small roles in films like "Amadeus" (1984) and "Labyrinth" (1986) prior to Baker's return to the stage and comedy circuit before he was called back into service by "Star Wars" director George Lucas in 1999. With the completion of the third prequel film, "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" (2005), Baker and co-star Anthony Daniels (C-3PO)...
His small stature of 3'8" - while possibly a hindrance for some - proved to be an asset for actor-comedian Kenny Baker, as it allowed him to portray one of pop culture's most iconic characters, the barrel-shaped droid R2-D2 in "Star Wars" (1977). Using his dwarfism to his advantage from an early age, Baker went directly from school to the world of entertainment, working in the theater, the circus, and even in a long-running ice show. Teaming with Jack Purvis, another similarly vertically-challenged performer, he formed the successful musical-comedy act The Mini-Tones prior to being cast in the blockbuster "Star Wars." Baker returned for the sequel "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), in addition to appearances in "The Elephant Man" (1980), "Time Bandits" (1981) and "Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi" (1983). There were other small roles in films like "Amadeus" (1984) and "Labyrinth" (1986) prior to Baker's return to the stage and comedy circuit before he was called back into service by "Star Wars" director George Lucas in 1999. With the completion of the third prequel film, "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" (2005), Baker and co-star Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) became the only two actors to perform in all six of the original "Star Wars" films. Although hidden within a metallic shell, Baker's performance imbued the adorably cantankerous R2-D2 with a humanity appreciated by generations of fans the world over. Kenny Baker died on August 13, 2016, following an exended illness. He was 81.
Born Kenneth George Baker on Aug. 24, 1934 in the English Midlands town of Solihull, U.K., he was the son of Ethel and Harold Baker, both of whom were of normal height. Baker's earliest years were fraught with instability after his mother left the household while he was still quite young and his father, an engraver, died a few years later when he was eight years old. He later attended the Shaftesbury Society in London - a Christian group that cared for young people with disabilities - prior to being accepted at a boarding school in Sevenoaks, Kent. At 16, he left school when he was invited to join the theatrical troupe Burton Lester's Midgets, with which he toured England as a performer for three years. He went on to become a disc jockey with the Mecca Organization, followed by a stint in Billy Smart's Circus as a clown and shadow ringmaster. Baker later spent nine years performing pantomime and working in ice shows - the latter of which provided him the opportunity to meet the Queen - before he formed the musical comedy act The Mini-Tones with fellow "little person" Jack Purvis. The Mini-Tones proved to be a 30-year professional endeavor for Baker, one that took him across Europe, America and the Middle East.
It was during his tenure in the Mini-Tones that Baker made his feature film debut with an uncredited appearance in the British shocker "Circus of Horrors" (1960), followed by his first television guest spot on the globe-trotting drama series "Man of the World" (ITC, 1962-63). In the mid-1970s, after years of honing his act with Purvis, Baker and his partner were called in for an audition for a small science-fiction movie about to shoot in the U.K. Baker initially turned down the film's young writer-director George Lucas when he offered him the role of a small droid. At the time, he and Purvis were poised to become regularly featured performers on the popular Hughie Green talent variety show "Opportunity Knocks" (Thames, 1968-1978) and he envisioned a lucrative future as a TV and cabaret performer. Lucas, however, was insistent - after all, Baker was the only interviewee who appeared small enough to fit inside the trash bin-sized costume. Told he could name his own price, Baker asked for 800 British pounds per week - what he would have made on the cabaret circuit - and the director readily agreed. Years later, fully recognizing the project's immense popularity and longevity, Baker wished he had asked for more.
Months later, Baker was lowered into his costume, inside of which he sat in a child's car seat, and officially became the "astromech droid" R2-D2 (alternatively, "Artoo-Detoo") for Lucas' epic space saga "Star Wars" (1977). Sharing duties with several remote-controlled versions of the character, Baker's performance was the one most often used during filming. The actor's expectations for the movie - as well as most of the other members of the cast - were decidedly pessimistic. When, to everyone's surprise, it became not only a hugely successful film, but soon blossomed into a worldwide cultural phenomenon, Baker realized he had lucked into something special. Although the film's leads Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford enjoyed the spotlight and consequent rises to stardom, Baker was thrilled when, in 1978, he was invited to place R2-D2's footprints in concrete at the famed Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, alongside Daniels as C-3PO and David Prowse's Darth Vader. Two years later, the diminutive actor happily reprised his role as Artoo for "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), a sequel noticeably darker than its predecessor and later regarded by Baker as his favorite in the series.
