A sad beep for Star Wars fans today as R2-D2’s actor, Kenny Baker, has died at 81 in England after a long illness. According to The Guardian, Baker, who was three-feet, eight-inches tall, had been very ill for the past few years, and was found dead by his caretaker nephew on Saturday morning. According to his niece, Abigail Shield, the family had been expecting news of his death sooner or later, but were still grieving his loss.
“It was expected, but it’s sad nonetheless. He had a very long and fulfilled life. He brought lots of happiness to people and we’ll be celebrating the fact that he was well loved throughout the world. We’re all very proud of what he achieved in his lifetime.
“When he was a child, he was told that he probably wouldn’t survive through puberty, being a little person in those times, they didn’t have a very good life expectancy. He did extremely well in his life. 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 on Saturday morning.”
Kenny Baker first rose to celebrity in 1977 when, according to Quartz, he was hired to be the actor inside the R2-D2 costume in Star Wars. He went on to reprise the role (which he said “wasn’t a real acting job”) in the next two Star Wars movies, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return Of The Jedi, as well as in all three Star Wars prequels from 1999 to 2005. He also acted in a number of other films from the ’80s including The Elephant Man, Time Bandits, Labyrinth, Flash Gordon, and the 1999 animated remake of The King And I.
“It’s all in hindsight, but I should have done it for nothing.”
When he was first tapped for Star Wars, Baker refused to take the role if a part wasn’t also found for his close friend and working partner of over a decade, Jack Purvis. Purvis ended up playing numerous bit roles in the Star Wars films including a mantis, the Gonk droid, an Ewok, and a Jawa — the same Jawa that ended up shooting R2.
Baker was also originally slated to play the Ewok Wicket, but felt sick that day; the part went instead to Warwick Davis, who went on to have an extremely successful career which continues today. In response to Baker’s death, Davis said that he “paved the way for short actors of a generation.”
Twentieth Century Fox, Mark Hamill, Ewan McGregor, and more all expressed their sadness and sympathies over Baker’s death.
Baker really got his start as an actor in the 1960s, when he and Jack Purvis were part of a club act called the Mini-Tones. He also worked at the time with his lifelong agent, Johnny Mans. He met his wife, Eileen, after an appearance on Parkinson, a British TV chat show: she wrote into the show saying that she was also a little person and wanted to meet him.
“They got married soon after,” said Shield. Sadly, he survived her by more than 20 years after she died of an epileptic fit.
According to Shield, Baker “had problems with his lungs and was often in a wheelchair.” He had been asked to appear in Los Angeles at the Star Wars: The Force Awakens premiere, but had to turn down the invitation due to his poor health. “Luckily, he did manage to meet George Lucas again when he came to Manchester.”
As Mark Hamill put it: “Goodbye #KennyBaker A lifelong loyal friend-I loved his optimism & determination He WAS the droid I was looking for!”
[Photos by Chris Jackson/Getty Images for Matchless; Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images]