Arts & Culture News

Actor Clive Revill Opens Up About Playing the Evil Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back

Actor Clive Revill didn't have a lot of screen time in the original cut of The Empire Strikes Back, but his voice helped reveal Darth Vader's power.
Actor Clive Revill didn't have a lot of screen time in the original cut of The Empire Strikes Back, but his voice helped reveal Darth Vader's power. Courtesy of Galactic Productions
Clive Revill will appear at Infinicon at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Addison this weekend.
Actor Clive Revill has more than 180 acting credits in films, television shows and video games spanning practically every genre of entertainment.

Besides being a renowned theater actor with more than 60 years of acting experience, he's co-starred in movies with actors such as Jack Lemmon and Elliot Gould and been directed in serious dramas and goofy parodies by the likes of Billy Wilder and Mel Brooks.

He also appeared on the final episode of the NBC detective series Columbo, the sitcom Newhart and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and played Bruce Wayne's trusty butler, Alfred, on Batman: The Animated Series.

However, the role he gets asked about most is one that earned him less than a minute of screen time. Technically, he doesn't even appear on camera. All you hear is his dark, cold voice giving life to one of the most heartless villains in film history.

"I've seen people blanch, turn white," Revill says. "They just go back to the time when they were seeing that one movie, which was the beginning of this whole thing that's become very big."

Revill, who will appear at this weekend's Infinicon gathering in Addison, was the first actor to play the evil Emperor Palpatine on the big screen in 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. The pivotal scene reveals the full power of Sith lord Darth Vader.

Revill's road to Star Wars infamy began during his theater school days. The Wellington, New Zealand, native traveled to England in 1950 to study at the Bristol Old Vic theater school, which actor Lawrence Olivier had founded just a few years earlier. Revill says the lessons he learned at the school continue to drive his performances.

"It was quite an experience, and I had my doubts at one point when I thought, 'I can't do it. I can't do this. I can't find it within myself,'" Revill says. "I had a marvelous talk with a woman who was, well, she was in charge of movement in school and she took me aside and said, 'You've got to go back to within yourself and find the truth within yourself, and if you can find that truth, never, never, never lose it because it's more than a ring on a finger. It's the absolute, innermost line within your life and your spirit.'"

Just a few years later, Revill flew to New York City to star in The Pickwick Papers on Broadway. He continued to star when the series made it to the BBC. "Television was creeping in at that point," he says.

"The world was changing in London," Revill continues. "There was a feeling we'll be doing exactly what we were doing for the last 100 years, but we weren't."

From then on, Revill found himself a steady series of roles in both television and movies; he became one of the most in-demand character actors in both mediums. He even earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1973 for his role in Billy Wilder's romantic comedy Avanti!.

"I have never had to take another job," Revill says. "I didn't have to go out and sell shoes or dig up the roads or anything like that. I always just went from one to the other."

His voice-only role in The Empire Strikes Back came about from his longtime friendship with the film's director, Irvin Kershner. The director just needed Revill to say a couple of lines for a short but pivotal scene in which Vader communicates with the Emperor that "there is a great disturbance in the Force" via a holographic projection.

Revill says Kershner had him record his line after giving him a crash course on the events in the Star Wars universe. He says he looked at the handful of lines and gave Kershner three takes. The final of the three ended up in the film.

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Revill says Kershner had him record his line in a studio on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles after giving him a crash course on the events in the Star Wars universe. He says he looked at the handful of lines and gave Kershner three takes. The final of the three ended up in the original movie.

The part was rather small, considering how important the Emperor was to the following Star Wars movies, but Revill believes the brevity of the scene reveals a lot about the character and his motivations.

"It's just seven words, but those words encompass the absolute idea," Revill says. "From this character who came from somewhere was the essence of that somewhere. To this place, this lump of grubby rock where everyone's just walking about and smashing each other, and it wasn't what he thought could happen and why did he do that? Because he had an idea. Anybody can throw rocks at each other or pull a trigger, but it didn't drive him. It was there within him and he used that thing to change the quintessence of the idea."

Revill's voice remained in the film for more than 20 years, until director George Lucas' constant tinkering with the original trilogy resulted in the pivotal scene being replaced in 2004 by a holographic projection of actor Ian McDiarmid, who played the evil Emperor in Return of the Jedi. However, fans who care about cinematic purity consider the cut with Revill's performance required viewing.

Revill, however, is very humble about it. He's clearly proud to have played even a small part in what he calls "one of the most extraordinary ideas that's ever come out of somebody's head."

If anything, his almost-hidden presence as the first Star Wars Emperor makes his public presence more intriguing to the fans he meets at conventions.

"I'll say, 'Why don't you come around here behind the desk where we're signing these things?'" Revill says. "'Now I want you to shut your eyes. Can you remember it?' 'Oh God, I'll never forget it.' 'Well, just shut your eyes for a moment. Can you see it?'"

Then, Revill says, he delivers his most famous line as the fan is watching the scene in his or her mind.

"I've had people damn near faint," Revill says with a laugh.

Infinicon, Friday, Aug. 11, through Sunday, Aug. 13, Crowne Plaza Hotel Addison, 14315 Midway Road, $20 to $40,

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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.