Hugh Spight, or as it was wrongly credited in the film, ‘Hugh Spirit’, truly is an unsung hero of the Star Wars franchise. Since we have entered the 40th anniversary of the iconic film series, I managed to sit down with Spight and talk about everything from his time on the set, his experiences as a Dalek in the Doctor Who series and his filmography that spans so much further.
Thanking his many years as a ballet dancer, the 70-year-old actor looks remarkably well and could recall every detail dating back to his days on ‘The Dark Crystal’. Appropriately enough, the conversation took place in the Oxford University Examinations hall for the 2017 Ox-Con event.
CD: You were the man behind the infamous Gamorrean Guard in the original trilogy. How did you manage to get into that?
HS: “Well I was with The Muppets production at Elstree Studios filming The Dark Crystal, and as we were coming to the end of that production, George Lucas had built the largest indoor stage in Europe. That’s where they filmed all the hangar scenes and Ewok’s in trees, that sort of thing. Someone from the company approached us and asked whether we would be interested in doing some body puppetry on Star Wars”.
“What people don’t understand is that back then we just considered it to be a job, because we didn’t know what these sorts of things were going to become in ten years time. Star Wars broke new ground, creating a fan base that had never existed. I’m so grateful to have been involved with Star Wars and Doctor Who because they both now have a cult following”.
CD: So 40 years ago, you didn’t have the faintest idea that Star Wars would become what we see it today?
HS: “Not at all, there was no way that you could tell. At the time, Doctor Who was beginning to attract a cult following, but for Star Wars it was actually impossible to foresee it really”.
CD: I’m assuming you didn’t keep any of the props from the set? HS: “No definitely not, they were very careful with that sort of thing. The only thing that I do have in my possession SOMEWHERE is the original crew sweatshirt. At the beginning of filming, the title wasn’t ‘Return of the Jedi’ it was actually ‘Revenge of the Jedi’, so these crew sweatshirts have since become massive collectors items”.
CD: Last year the Star Wars fan base suffered a huge loss with the death of Kenny Baker. What were your experiences with him?
HS: “When you’re on set, everyone has a job to do and are all very focused, because time is money you see. When you have scenes with people, you don’t push yourself to meet them, unless you have to. There was one scene with Harrison Ford where the guards are taking him to the dungeon, and he told us that he would put up a bit of a fight. When he did, the other Gamorrean Guard fell down the stairs”.
“I knew Kenny because we were similar sorts of people, doing similar roles. Star Wars has its main stars that aren’t necessarily overly chatty. I always remember Kenny, because when I first met him he had this enormous Mercedes, but when he got into it, the pedals had huge blocks of wood extending to his legs so he could drive it”.
“What was really interesting was when we were doing The Dark Crystal, for the first time ever they put out a call saying ‘small people wanted’ for certain parts of the film. When I was talking to them at the audition, many of them had never been in a room with other small people before”.
CD: Beyond your work on Star Wars, you are also known for the part of the black Dalek in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks from the Doctor Who series. Run me through the process of operating a Dalek.
HS: “Well first of all it is very disappointing. My first encounter with the Dalek, I thought it was going to be so sophisticated and electronic that you could whiz around and glide. What actually happened was the production crew took the top off and revealed a wooden bench on the inside. To operate it, you just pick up your Dalek and walk”.
“We did a lot of outside location shooting on uneven ground, so we would constantly have to keep stopping because you cant have a wobbly Dalek. These scenes took forever to film because we had a lot of wobbly Daleks.
“There was one scene we did in London below some railway arches, where they had to blow a Dalek up with a bazooka. We positioned the Daleks, filled them with explosives and then blew it up. It made most horrendous explosion and within minutes it was fire engines, ambulances and police. Since this was in the time of the IRA bombings, they were not too happy”.
CD: So when you are actually inside the Dalek and sitting on the wooden bench, what’s going on? HS: “Nothing! You move around a plunger and that’s it. The crew would yell out and say ‘Dalek, can you just move a bit to the left’ and you pick it up and walk. I have actually heard stories from people in the current series doing the exact same thing. It’s not very glamorous I’m afraid”.
CD: 40 years of Star Wars, we have the new trilogy, spin offs, video games and even a theme park opening..
HS: “Wait, is there?” CD: And apparently it’s canon too, so it’s a whole theme park dedicated to a storyline. HS: “Wow, maybe I could get myself a job selling tickets. I think my days of getting in and out of a costume are over though”. “Somebody actually suggested that I approach film schools and meet with new people coming into the industry to excite them and motivate them and inspire them, with tales of how it works and what it is like”.
CD: I know for a fact that my generation takes a lot of inspiration from your experiences and your knowledge. Honestly I think that puppetry and animatronics is something we should preserve.
HS: “Its understandable in the eyes of the director to use CGI. That’s why George Lucas went back and did the new trilogy. If possible, why not see the titanic sinking before your eyes. I think its come full circle and people believe in the authenticity of movement, bringing back puppetry into the film industry”.
CD: Well if it does make a huge comeback, then I definitely now have a foot in the door. Ill carry on your legacy.
Celebrating 40 years of an iconic franchise means we need to recognize the stunt doubles, the puppeteers, the cameramen, and the unsung heroes of Star Wars.