There is something to be said about life and how we view it through our eyes as children. As a child things looked so big to me. When I was 7 years old my aunt Peggy took me and my cousin Mike to see STAR WARS. It was the first time I had ever been to a drive-in theater and when the movie began everything in front of me was so big. I remember every moment of that night as if it just happened today.
I wasn’t aware at that time of the seismic shift it would send through Hollywood and how movies moving forward would be made. I do however remember waking up the very next morning thinking I had just witnessed something I would never forget. And, for the rest of my summer all I would talk about was STAR WARS.
As a little boy growing up where the kids in my neighborhood changed their attitudes toward me like we changed clothes every day, STAR WARS was my refuge. It became my saving grace from the boredom that would come when those kids I played with decided to play with someone else and shut me out. My imagination helped me feel better about myself and raise my self-esteem levels when they tried so hard to knock it down.
It wasn’t Luke Skywalker or Han Solo or Princess Leia that I identified with. I thought Darth Vader and the stormtroopers were bad ass. But, they were not the ones I thought stood out to me at that age. And, when you think of how big and how powerful the Empire was in that movie, it would be real easy to side with the mightier force. But, not even the heavy-hitters of the Empire could ever surpass the child-like wonder, uncertainty about the future, or sometimes scared feelings that R2-D2 conveyed to me.
I might not have known then that a little person was inside that shell of plastic and wires, but as I grew older and came to know the truth, it didn’t crack my belief in a little droid that always could. Quite to the contrary, it made me believe even more that there was nobody in that robot. Kenny Baker achieved more unseen than Anthony Daniels as C-3PO ever could; at least to me.
When I met him at Ghoulardifest in Cleveland in 1999, Kenny Baker was kind, considerate, and eager to know what STAR WARS meant to me and how I had come to love it so much. Since I was helping Big Chuck and Li’l John at the event, I was able to interact with him quite a lot that day. He and his wife were so excited whenever someone came up to their table.
Kenny got to know everyone. He made friends fast among the kids who came to see him. These kids were the generation that came after me and their parents. Kenny welcomed them all to his table; old and young, as if they were his own children and grandchildren. He was very unassuming and eager to share stories from the set or what it was like to try and turn R2’s dome. “It was on a track of ball bearings and I could not turn it too far or the wires would get wrapped around my neck.” He went on to say; “George told me to make R2-D2 look happy. I thought, ‘”How am I going to do that? They couldn’t see me inside the thing. So I would just smile and look happy. And, he was right because it seemed to work.”
Over those ten hours he signed a lot of pictures and I walked by his table as he was packing it in and said; “What a great time we all had.” He looked at me, smiled, jokingly stuck his tongue out as if he were exhausted, and quipped back; “I love doing this for people. It always makes me happy. I love giving back their love.”
As we said our goodbyes, we exchanged handshakes, and his wife gave me a hug and a kiss on my cheek. When they walked out to their car that was waiting to take them back to their hotel near the airport, Kenny looked back at me as I was carrying a table out with another worker. “May The Force be with you, Tom.” he smiled. I said; “May The Force be with you, too Kenny.” And he pulled his door shut and the car drove them away.
Kenny Baker may have become one with The Force yesterday, but no matter how you see him (or don’t); in the six STAR WARS films he made inside the R2-D2 costume, or if you met him at a convention. Nobody could disarm you with their smile, charm, or wit better than Kenny. Every person who approached him was given their fair share of time with him. And there was no ego.
I know that R2-D2 came across onscreen as an evolving child. As one myself once, I grew to appreciate him for what he was. He was a myth. He was a fantasy. He was a fairy tale. He was a child who always tried to please his parents or, in this case, parent (C-3PO) and his masters. When I watch the original film now, it will be with a slight feeling of melancholy. After all, a piece of my childhood went with Kenny Baker yesterday and although he has become one with The Force, it is nice to know that the iconic droid he left us on film will outlast all of us in the end.
Perhaps it is that iconic droid we all came to believe in and love that will become his legacy. We will never know what Kenny Baker was saying under R2-D2’s dome itself. He was so vulgar they bleeped out every single word he spoke in the movie. Maybe that too will be his legacy.
Goodbye Kenny. And thank you for teaching me as a young child, as well as now, 39 years later, that it will always be okay to be a kid at heart. Your journey has only just begun. Enjoy your travels and your rest. You’ve certainly earned them.