Kenny Baker: From the Circus to the Stars

None more deserving of celebration today that the late British little person actor/entertainer Kenny Baker (1934-2016). He is not to be confused with the eponymous radio crooner, though the readers of the blog are perhaps the only people who would be apt to do that.

Baker stood 3’8″ in adulthood. Starting in the early 1950s he began performing with circuses, troupes of little people, and even ice shows. Early screen credits included the cult film Circus of Horrors (1960), a 1961 episode of The Avengers, and a 1966 BBC production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which also featured 4’2″ Jack Purvis, soon to be his show biz partner:

In 1971, Baker and Purvis formed The Mini-Tones, a nightclub act in which Purvis played trumpet and Baker played mouth organ and vibes, in addition to banter and comedy. Baker’s father had been a musician as well.

Then, in 1977, Baker was cast in his best known role, though oddly (in a way) it was his most anonymous. That part was of course R2D2 in the original Star Wars film, which I shall always refuse to call A New Hope.

Fans of comedy teams and of physical clowning know that though Baker was invisible inside the R2 contraption, it was indeed a role that he played, for it is all in the timing (I mention teams on account of all the interaction with Anthony Daniels as C3PO). And I say, he was only anonymous in a way, because though his face is not visible in the films, he recieved a MOUNTAIN of press visibility over the decades, so that die-hard fans of the Star Wars films (and there are millions of those) certainly knew who he was. Baker played R2 in six of the films, played an Ewok in Return of the Jedi (1983), and consulted on the rest. And naturally he played R2 on TV spots on things like The Muppet Show, and at live appearances.

Baker was in tons of other movies as well. One of my favorites is Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981), in which he was one of the Six Dwarves, along with Purvis and Malcolm Dixon (both of whom had been with him in the BBC production of Snow White). He also had smaller roles in Flash Gordon (1980), The Elephant Man (1980), Amadeus (1984), Mona Lisa (1986), Labyrinth (1986), Sleeping Beauty (1987), Willow (1988), and U.F.O. (1993).

For related reading, please check out Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People in Vaudeville.