Admiral Ackbar (Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens), Salacious Crumb, Sy Snootles (Return of the Jedi)
Interview: September 2005
How and when did you start puppeteering and eventually ended up with Jim Henson and Star Wars?
I discovered puppetry while I was attending University studying acting and directing. My first paid professional performance was for the student union. I had built a walk-around bag booth and performed The true story of Prince George and the Dragon. I was paid the princely sum of $15 for the show. If you don’t believe me I still have the receipt I was given with my first check.
When I graduated I continued to perform my show at fairgrounds, shopping malls and in parks all across the north east of America. If you would like to know the story line of my show then watch the movie, Dragon Heart written by Ben Johnson. I got to talk to him when he came to Henson’s to have a test Dragon built for the movie. Although he couldn’t admit having seen my show for obvious financial reasons, he did admit that his parents had taken him as a child to some of the fairs I had performed my puppet show at. I was just happy he had liked it so much.
When I first started work at Jim Henson’s I had to take a pay cut. I had been earning more money from people throwing money into my hat, but I wanted to learn how you become a millionaire doing puppets. My job was to design what would eventually be called animatronics for the Muppet movies.
Jim Henson and George Lucas were both very interested in what each other were doing. New things were being developed all the time and they had a friendly rivalry going. I was loaned by Hensons to Lucasfilm to do Return of the Jedi.
How did you get appointed to puppeteer Sy Snootles, Salacious Crumb and Admiral Ackbar?
I was already working in Phil Tippets workshop at ILM designing animatronics for the characters of Jedi. I knew that when pre-production was finished I would be going to England to perform Sy Snootles and Salacious Crumb. We were never given copies of the script for reasons of secrecy, so I had no idea who Admiral Ackbar was. I had done a lot of the design work for his close-up version and when I asked Phil who he was he said, “Oh, he’s just another background character that appears later in the movie”. So I asked if I could perform him, as I was familiar with his controls, and Phil said OK. It was as simple as that.
On the set of Return of the Jedi there was an incident involving you, Salacious Crumb, a loudspeaker and Harrison Ford. Can you tell us more about this?
No, I could get sued. The truth doesn’t matter in lawsuits.
It was the day we were filming the scene where Harrison gets unfrozen from the carbon. It was very important to the film because up to this point no one knew if his character had lived or died. Tensions were running high on set that day. All the animatronic characters had been in full costume for over four hours already while the Director of Photography got the lighting just right. Finally it was time to “turn over” on the shot.
Poor Harrison, covered in goo, comes sliding out of the carbon block. Carrie comes running in and has to plant a big wet kiss on his slime covered face. The curtains open on Jabba and his court and we all scream out, “We saw you kissing, we saw you kissing.” Cut.
Harrison being the professional that he is, went to the director and pointed out that our screaming would cause problems in the sound edit, and he was right.
So Richard Marquand came over to the tired sweating aliens and told us all to do “take two” the same as before, but do it without making a noise. We did the second take without making a sound. It was now time for Tea break, but all the aliens had to stay in place, as it would take too long to redress us. The sound man had gone for tea but had forgotten to turn off my microphone which was connected to a speaker out in the main acting area.
It was during the break that Mr. Marquand came over and sat next to Salacious Crumb. He liked talking to him although he very rarely would talk directly to me. He couldn’t as I was buried under the set with my arm stuck up though a hole in the floor.
He asked Salacious what he thought of the last take and Salacious replied, “The take went well, but this Harrison guy, is he going to talk during our laugh? Because it’s really putting me off.” My words went booming out over the floor on the speaker and the whole crew began to laugh at the cheekiness of the puppet. Everyone that is except for Harrison, who left the set and refused to return until, “The Asshole who said that was fired off the production”.
An A.D. came under the set to tell me that they were going to have to fire me. I pleaded with him to let me apologize, but he said Mr. Ford was furious and only my head would do. So, I asked who was going to do my puppet for the rest of the filming. He said, “Well you are, but if anyone asks you, you have to tell them that you are the new guy!”
On the call sheets for the rest of the filming it always said, ‘Salacious Crumb – The New Guy’.
When puppeteering Salacious Crumb, you had to interact with Carrie Fisher.
How did she react to Salacious and you off-camera?
Well, let me start by saying that I was a young man at the time, about 25 years old. Carrie wasn’t much older and with that costume she wore in Jabba’s palace it wasn’t hard to get the blood flowing. Now I am shy by nature, but Salacious definitely was not. I used to use the puppet to try and make her laugh during the long waits between shots. I’d sometimes do an imitation of Gomez and Morticia, out of the Addams Family TV show. Salacious would declare his undying love, while slowly nibbling his way up her thigh. Ah, fond memories……..
