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Star Wars' Kenny Baker Put So Much Humanity Into A Machine

Illustration for article titled iStar Wars/i Kenny Baker Put So Much Humanity Into A Machine

I know I’m a few days late for a real obit, but as the self-appointed Lead Droid Researcher here at Jalopnik, I just wanted to take a moment to appreciate the man inside the machine, Kenny Baker, who died this past week.

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There’s plenty of full obituaries out there; the man was in over 30 films, after all, but I just want to focus on the role he was most famous for, the droid R2-D2, because it’s an unusual role for an actor to be best known for, and it’s easy to underestimate the achievement.

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What’s so impressive about Kenny Baker as R2-D2 is how effectively he managed to convey personality, emotion, and charisma from inside what was essentially a barely-articulated mailbox. If you’ve seen Baker in one of the few movies where he’s actually undisguised, like, say, Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, you know he’s very capable of warmth, charm, and has skillful comic timing.

The fact that he was able to achieve these same sorts of things while crammed into a stubby robot is amazing.

The robotics of 1977 were limited, so it made sense to pick a human to work inside the machine. Baker had some actual controls inside R2, but much of what he did that makes the character work are basic physical gestures: rocking, weight shifting, fidgeting, and so on.

It’s the way he employed his limited arsenal of actions so effectively, and with the right timing that’s so remarkable. Go back and watch the original Star Wars, and really watch R2-D2. Early into the movie, you already have an idea who this character is – loyal, capable, brave, but capable of fear; earnest, optimistic, perhaps a little sarcastic, even. This is all without saying an intelligible word, and lacking the normal human body plan.

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That’s a hell of a job for an actor, and Kenny Baker pulled it off.

When I saw Star Wars as a really little kid, I most identified with R2-D2. If I had a role model in that movie, that noisy little droid was it. Now my own son is fascinated by the same little blue droid, so many years later.

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I could have done a lot worse, and that’s all thanks to the tiny man inside the machine.

Thanks, Kenny Baker.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!: https://rb.gy/udnqhh)

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DISCUSSION

Look, I’m a pretty big Star Wars fan, and Star Wars fan or not, who doesn’t like R2D2. And by all accounts Kenny Baker is great and Anthony Daniels seems like a bit of a tool.

However...

I really don’t get how everyone thinks he contributed so much to R2's personality. Like what did he DO in that can? Turn the dome? Maybe point the spotlight thing? Shake when R2 was anxious? Most of R2's personality comes from his little beeps being ‘just’ right. Kenny Baker didn’t do that. I can hardly believe they keep bring him him back. It would probably be easier and cheaper to just motorize the damn dome.

Anthony Daniels contributed all the motion and voice for C-3PO. Sure, 3PO sucks, but AD contributed to that suckage more than KB really added to R2.

It’s sad that a good dude died, but all the tributes seem at least a little shallow to me. I guess that’s the way it is in the social media age. Everyone wants the most likes for their meme. Like when Bowie died, and now all of a sudden all these people were ‘huge fans’.