Kabe, Jawa, GONK (A New Hope)
Interview: August 2018
How did you get cast for the first Star Wars movie?
Way back in the 70’s there weren’t many dwarf actors. You had Kenny Baker who played R2-D2 and his partner Jack Purvis who was the chief Jawa and there was me! They tried me out for R2-D2 in case Kenny couldn’t cope inside the droid. Luckily he was alright so they cast me as a Jawa and it followed on from there.
One day I went into the studio and the special effects guy said “bend over and touch your toes”, which I did and they put some suit over me. They called George Lucas and said “George, how is this for a character?” George said “I love it, and we will call that a GONK”. So, that’s how the GONK droid happened.
The third character I played was Kabe in the Mos Eisley cantina. She was originally played by an elderly lady called Gilda. The costume was absolutely horrendous like every other costume was and she collapsed and fainted. She couldn’t continue so George Lucas said “Rusty, get in the dress”. That was it! I played three characters!
You mentioned the GONK. The most famous scene of him is in the sandcrawler making the legendary GONK noise. That’s you!
Yeah, that’s me! And then you’ll see a Jawa, that’s Jack Purvis. Right after that you see the GONK again with a Jawa, but this time Jack is the GONK and I am the Jawa, we switched roles and it was hysterical.
Were you in Tunisia to film Jawa scenes?
No, I was only filming at the Elstree Studios.
So, all your Jawa scenes are the interior shots.
Yes, and also in the cantina when Luke comes down the stairs with Obi-Wan you see a Jawa rushing around them that is me as well!
What was the funniest thing that happened on the set?
That was when Sir Alec Guinness was coming with Luke in the cantina. George Lucas instructed me to rush towards them and just pass them quickly on their left. Before it was ‘action’ the first assistant director said “pass Sir Alec on the right”. That was the last direction I got, but no one told Sir Alec that, so I nearly knocked him over. He thought I was going left but I went right. I said “sorry” and then George Lucas said “what the hell are you doing, you should have gone left” but luckily the assistant director said he told me to. So, I was exonerated. So in short: the funniest thing was I nearly killed the star of the show. (laughs)
Without a lightsaber.
What do you regard as the best memory you have of your time working on Star Wars?
No one knew what we were doing. It was fantastic to film everything and I would do it all over again if I could go back. George Lucas and Gary Kurtz were like two young college guys making a movie with all these lovely actors. We didn’t know how big it was going to be. It went from a cheap budget film to 48 billion dollars later!
When did you see Star Wars for the first time?
That was two months after it opened. I sat in the cinema and loved it when those spaceships came from behind us. I was “wow, this is it”. The clever bit was, which I didn’t realize then, the way John Williams wrote the Star Wars theme. The first note of the Star Wars theme is the same as the last note of the 20th Century Fox theme. (Starts humming the Fox theme) So, the brain didn’t have to think. It flows if you know what I mean.
Now that’s some cool trivia.
Everyone at the cinema was happy. It had spaceships, swashbuckling pirates, swordfights. It’s what the world needed. Well done George Lucas.
You didn’t return in The Empire Strikes Back. How come?
Because I was doing other movies at the time like History of the World Part I with Mel Brooks, a movie I wanted to do. It was fantastic with those guys. I can proudly say I was in the first Star Wars, the baby of the franchise.
One of your characters, Kabe, got her name and backstory in the late 80’s and mid 90’s. Have you ever read her short story in the anthology book Tales of the Mos Eisley cantina?
No, I haven’t. I wasn’t aware of that.
Well, I can absolutely recommend it as it’s a great story.
I will definitely look for that! As I said that costume was so hot. You couldn’t breathe in it and it was so claustrophobic. It wasn’t something for every person. Still, it was an unbelievable time.
You were in your twenties back then right?
I was very young, yes. I’m still young now. (laughs)
(Laughs). That’s a great way to end this interview. Thanks!