The fearsome Emperor makes his first in the flesh appearance, alongside Darth Vader, to destroy the Rebels and turn Luke Skywalker to the Dark Side of the Force, in RETURN OF THE JEDI.
At the time in 1983, the Emperor's debut in the film was kept top secret, and this was also very much the case during the filming of his scenes earlier in March and April 1982. Very little press and publicity for the character was made during the time of the film's release, but by the following year, Ian McDiarmid was finally able to do interviews about his playing, and relishing, of the important role-the ultimate super-baddy of the saga.
Here's some info, rare and not so rare, about his time making the film-some of which is hopefully likely to appear in the upcoming J.W. Rinzler MAKING OF RETURN OF THE JEDI book coming this October.
Having made two previous film appearances- a small part in fantasy adventure Dragonslayer and the horror film The Awakening with Charlton Heston- Ian McDiarmid, still relatively new to the film industry, was considered for the role of the Emperor after being seen by UK Casting Director Mary Selway playing the role of an aged Howard Hughes, in lots of make up in the play Seduced, with Sam Shepherd. They were looking for someone young to play older due to the action and makeup periods. Someone else, an older actor, was originally cast in the role but didn’t work out- apparently deemed too frail. Soon winning the part after his meeting at Elstree with Lucas and Marquand, he studied the previous Emperor scenes from EMPIRE, but rather to get an idea of what the character would be like rather than a direct copy of what had been done in the voicing by Clive Revill-he would draw inspiration for his own unique portrayal.
On the facial features front, Lucas assured him he would be able to keep his nose and mouth and have contact lenses for his eyes. He had as much freedom to play the role as possible within time limits of filming. His voice as the Emperor was enhanced in post production-on set McDiarmid toned it down during filming and brought some dark humour here and there.
Signing a confidentiality document on the script, he recalled there were other versions of it floating around the set, some of which were fakes with different scenes and dialogue so that, apart from a few key people, no one knew which one was the right one. By accident, he would learn lines from one script that turned out to be completely wrong whilst the important ones he knew nothing about had to be pointed out to him by Marquand on the day of filming -this was thankfully a one time only occurrence.
The crucial make-up for Palpatine, apparently based around research into the real-life ageing process, took four hours a day to apply. The actor would be up at the small hours for everything to be ready for 8am filming call. Lucas would joke that he wanted the actor to look his worst for the filming! Nick Dudman was the key talent doing his facial transformation, whilst someone else did the aged hands. His real-life long hair had to be kept for another role, so it was tied up in a ribbon above his head covered by the hood he’d be wearing. Eye lenses were occasionally itchy and would be taken out between takes on the set.
No main changes were made to the script by the actor, which he thought was very tightly written. He liked all the cast and crew he worked with and respected Marquand’s ability to direct actors.
Due to the secret nature of the character, he wasn’t allowed to wander in and out of the Elstree studios, so when he wasn’t called for on the Imperial sets he often resided in his own dressing room (surrounded by mirrors of his ghastly visage) where he would catch up on reading, though eating proved difficult.
First days filming was on the immense Imperial hangar descending the shuttle steps in front of lots of extras in military outfits, Darth Vader and so forth, emerging through lots of smoke- he would be taken up a scaffold to come down the ships ramp, which proved fun and very power consolidating. On set, Marquand was the director with Lucas in the background providing key information on the story, characters and technical details.
He later came back to re-shoot his death scene, most notably the moment when the handover to the thrown dummy by Vader takes place. He would be on a harness and literally held in the air on wire by Dave Prowse (despite a flare-up with a knee injury) and was actually let go, spinning over the actor/muscle man’s head. In all, three days were spent on this reshoot, and the sequence was supervised by Lucas because of the technical nature.
It was necessary for him to know both the Emperor’s and Vader’s lines in the script, so as to get the acting/ timing right and for the returning of lines from Prowse inside the mask. McDiarmid and Marquand would work out how long Vader’s speeches would be for the later dialogue replacement from James Earl Jones.
Star Wars Celebration Europe - Words with Warwick: Ian McDiarmid - YouTube
For more on the making of JEDI, why not get hold of our in-detail PDF special issue on the film, here:
STAR WARS AFICIONADO ISSUE 14 - THE MAKING OF "RETURN OF THE JEDI"