Date of Birth: August 24, 1934
Standing at just 3 feet and 8 inches tall, Kenneth George “Kenny” Baker is best known for portraying R2-D2 in the Star Wars movie franchise.
Although Kenny was born with dwarfism, his parents — pianist and dressmaker Ethel, and artist, musician and draftsman Harold Baker – were of average height. Kenny was born in Birmingham, England, but was eventually sent to a boarding school for disabled children in Sevenoaks, Kent, and cared for by a Christian charity called Shaftesbury Society. He was sent there after his mother had an affair and ran off with an American soldier, while his father began a relationship with a dancer in London.
Kenny got his first taste of show business in 1951, when he was approached on the street by a woman who invited him to join a theatrical troupe of dwarves and midgets. He ended up joining a circus for a brief time, and even found success in ice skating shows. Developing an interest in comedy, he had formed a successful comedy act with entertainer Jack Purvis, called the Mini-Tones. It was during this time that Kenny was also asked by filmmaker George Lucas to be the actor inside of R2-D2 in 1976's Star Wars.
Kenny originally turned down the role three times, as he was not too keen to play a robot for a film whose success was not assured. Luckily for him, he changed his mind. With his height, he was the only one available who could fit inside of the metal costume, and operate the system of levers that propelled it. However, the suit was hot and uncomfortable, and Kenny also had no way of knowing whether a take was over. Therefore, a crew member had to alert him when he was done by banging on the suit with a hammer.
While Kenny is never actually seen in the Star Wars films, he is still a popular character of the franchise, and is first hero we meet in the original film. Additionally to R2-D2, he played a role in 1983's Return of the Jedi as Paploo, the Ewok who stole an Imperial speeder bike. Kenny compared his experience wearing the furry, bear-like suit to “being poached." He was originally going to play a different Ewok named Wicket, but he fell ill, and so that role was given to Warwitck Davis.
At one point, feud was rumored between him and his co-star Anthony Daniels, who plays C-3P0, with Kenny claiming Anthony had been rude to him and to fans on numerous occasions. Despite this, the two are the only actors to have played a part in all seven Star Wars movies, even though Kenny was not actually physically in the final film. As everything with R2-D2 was done digitally in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he worked as a consultant for the character, instead of being inside him.
In November 2015, it was confirmed that Jimmy Vee was cast as R2-D2 in 2017’s Star Wars: Episode VIII, replacing Kenny. However, Kenny's career was not limited to just the Star Wars franchise. Some of his other films include The Elephant Man, Flash Gordon, Amadeus and Jim Henson's Labyrinth, which starred David Bowie. He also made some appearances on television series, such as on the British medical drama Casualty. In November 2009, he released a biography: From Tiny Acorns: The Kenny Baker Story, which was written with Ken Mills.
Kenny was married to actress Eileen Baker from 1970 until she died in 1993. Although Eileen also had dwarfism as well, this was not inherited by their two sons — Christopher and Kevin. Kenny had been invited to attend the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Los Angeles in December 2015, but was too ill to travel to the U.S., and instead, attended the film's premiere in London. Kenny eventually passed away from a long illness on August 13, 2016, just 11 days before his 82nd birthday. He is survived by his two sons and seven grandchildren.
Photo: © Ash Knotek/Keystone Press via ZUMA Press)
Filmography:Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)