Panic not, readers, this story was completed on schedule but it was a close one; we had to double our efforts!
It took a lot of waiting, but we finally encounter Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi with a grand entrance to make even Darth Vader himself drop to one knee. It was an iconic scene and our guest is here to talk us through it.
Kenneth Coombs has a huge acting CV with heavyweight films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Octopussy, Superman IV, Batman and Rush combined with TV appearances on Minder, Space Precinct and Lewis. Ken is as experienced as they come in film and television, but he also portrayed an Imperial Officer in Jedi. A tiring role, no doubt, with Darth Vader’s pressure on him! Ken talks us through his role and the fandom he has encountered since.
Thank you, Ken, for sharing your story with us. How are you keeping at this difficult time?
It’s a problem really because I’ve got so much time on my hands and because of my age I’m not supposed to go out, but thank God for the good weather we’ve had! It’ll get better and I’m still doing the film work. The last one I did was the beginning of the week that everything closed down, so hopefully once it starts again it will pick up. We have to remain positive.
You were part of one of the most iconic moments in Star Wars, the huge scene that introduced the Emperor. Before we go into any detail on that, how did you end up there?
It was early in my career in film, I think it was my third or fourth film. I was sent up to Elstree Studios by my agent for a part in Revenge of the Jedi, as it was known then.
I didn’t really know what it was. I’d seen the first Star Wars film at a charity screening in Leicester Square and I thought it was fantastic, but I hadn’t seen Empire and it wasn’t until I got there that I realised what I was going to be working on. It was a simple way of getting into it.
By the time of Return of the Jedi, the Star Wars saga was in full flow. Did it feel “big” at that point?
Not when we were making it to be honest. I was lucky to be chosen as an Imperial Officer. I just as easily could have been a Stormtrooper, but it was a case of not fitting the costume as Stormtroopers needed to be smaller. A lot of my friends were Stormtroopers. Once you got into that costume in the morning you couldn’t get out of it until the evening, whereas I had a bit more comfort.
The scene with the Emperor’s arrival and the reveal looked massive and had a very military feel to it. Was it massive on set?
I’m not quite sure how many of us were there, 150 maybe. It wasn’t CGI in those days, it was painted on glass. There were about five rows of Imperial Officers and five rows of Stormtroopers so it wasn’t until you saw it on screen you realised how large it was. You could see the bare bones of the studio from certain angles.
Personally, what would you say is your best story from working on Star Wars?
At the time it’s just another day and another job, but with hindsight I remember it very fondly and I’ve got quite a clear view of that day. When you are working with the same group of people on different days you make some great friends.
The humorous thing that I remember about the shoot was after lunch. I wear glasses and we had done two run-throughs where I had forgotten to take my glasses off. The officer next to me whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “You’ve got your glasses on,” and thankfully it wasn’t used in the takes.
I didn’t realise I was an Imperial Officer, actually. I was referring to myself as one of Darth Vader’s “Men in Black” and it wasn’t until I started doing conventions that I realised what my position was, ha-ha!
I suppose you were quite lucky because you aren’t behind a mask or prosthetics. Was that an advantage during the shooting?
I was incredibly lucky and I’m on the front row there, the only one with a moustache. It’s easy to spot me and they used the shot with me on the toys, which was doubly lucky. I only found out about that when I was sent one from America and I saw my picture on the back. I hadn’t realised that, so it was great because I knew I’d done the role but how could I prove it, and suddenly I’m on the action figure photo and I’ve managed to use that ever since.
You went on to small roles in many huge films. Was Star Wars the catalyst for that?
It doesn’t really work like that to be honest. With Superman and Indiana Jones and so on, a role in one doesn’t influence the others. I did four Bond films, too. You’ll get fans at conventions who are there for Bond, Batman and the other ones as well. Willow and Space Precinct are popular, too – a lot of these films or shows have a following. I think I’m close to 600 roles now. So long as I can get up in the morning, I can still do it.
As an actor, is it a challenge to be known as someone from Star Wars?
Not at all, I take it as a great compliment. What’s so nice about the conventions is that you are meeting the fans and these days it’s grandfather, father and sons – a whole new generation picks it up. I watched Jedi again on television and I can see why people have more fond memories of it. There are more people than the newer films and the tone is a little lighter.
I’m very proud of having done it. Jedi is my favourite thing I’ve ever done. I’m on TV repeats of stuff like Minder all the time and it’s not quite the same, ha-ha! I just wish I’d gotten into them sooner and worked on the previous two films. I’ve always thought at my funeral they should play the Imperial March for me going in or coming out.
I hope we are talking about a long way into the future there! Speaking of the future, what roles do you have coming up?
I have to be a bit careful as I’ve got three or four I can’t mention because of non-disclosure agreements, but I’ve worked recently on the Hugh Laurie comedy Avenue 5, The Crown and a BBC and Apple TV show called Trying with Rafe Spall, so look out for those.
No shortage of Ken on your TV screens everyone! You can contact Ken directly here to purchase signed figures and photos in the absence of conventions.
Keep checking back for more Star Wars Stories and until the next time, I’ll be there for you…Cassian said I had to.
Did you enjoy reading this interview? If more of the Empire is your thing then why not check out the Star Wars story of Darth Vader himself, Spencer Wilding. Read more by clicking here.