A long time ago on a set (and various other locations) far, far away, a movie was shot which would become an instant pop cultural phenomenon and spawn decades of related movies, television shows, books and video games. Of course, we’re talking about Star Wars, a film which took us to far off planets and introduced us to an array of new species, heroes and villains who battled it out for survival. The original Star Wars was just the first release and was soon followed by the very successful The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and Return of the Jedi in 1983. After some time off, the Star Wars prequels were launched beginning in 1999 with The Phantom Menace and ending in 2005 with Revenge of the Sith. A success at the box office, these films divided the opinion of critics and fans over the storyline, writing and acting. Nonetheless, fans accepted the films as a necessary part of the bigger Star Wars story.
From 1977 to 2005, the Star Wars franchise introduced us to a cast of characters, some already famous while others were complete unknowns. Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker and R2D2 became household names and it was (and remains) difficult to mention these fictional characters without someone knowing exactly what you are talking about. Behind the characters we loved were the actors. Like the roles they played, these actors, for the most part, became household names who were easily recognizable. Some of the Star Wars cast went on to enjoy very public and very successful careers in Hollywood. Some deliberately tried different career paths in an effort to avoid type-casting or stepped away from the limelight to pursue other goals.
With the coming of the newest Star Wars film, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, this December, it seems an apt time to search out the former cast members from the previous films to see what they have been up to. Obviously, some will be returning to the far off galaxy for the latest reboot of the franchise, while others have moved on to other ventures. The following tracks down some of the more notable names who have at one time or another served the Empire or Rebellion over the past 40 years.
15 Liam Neeson
Even before Liam Neeson took on the role of Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, he was a well-known actor thanks to his roles in such films as The Dead Pool, Darkman and Schindler’s List. Subjected to the poor writing and dialogue of Episode I, Neeson was able to at least make his character palatable to audiences. Sixteen years on and the Irish-born actor has been enjoying a very successful career. From voice acting in video games like Fallout 3 to continuing his on-screen success with the likes of Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot and the Taken franchise, Liam Neeson remains a very active and visible personality in the entertainment industry.
14 Samuel L. Jackson
Like Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson was a known actor before signing up to be Mace Windu in the three Star Wars prequels. Easily identifiable thanks to his work in films like Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction, Jackson’s Star Wars character stood out thanks to his purple lightsaber. Despite getting fried with the Emperor’s Force lightning and thrown out a window to his death, Jackson’s career only got stronger after Star Wars. From Snakes on a Plane to his continuing role as Nick Fury in the array of Marvel superhero films, Jackson has remained very busy and looks set to continue a strong post-Star Wars career.
13 Hayden Christensen
Starting out his career acting in children’s television, Hayden Christensen was a relative unknown when he was picked to be Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Christensen had the physical presence and overall look to be a believable Anakin. Unfortunately, his acting ability came nowhere near the level needed and he is generally considered to be one of the biggest weak points in what is considered (at best) an average series of films. Yes, his dialogue was terribly written but there is no doubting its delivery was made even worse by him. Today, Christensen is married to actress Rachel Bilson. He continues to act in smaller productions and is involved as a spokesperson and model for various designers.
12 Ewan McGregor
Helping to prop up many otherwise cringe-worthy scenes in the prequels, Ewan McGregor will be remembered fondly for his portrayal of a younger Obi-Wan Kenobi. Other than Trainspotting, very few people were familiar with the acting ability of this Scottish-born actor prior to his role as the legendary Jedi Master. McGregor’s mannerisms and speech all made us believe that we were, in fact, watching a younger version of the character played by Sir Alec Guinness decades earlier. Since we last saw him on Tatooine in 2005, McGregor has stayed very busy on stage, on the big-screen and even undertaking a variety of documentaries.
11 Natalie Portman
On the Star Wars prequel acting scale, fans and critics place Natalie Portman (aka Princess Amidala) somewhere in the middle of Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor. The Leon the Professional and Beautiful Girls actress was not a stranger to audiences when she took on her role in Star Wars in 1999. What was strange was how Portman went back and forth between being a good actor one minute and then delivering her lines with all the ability of a robot the next. Her acting ability was proven with an Oscar win for Black Swan – which makes it all the more perplexing. Today, Portman continues to be very active in the acting world and has even taking to producing.
10 Billy Dee Williams
With an acting career that dates back to the late 1950s, Billy Dee Williams knows his way around the business. Sure he’s done a load of acting gigs but if we’re honest it was his role as Lando Calrissian that really made Williams a household name. One moment stabbing Han in the back and the next helping the rebel alliance blow up the second Death Star, Lando was an interesting character. After Star Wars, Williams faced some personal and legal troubles but managed to get through it. More recently, he made appearances on television shows like Modern Family, NCIS and Glee. He’s also lent his voice to Star Wars Rebels, an animated series about that galaxy far, far away.
