The sinister cackle of one of the most bone chilling villains in cinematic history reverberates through the theatre.
The black hooded Emperor with his disfigured face and yellow eyes taunts Luke without mercy as he forces him to watch what he hopes will be the final showdown that will destroy what he refers to as the “pitiful band of rebels”. It is this solipsistic arrogance which eventually leads to his downfall, as he tries to destroy Vader’s son with Force lightning in fit of blind hatred when Luke refused to join the Dark Side, causing his chief lieutenant to undergo a dramatic change of heart.
The brilliant Scottish actor Ian McDiarmid is the one who brought arguably the most villainous Star Wars character to life. His rich and varied acting career gave him excellent credentials for this demanding and highly exciting role.
Senator Palpatine seemed a harmless enough, if overambitious, politician in the beginning, but was the mastermind behind all the intrigues which eventually led to his complete takeover as the Galactic Emperor. For years he played various sides against the other, using the Trade Federation, the Seperatists and others to further his hidden agenda.
The usually perceptive Jedi were caught with their pants down when Order 66 was carried out at hundreds of locations across the galaxy, decimating their numbers as the Sith Lord gained control of the clone army formerly loyal to the Jedi.
Before they had a chance to blink, the Republic had become an Empire and very few apart from Senator Amidala from Naboo and Bail Organa of Alderaan saw any reason to oppose the new order, with Amidala remarking “so this is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause.”
One of the first masterstrokes of Palpatine’s plan was to elicit general sympathy for his home planet of Naboo which was instrumental in his bid for election as Supreme Chancellor. He planned the blockade of his planet and later, even his own kidnapping so that he could be viewed as a victim. He successfully manipulated everyone from young Jedi Anakin Skywalker to the Trade Federation puppets, from the long planned Clone Army to the naive Jar Jar Binks. (see my WordPress article on Jar Jar for more info on this).
He actually plays a younger version of Palpatine sixteen years after playing in Return of the Jedi, but because the Emperor is hooded and disfigured, this doesn’t show.
Ian McDiarmid was born on 11 August 1944 in Carnoustie, Scotland, which means he was only 39 when Return of the Jedi came out and he was playing an 120 year old arch-villain.
It took four hours to prepare McDiarmid’s face with the prosthetic makeup for the role. The manipulative and egocentric Palpatine in his full Imperial regalia has a a face twisted by evil and overuse of the Dark Side of the Force. Ian soon decided it would best to take a nap every time during these four boring hours so he could be fresh for the camera lights.
In true FBI style, McDiarmid was called up by his agent who told him a car was coming to collect him and take him to play the Emperor. He peered out the window and the car was already there. George Lucas selected him partly because of his ability to wear the scratchy yellow contact lenses which lend the Emperor such a distinctive appearance. Lucas was also impressed by the actor’s nose and told him so. Of course this is one of the few things we can actually see of the Emperor’s ugly mug.
Steven Spielberg loved the sibilant voice which seems to be the very epitome of pure evil and malice.
The yellow contact lenses limited McDiarmid’s peripheral vision and so the ancient Emperor inched his way down the stairs, leaning on his cane, to meet David Prowse, the immensely tall actor who played Darth Vader (but whose voice wasn’t used in the movie; being dubbed over by the deep tones of James Earl Jones). He couldn’t hear what Prowse was saying due to his height and the now-famous big black helmet so had to guess when Vader had finished speaking
He’s played many a highly dramatic role, including but not limited to:
– Another evil character, none other than Satan the Prince of Darkness, in a BBC radio dramatization of Milton’s Paradise Lost;
– Sir Edward “the lights are going out all over Europe” Grey, the British Secretary of State in the days preceding World War II in the BBC TV drama 37 Days;
– Mickey Hamilton, a killer determined to avenge the deaths of his wife and child in The Professionals, for London Weekend Television;
– Villains in Inspector Morse and in Touching the Clouds / The Lost Boys.
He began his acting career early, having already gotten a taste for it at age 5 when his father took him to see an act in Dundee.
He obtained a MA in psychology, which undoubtedly helps him turn in stellar theatrical performances. With this solid background he decided to enroll in the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
He already received a gold medal for his stage performances in 1968, at the youthful age of 24. He gained a lot of acclaim on the stage for his fine performances in many a prestigious production. Together with Jonathan Kent he became an artistic director of the Almeida Theatre in London, from 1990 to 2001. He is truly familiar with all aspects of the world of drama.
Some of the numerous Shakespeare plays he starred in include King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, MacBeth (the Scottish play, as it is referred to by actors who believe it’s unlucky to refer to it by name), The Tempest and Much Ado About Nothing.
There can hardly be a more startling contrast between the wicked Galactic Emperor and the kindly and well spoken Ian McDiarmid. He likes his privacy and prefers to keep his personal life away from the spotlight of prying eyes. He has no megalomaniacal illusions about ruling any galaxies in real life, and prefers to spend his spare time in an old house which is his retreat on the grand and lonely Scottish coast: a far cry from the super-skyscrapers of the Imperial capital planet of Coruscant.