In addition to frequent guest appearances at various live events and on TV, Baker's acting career picked up considerably during this period. He made a minor appearance in the campy update to the sci-fi classic "Flash Gordon" (1980), as well as in the Academy Award-winning David Lynch docudrama "The Elephant Man" (1980). His personal favorite, however, was the role of Fidget, a member of a cadre of pint-sized rapscallions avoiding their dark lord (David Warner) as they bounce through the ages in director Terry Gilliam's comedy-adventure "Time Bandits" (1981). Adding to Baker's enjoyment during production was the fact that his friend Purvis was also cast in the film as one of Fidget's compatriots, Wally. Fans were delighted by the return of Artoo and his fussy companion Threepio (Anthony Daniels) in the eagerly-awaited second sequel "Star Wars: Episode VI - "Return of the Jedi" (1983). Initially selected to play a dual role as the helpful Ewok, Wicket, the character ultimately went to Warwick Davis after Baker fell ill. He did, however, play the smaller part of Paploo, the feisty Ewok that steals an unsuspecting scout trooper's speeder bike. According to Baker, working in the foam, fur-covered Ewok costumes was an extremely hot and unpleasant experience, one he swore he would never endure again.
Even though it looked as if his adventures in "Star Wars" were at least temporarily on hiatus, other prominent film titles soon dotted Baker's growing résumé. Mid-decade appearances included turns in Milos Forman's Academy Award-winning adaptation of playwright Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus" (1984), the Neil Jordan U.K. crime-drama "Mona Lisa" (1986), and Jim Henson's enchanting fantasy "Labyrinth" (1986). After playing an elf in an interpretation of the fable "Sleeping Beauty" (1987), an uncredited turn in Ron Howard's fantasy-adventure "Willow" (1988), and an appearance in the British miniseries "Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader" (BBC, 1989), Baker's film work gradually took a backseat to once again performing on stage with Purvis in the Mini-Tones. In 1993, Baker suffered the loss of his beloved wife of 23 years, Eileen, a dwarf herself, who had appeared with her husband as an Ewok in "Return of the Jedi." Four years later, his dear friend and collaborator Purvis passed away, prompting Baker to tour the U.K. as a one-man stand-up comedy act.
When at last Lucas decided to make the first three "prequel" episodes of the "Star Wars" saga, Baker, although considerably older, was more than happy to revive his beloved character. After more than 15 years since the last installment, fan anticipation for the next entry had reached an unprecedented level, and fans were thrilled by the return of Artoo in "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" (1999), "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones" (2002) and "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" (2005). Although "Phantom Menace" met with mixed-to-negative reviews, all three entries nonetheless proved to be the box office juggernauts everyone had expected. With the release of "Sith," Baker shared with co-star Daniels the distinction of being the only two actors to appear in all six feature films. Much to the disappointment of fans, however, it was later revealed by Baker in several interviews that he and Daniels cared little for one another. For his part, Baker cited Daniels' rudeness as the primary reason for their strained relationship. In 2007 the actor made his second guest appearance in an episode of the long-running British medical drama "Casualty" (BBC, 1986- ), prior to suffering an undisclosed illness the following year. Following a period of recuperation at his home in Preston, Lancashire, U.K., Baker and author Ken Mills released his biography From Tiny Acorns: The Kenny Baker Story in 2009. Although Baker served as a consultant for R2-D2's performance in 2015's "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (2015), the actor was in poor health and did not suit up as the faithful droid a final time. Kenny Baker died at his home in Preston on August 13, 2016 at the age of 81.
By Bryce Coleman
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CAST: (feature film)
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