9 Ian McDiarmid
A well-established stage actor throughout the 1970s, Scottish-born Ian McDiarmid is probably best known internationally as Emperor Palpatine / Darth Sidious. In a Star Wars career which has spanned both the original and the prequels, McDiarmid’s strong acting ability and deliberate enunciation of his lines made him a perfect fit for such an evil villain. After getting tossed down the reactor shaft in Return of the Jedi, McDiarmid didn’t sulk but immediately went back to work on television and doing voice acting for video games. He currently continues to work with the theatre as a stage director.
8 Kenny Baker
Everybody’s favorite droid, R2D2, has appeared in every Star Wars film ever made. Even though you never see him, inside R2 Kenny Baker helps everything to work smoothly and look good for the cameras. Baker has appeared in such films as Willow and Labyrinth, but it is as R2D2 that he is best known. The 3 ft 8 in actor has stayed relatively busy in the years between Star wars films. What is he doing today? Believe it or not, the 81-year-old is all set to take part in the newest Star Wars film and will reprise his role as R2D2 when The Force Awakens hits theatres later this year.
7 David Prowse
We all know that Anakin Skywalker turns into infamous Darth Vader, but who actually played this notable villain throughout the original trilogy? The answer is English-born David Prowse. Prowse was a weightlifter and bodybuilder which gave him the physique George Lucas was looking for when deciding who should put on Vader’s black suit. Prowse’s size made him tower over most other cast members, giving that extra menace to the character of Darth Vader. After Return of the Jedi, Prowse made only a handful of acting appearances. His bad relationship with George Lucas made him an outsider as he was banned from all official Star Wars conventions.
6 James Earl Jones
It seems fitting that after looking at the man who played Darth Vader we should look at the man who voiced him. In terms of famous voices, James Earl Jones takes the cake. His deep voice fits perfectly with the image of Vader, adding that extra ominous feel. When he wasn’t voicing for the Sith Lord, Jones was busy acting, both in person and voice. Field of Dreams, the Jack Ryan series of films and even appearances on TV shows like The Big Bang Theory all demonstrate that he is far from getting out of the acting game. He currently is providing voice acting for Star Wars Rebels, an animated series which takes place in the Star Wars Universe.
5 Peter Mayhew
We imagine that when you’re 7 ft 3 in tall certain jobs just aren’t for you. Luckily George Lucas came calling in 1977 in need of someone to take on a very special role. Chewbacca quickly became a fan favorite and this lovable and loyal sidekick of Han Solo appeared in four of the six Star Wars films (so far). Outside of the Star Wars films, Mayhew has only taken on a few acting and voice-over jobs but makes regular appearances at conventions where you’d expect Star Wars characters to appear. Today he remains as involved with Star Wars as ever as he prepares for the upcoming release of Episode VII.
4 Anthony Daniels
Shut him up or shut him down – the more serious and constantly worried partner of R2D2 quickly became an iconic fixture of the Star Wars series. While Daniels was reportedly rude to other cast members and didn’t get along at all with Kenny Baker, on screen we couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the gold-clad droid. In addition to either appearing or lending his voice in every movie, Daniels has done a lot of voice acting for Star Wars video games and a range of animated series. In addition to the original trilogy, he has been included in the upcoming release of The Force Awakens and even signed on for future Star Wars films which are in the planning phase.
3 Mark Hamill
Chances are that if you played Star Wars with your friends in the 1970s and 1980s you were at one time Luke Skywalker. Transforming from a farm boy on Tatooine to a Jedi Knight, Luke Skywalker was a central character in the Star Wars universe. Hamill as Luke Skywalker seems as natural as peanut butter with jelly. Despite this, when he wasn’t using the Force, Hamill was making numerous appearances on various television shows and really finding his niche as a voice actor in the animated and video game Batman series. It seems the Force is calling him home as Hamill, along with other notable actors from the original trilogy, is slated to reprise his role in the upcoming release of the newest Star wars film.
2 Carrie Fisher
A novelist, screenwriter and actress, Carrie Fisher is universally known as Princess Leia Organa. Just a teenager at the time, Fisher took on the now-iconic role of Leia and proved that the girls could kick just as much Imperial butt as the guys. A resistance fighter one minute and a gold bikini-clad slave the next, Fisher’s character was a hit with anyone who watched Stars Wars. After Star Wars she faced various personal and drug related problems but got through that to become a successful writer and voice-actor. Today she is still at it and set to reprise her role as Leia (Solo) in the upcoming installment of Star Wars.
1 Harrison Ford
Of all the actors to appear in a galaxy far, far away, Harrison Ford is probably the most popular and successful. Ford took on the role of everybody’s favorite smuggler and scoundrel after working with George Lucas on American Graffiti. Ford’s success spread from Star Wars as he took on other iconic film roles such as Indiana Jones and, later Jack Ryan. Today he is married to Calista Flockhart and remains very active in the movie world when he isn’t flying his planes (or crashing them on golf courses). This December will see him reprise the role of Han Solo, pilot of the Millennium Falcon in the much anticipated Episode VII of the Star Wars franchise.