Kenny Baker, R2-D2 Actor in ‘Star Wars’ Films, Dies at 81

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  • Known for on-screen rivalry with gold humanoid robot C-3PO
  • Also had roles in ‘Elephant Man,’ Oscar-winning ‘Amadeus’

Kenny Baker, the diminutive English actor who climbed inside a robot shell to play the part of R2-D2 in the “Star Wars” film series, has died. He was 81.

Baker’s nephew and caregiver, Drew Myerscough, said he found the actor dead Saturday at his home in Preston, northwest England, according to the Associated Press. No cause was given. Baker had been ill for some years, the Press Association reported, citing his
agent, Johnny Mans.

Standing 3-foot-8-inches (112 centimeters), Baker portrayed the astromech droid that served characters such as the Queen of Naboo, Anakin Skywalker and Luke Skywalker. He wasn’t visible and didn’t speak in the role, but operated the robot’s controls.

Baker was credited in all six original “Star Wars” films, which began in 1977 and became one of the highest-grossing movie franchises ever. He was listed as a consultant on the 2015 revival “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

R2-D2 was ranked as the seventh-greatest “Star Wars” character of all time, according to an MTV poll of 12,000 fans in 2011.

Wacky Sounds

“The noisemaking computer controls on the R2-D2 shell were so loud that Baker didn’t know if a take was over unless someone banged on the costume with a hammer,” Hal Erickson wrote in his “All Movie Guide.”

Designed to repair and maintain starships, the silver-topped R2-D2 had many useful tools at his disposal and communicated with his fellow droids via a range of wacky sounds. A remote-controlled version was used, without Baker in it, for the action scenes. Baker’s character had a sidekick known as C-3PO, a human-shaped gold robot played by English actor Anthony Daniels, with whom Baker had a frosty working relationship.

Baker said Daniels ignored him on and off the set, while Daniels said Baker might as well not have been there. “I mean, R2-D2 doesn’t even speak,” Daniels told the U.K.’s Mirror newspaper in 2011. “He might as well be a bucket.”

No Millionaire

On its Twitter feed 20th Century Fox posted a photo of the robot rivals and the caption, “Rest in peace, Kenny Baker, the heart and soul of R2-D2.” Actor Ewan McGregor, who appeared in three Star Wars movies, said it had been “lovely working with Kenny.”

Baker, who said he was chosen to play R2-D2 when director George Lucas was in London “looking for a small guy to be inside the robot,” spent about 30 years in show business before the “Star Wars” films. His fame as R2-D2 led to roles in a series of popular 1980s films including “Amadeus,” “The Elephant Man,” “Time Bandits,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Sleeping Beauty.” He said he made a living in later life from appearances at various “Star Wars” conventions.

“It’s great to be involved in the ‘Star Wars’ phenomenon, but 30 years later, I’m still not a millionaire,” Baker said in a 2009 interview with the U.K. newspaper Metro.

‘Tiny Acorns’

Kenneth George Baker was born Aug. 24, 1934, in the English city of Birmingham. His father, Harold, was a draftsman, artist and musician, and his mother, Ethel, was a dress maker and pianist. Both parents were a normal height, according to “From Tiny Acorns: The Kenny Baker Story,” a 2009 biography written by Ken Mills.

Baker’s parents disappeared from his life when his mother had an affair with an American soldier and his father began a relationship with a dancer in London. Baker was sent to a boarding school for disabled children in Sevenoaks, Kent. He was largely cared for by the Shaftesbury Society, a Christian charity that supported people with disabilities.

Baker began performing at age 16 as part of the Burton Lester’s Midgets act in 1950. After a job as a disc jockey, he joined Billy Smart’s Circus, where he worked as a clown, according to his website.

Ice Shows

He also toured the U.K. for nine years doing pantomime and ice shows before forming the Mini Tones, a musical-comedy duo with Jack Purvis, who later had a part in “Star Wars.” They continued to perform until Purvis died in 1997. Baker also worked with British comedians such as Ben Elton, Dick Emery and Dave Allen.

“I have never ever felt exploited because of my size, in fact quite the opposite,” Baker said in a blog interview with Josh Gill. “I have exploited the natural assets I was born with.”

Baker had two sons with his wife of 23 years, Eileen, who died in 1993. She appeared as an Ewok in “Return of the Jedi.”