Very valuable voice of Darth Vader


“I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it further.”

“You don’t know the power of the Dark Side.”

— Darth Vader

It’s one of the most iconic (and most often misquoted) lines in movie history. Luke Skywalker, having left his Jedi training to save his friends, has become engaged in a battle with the franchise’s chief bad guy, has his hand cut off, and is dangling in a vent shaft on a city in the sky, when the baddie tells him that he’s been lied to for years and, in fact, it’s the bad guy, himself, who is Luke’s father.

The line — “No. I am your father” — shocked audiences in 1980, who hadn’t seen it coming, and who had been frightened by Darth Vader’s booming voice and menacing breathing since the moment he appeared on screen in the opening scenes of “Star Wars.” Six-foot, six-inch tall bodybuilder David Prowse was in the suit, but George Lucas quickly realized that Prowse’s Devonshire accent wasn’t anywhere near the voice the giant Sith Lord needed.

Not that Prowse knew that. On set, he told George Lucas that he was concerned that his lines were being muffled by Vader’s helmet. Lucas told him not to worry, because they would re-record the lines later. But no one told Prowse that it wasn’t going to be him that would do the recording. Still, he couldn’t have been shocked, seeing that his accent led cast mates to dub him “Darth Farmer.”

Lucas, meanwhile, began a search for the perfect voice for his space villain. He listened to tapes of many of Hollywood’s biggest stars — people like Orson Welles — but finally turned to the deep tones of an actor that had just starred in ‘The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings,” a film made by two of Lucas’ friends (and that also starred future “Star Wars” fixture Billy Dee Williams). And so, James Earl Jones got the job.

When the two met to talk about what Lucas wanted, the director cautioned Jones that “you’ve gotta keep his voice on a very narrow band of inflexion cus he ain’t human, really.” Sound designer Ben Burtt created the famous breathing sound by recording himself inhaling and exhaling through a scuba regulator and edited those recordings into the places in the lines where Jones naturally breathed. Thus, Darth Vader was born. Jones was paid the whopping sum of $7,500 to record the lines for the first film in 1977.

But then “Star Wars” exploded. Jones returned for “Empire Strikes Back” in 1980 and “Return of the Jedi” in 1983 — the first film in which he received screen credit. When the prequels began in the 1990s, there was no role for Vader because he didn’t exist yet at that point in the story’s timeline.

When the story reached Annakin Skywalker’s transformation into Vader, the fact that Jones had aged 30 years didn’t matter — his voice hadn’t changed. And so he was back to voice the role in 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith,” the 2014 TV series “Star Wars Rebels,” 2016’s “Rogue One,” 2019’s “The Rise of Skywalker” and last year’s “Obi-Wan Kenobi” TV series. He could, seemingly, play the role forever.

Except, that is, for the fact that he will turn 92 on Monday. With the “Star Wars” franchise being such a huge part of the Disney empire, what is the company to do as the voice of their villain heads into retirement? The answer was provided by the most recent “Star Wars” films, in which portions of earlier dialogue from actors who are no longer living was edited together to make new lines for new films. Modern computer programs can also take those lines and use them to create entirely new words and phrases that Jones has never recorded before, but that will match the pace and timbre of his voice.

To do so, Lucasfilm and Disney needed to secure the rights to use Jones’ voice in perpetuity. According to Variety, the actor and the studio have now reached that agreement. And while terms of the deal haven’t been publicly released, one assumes that Jones will be paid far more for not recording new lines than he did for recording the lines for the original film. In fact, his heirs will likely still be getting paid for his voice every time that Disney uses it in the future.

These kinds of legal agreements — to use the voice or physical likeness of a person through computer editing, even long after they are dead — may be new, but they are a logical extension of other areas of the law and of concepts that protect a person when someone tries to profit off of their image or sound.

We can hope that Jones will be with us to celebrate his 100th birthday in 2031, but we can bank on the fact that the menacing sounds of Darth Vader will live on far beyond that.

By David Hejmanowski

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David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.

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