Richard Marquand was your director on Return of the Jedi. What are your memories regarding working with him and George Lucas?
Richard was a very patient director. You had to be, with so many special effects to incorporate into each shot. He was from the “Old School” of British directors. They ran things like a military campaign. There was only one man in charge and his word was God. Not like today where the director has three producers and five accountants continually trying to knock him off the pedestal.
Richard had a wonderful dry sense of humor. When egos bloated or tempers flared, Richard would have a comment to slice though the problem and get us all marching in the same direction again.
George Lucas is a very quiet man. You have to strain just to hear what he is saying to you sometimes. He came from the world of the editing suite where there aren’t many people around for days on end. You always felt as if he found it painful to be out in public. Having said that, he didn’t need to make much noise. By the time we were doing Jedi, his reputation came into the room ahead of him. You always knew when George was on set even if you hadn’t seen him yet. There was a subtle shift in the vibe on the floor. He ran the production like an editor would. He took ideas and suggestions from everybody and then used his editors’ eye to know which bits to keep and which bits to throw on the floor.
There were a lot of puppeteers involved with Return of the Jedi, especially regarding the Jabba’s Palace scenes.
Yes, we had a combination of puppeteers and mine artists. People who were interested in physical movement. Most of us had already worked together on Jim Henson’s film, The Dark Crystal so it was more like a class reunion.
How did actors like Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels react to all of you?
Harrison stayed in his own space most of the time.
Carrie loved to flirt, and liked hanging out with the crew.
Mark used to do his own stop action figures, so he was very interested in seeing and “playing” with all the animatronic characters.
Anthony Daniels was always locked in his costume which made interaction difficult. But I think he prefers things that way.
And how were they on the set? Were they seen as ‘big stars’ by you?
There is always an excitement about meeting the ‘big stars’ for the first time. But that quickly wears off, and they become one of the guys. I think that is why they put themselves through the film making process over and over. It’s not the money, though that helps. It’s the only place left where they are treated like normal people, and they crave what they have lost more than anything else.
In the Classic Creatures documentary we see you puppeteer Salacious Crumb and Admiral Ackbar. We can even see you acting out scenes in which your voice is being used.
For the movie, they used the voices of Mark Dodson (Salacious Crumb) and Erik Bauersfeld (Admiral Ackbar).
How do you feel about the fact your voice wasn’t used?
When I was performing the characters I was stuck inside a foam head or stuffed under a set so the quality of the sound was never good enough to be used in the final edit. I always knew they would have to be overdubbed, and that they weren’t going to pay for me to fly back all the way from England to do a couple of hours work.
Having worked for Muppets I was used to having up to six people working together to create one character. I love watching a crew work seamlessly to bring an inanimate object to life. It is the character that is important, not my ego. Besides, I was only 25, try my best I would not have the gravel in my voice that an older man would have for Ackbars performance.
You did 3 characters in Star Wars: Sy Snootles, Salacious Crumb and Admiral Ackbar. I’d like to hear from you: which one was the hardest to do?
Sy Snootles was the hardest to do. I designed her as a reverse string marionette which I operated with Mike Quinn. Instead of hanging the figure on strings and pulling her off the ground, the weight was supported on elastic from above and then pulled down so you could get a much more solid positive movement than a classic marionette would give. When Mike and I got the timing just right she was magical, when we didn’t she would fly out of control and loose all sense of life.
They never gave us enough takes to get it right when the pressure was on, and so she was the first of my characters to be replaced by CG. If anyone has a copy that still has the original performance on it I would love to have a copy as I never bought one at the time. After all I had already seen the movie!
Which one did you love to do the most when the movie was filmed?
Oh come on, a young man with his own spaceship and crew after growing up watching Star Wars in the cinema? You have a guess.
And which one is your favorite now, 23 years later.
Thank you for reminding me about the 23 years. Salacious Crumb is my alter ego. He was getting me in trouble back then and he still sneaks out when I’m not looking to get me in trouble now.
Return to Oz, in which you designed and puppeteered Tik-Tok, was intended to be a huge blockbuster, but the studio wasn’t that co-operative. They even tried to get rid of director Walter Murch, but he decided to make a call, which eventually led to three legendary directors visiting the set. Can you tell us about this event and how you experienced all this?
I can tell from the question you know the answer already, but a good story is always worth telling again.
(Editors note: Tim told me this story back in 2005)
Three weeks before the start of shooting the Disney Corp got cold feet and cut the budget in half. We were now in a mad scramble to save what would have been a fantastic film. Walter was working 24/7 to rewrite the script to fit the new budget. Everyone else was working 24/7 to design and build sets that had always been location shoots up to that point.
