British Actor Kenny Baker, who brought R2-D2 to life in the Star Wars franchise, has died at the age of 81. According to the Guardian, Baker battled an unidentified illness before his death.
According to his official website, Baker was born August 24, 1934, in Birmingham. Baker, who stood at a height of 3-feet 8-inches tall, was told as a child that he was unlikely to survive puberty. Baker credited The Shaftesbury Society, a Christian organization that works with people with disabilities, with helping him “overcome [his] height difficulties.” The Shaftesbury Society merged with another charity, forming the organization Livability in 2007.
Baker became a performer in his teenage years, appearing in various troupes and circuses from the age of 16-years-old. Baker was an experienced pantomime and toured England for nine years as a mime and ice show performer. In 1960, Baker moved on to television and film. His career spanned 50 years and led to appearances in such cult classics as Time Bandits (1981), Labyrinth (1986), and Willow (1988).
The role that brought Kenny Baker enduring fame was undoubtedly his turn as the sassy droid R2-D2, a role which he reprised in two sequel films and three prequel films between 1977 and 2005. Health problems made Baker unable to reprise the role of R2-D2 in the 2015 hit film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Abagail Shield, Baker’s niece, told the Guardian that Baker had been in poor health for some years before his passing.
“It was expected, but it’s sad nonetheless. He was very ill for the last few years, so we had been expecting it. He had been looked after by one of his nephews, who found him Saturday morning.”
R2-D2 appeared briefly near the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, though no actor was credited for the appearance. The absence of R2 and Luke Skywalker was a common complaint against the otherwise well-received Star Wars:The Force Awakens among longtime fans of the Star Wars franchise. Though R2-D2 spoke through beeps and whistles, his small stature and plucky attitude led many fans to find him endearing. R2-D2 proved so popular that it spawned hundreds of lines of toys, replica figures, and even a moving refrigerator styled in his likeness.
Fans wasted no time voicing their grief on social media.
Devastated to hear of the death of Kenny Baker. He brought so much to the character of R2-D2.— Fiona Burt (@fiona_skywalker) August 13, 2016
Shield noted that Baker had lung problems in recent years and often used a wheelchair. In fact, Baker’s health was reportedly the main reason he did not reprise his most famous role. According to Yahoo! Movies, Baker was named in the official casting announcement for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but David Prowse, who provided the physical appearance of legendary villain Darth Vader, voiced doubt that Baker would be well enough to be R2-D2 one last time.
“I mean, there is some talk about R2-D2 coming back, Kenny Baker coming back…well, Kenny baker is really ill. How he is going to reprise his role, I do not know.”
Unfortunately, Prowse’s reservations about Kenny Baker’s health and his ability to perform inside of the R2-D2 costume proved correct. In interviews, Baker noted that the R2-D2 costume could be punishing in the sometimes extreme environments used for the Star Wars franchise.
During press conferences for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, R2-D2 was displayed during the cast photographs, but Kenny Baker was completely absent. Baker’s poor health also made travel difficult, forcing him to miss the Los Angeles premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. According to Shield, Baker did manage to meet with George Lucas in 2015 and appeared at the European premiere of Star Wars:The Force Awakens.
Kenny Baker is survived by his two children. His wife, Eileen Baker, died in 1993.
[Photo by Jonathan Short/Invision/AP images]