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