We started filming on which ever set had been built, totally out of sequence with the script, which makes continuity a nightmare. Well, what a surprise? The shoot went behind schedule.
Disney decided in their wisdom, that Walter, who had written the script and spent ten years trying to get his project off the ground was the reason that the project was behind schedule. It had to be him, “PRODUCERS ARE NEVER WRONG”, or so they insist that we believe if we want to work.
But you can’t just fire a director, you have to undermine him and drive him insane so you can prove incompetence.
Walter was told that he would only be allowed to continue if he could find a co-director that Disney could approve. They sat back and rubbed their hands together. They had him now, anyone he put up they would shoot down, and then bring in one of their old faithful directors who never made anything anyone can remember, but boy were they good at sticking to a schedule.
Walter was well respected in the business for his editing, and had studied at UCLA with a few other people who were changing things in Hollywood as well. So he called his old college buddies for help. They happened to be Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas. They were all involved in their own projects at the time, but agreed to come over and see what they could do about the situation.
So we ended up with all three directors sitting on the side of the set while we were filming the Gump’s escape scene from Mombi’s tower. They hadn’t all been together since school and they were like kids again.
Comments like, “Jesus Christ Walter, are you really going to turn over on that setup? Maybe Disney was right after all!!” Followed by raucous laughter was the level that things tended to stay at.
After a week they all met with the Disney producers and handed in their verdict which went something like this.
As far as they could see the root of the problem lay not in the director’s incompetence, but in the fact that he was spending so much time trying to protect him from the Disney producers he had no time left to do the job they had hired him to do in the first place. So they backed off leaving one producer on set just to keep an eye on things. He turned out to be a very good trumpet player, and thought he knew the secret of how to turn film to gold. He had a couple of films out at the time that were grossing well at the box office.
I haven’t heard his name around in a long time now, but Walter is still very much in demand.
The 70’s and especially the 80’s were the glory days of puppeteering.
Since CGI has made its entrance the art of puppeteering is disappearing. What is your view on this and why would puppeteering be better than CGI according to you?
CGI has begun to use puppeteers in motion capture suits to help get a more realistic movement to the characters but the big problem remains. As with stop action animation from so long ago, they can not interact directly with the environment they are meant to be in.
As animatronics evolved the characters were getting more and more complex. All the controls had to be hidden as the shots were all “in camera”. The figures were beginning to loose their life under the weight of their own mechanics.
With the advent of computers it is now very easy to hide the way an animatronic character is done so they could be made much cheaper than CGI and have better interaction on set. They could be, but producers are too busy trying to out do each other and have the “next big thing” in their movies to ever see the simple truth.
What do you regard as your best puppet-performance ever? And why?
I am very proud of my work on Howard the Duck. Although Tad Chenovski and I were only brought in three weeks before the start of filming to “fix things,” and it was too late to do anything about the horrendous design of the duck, the amount of movement that we got out of the animatronics was very good.
Here was an animatronic character that was operating in the real world and staring in the movie. You must remember this was before Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the other big Animatronic films that were to follow.
You have done a lot of conventions over the years. What is the biggest kick you get meeting the fans?
Well actually I don’t do many conventions at all. I only started going to them about six years ago, and then only when I feel like a little mini break from the day job.
I was worried that the fans were going to be a bit weird. But I have met so many lovely people who have helped to restore my faith in humanity. The husband with a long suffering wife at his side as he collects autographs, the couples who first met because of their mutual interest in Star Wars, and the young Jedi so nervous to meet a ‘Star’. The world is full of really beautiful people, don’t believe everything you see in the news.
And what is the nicest thing a fan has ever done for you?
The prides of my Star Wars collection are two action figures that were made for me by fans. One is me with Salacious Crumb on my arm and the other is Admiral Ackbar with his head under his arm and my head on the figure as if I had just come out of costume. They took a lot of time to do and I am not worthy.
What is your general feeling towards signing photos and memorabilia?
I have never enjoyed being treated like a star, I much prefer just to be one of the boys, but when I hand back the signed photo or action figure the person looks genuinely happy and if I helped them to feel that way then I did something good.
And what is the craziest/weirdest item you have ever signed?
At Celebration III in Indianapolis, a very drunk young lady came up to me in the hotel bar and insisted I sign her ……….! Well, enough said.
You are one of the few Star Wars autograph guests who “prints” your name, instead of a cursive signature. Is there a reason for this?
There are two reasons. The first is I am left handed and my cursive writing is like chicken scratches. The second is, I hate when people show me a photo they have paid for and it is impossible to tell who signed it.