02/19/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
THERE'S NOTHING FANCY ABOUT the Dave Prowse Fitness Centre in a grim area of south London. Behind its brick exterior, bodybuilders—who have included Arnold Schwarzenegger and the pre-Superman Christopher Reeve—grunt and sweat under the expert eye of the 60-year-old Prowse. It's hard to believe that a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, this affable Englishman was one of the most dread villains of all time.
Prowse played Darth Vader in all three Star Wars movies. He didn't do the voice—that was James Earl Jones—and his wasn't the face revealed in Return of the Jedi, but he turned Vader into an icon of evil with his powerful 6'6" frame. "I did it with the way I carried myself and with the hand gestures," he says. "As a bodybuilder, I was used to using my body."
Prowse's screen career began almost by accident. The son of a widow who took in lodgers, he grew up in Bristol and started bodybuilding at age 17, entering the 1960 Mr. Universe competition. Switching to weight lifting, Prowse began billing himself as Britain's strongest man. A call from a talent agency looking for someone to play Death in a West End play—and carry another actor offstage every night—landed him his first role.
Prowse went on to appear as a villain on The Avengers, The Saint and other British TV series. "We always had a fight at the end of the episode," he says, "and I always got killed off." He also played Frankenstein's monster in a series of 1960s movies, which, he says, made him "perfectly happy." When George Lucas gave him the choice of playing Chewbacca or Darth Vader, Prowse did what came naturally—he opted to be the bad guy.
Now, two decades later, Prowse, married with three grown children, still works Star Wars conventions in mufti. On the mend from ankle surgery in July, he also works out five days a week. "I'm bench-pressing about 350 pounds," he says. The Force, obviously, is still with him.