[NEW YORK] Kenny Baker, the British actor who rose to fame by playing the robot R2-D2 in six "Star Wars" films, died Saturday. He was 81.
His death was confirmed by a spokeswoman for Lucasfilm, the company that created and produces the enormously popular "Star Wars" franchise.
Baker was a little person whose adult height was widely reported to be 3 feet 8 inches. He referred to his short stature as "my height difficulties" in an autobiographical sketch on his official website, but it would have been impossible for a taller man to play the role that made him famous.
"They said, 'You've got to do it; we can't find anybody else. You're small enough to get into it and you're strong enough to be able to move it,'" he said of R2-D2's cylindrical metal costume in a video interview in Stockholm that he shared on his website. "I was a godsend to them, really." Baker was born on Aug. 24, 1934, in Birmingham, England. He began his entertainment career in 1950 as part of a traveling troupe in Britain called Burton Lester's Midgets.
He soon left that act and toured the country for many years, performing in theaters, nightclubs and holiday resorts in a variety of roles: a circus clown, a performer in an ice-skating show and, later, as part of a musical comedy and variety act alongside performer Jack Purvis. (Purvis also acted in "Star Wars," playing the diminutive, cloaked Jawa who shoots R2-D2, Baker said.) The traveling act brought Baker financial security and a measure of fame in Britain, but it was an entertainment ecosystem that was wiped out by the invention of television. Then came R2-D2. That role began with the 1977 release of "Star Wars," but it was a part he almost did not take.
"This film came along, and I turned it down," Baker said during the interview in Stockholm. "I said, 'I don't want to be stuck in a robot, what for, for goodness sake.'" He ultimately relented and agreed to take the job as a favor to George Lucas, he said. The role had no lines - the character's signature beeps and boops were not voiced by Baker - and, seated inside the robot, he never showed his face. But R2-D2 so changed his career that in later years he told an interviewer that if he could go back in time, he would do it again for free.
"Had I known, I would have done it for nothing because he was broke at the beginning, he didn't have a penny, George," Baker said.
But he might have asked for a share of the film's profits, he said. "I'd be a millionaire like Alec Guinness was!" Lucas said in a statement Saturday that Baker was "an incredible trooper who always worked hard under difficult circumstances." He added, "A talented vaudevillian who could always make everybody laugh, Kenny was truly the heart and soul of R2-D2 and will be missed by all his fans and everyone who knew him." Baker played R2-D2 in six "Star Wars" films and also acted in a number of other high-profile movies, including "Mona Lisa," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Time Bandits" and "Amadeus." N