The Star Wars franchise has come back in a big way over the past year, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens proving to be a big hit and a whole slate of exciting new movies to look forward to. Today, however, Star Wars fans must say a sad farewell to a performer who has been a part of the franchise since A New Hope hit theaters in 1977. Kenny Baker, who played Luke Skywalker's android friend R2-D2 in the Star Wars movies, and also had a small role as an Ewok in Return of the Jedi, has passed away at the age of 81, following a long illness.
Baker was born in Birmingham on August 24, 1934. He was born with a form of dwarfism, and as an adult stood at just 3ft 8in tall, making him the ideal height to be the man inside R2-D2. After Star Wars kicked off his film career, Baker went on to make appearances in Flash Gordon, The Elephant Man, and Time Bandits, as well as numerous other movies and TV shows. In 1970 he married fellow actor Eileen Baker, with whom he had two children, and the couple remained together until Eileen died of epilepsy in 1993.
Baker's niece Abigail Shield paid tribute to her uncle in a statement to The Guardian, explaining that Baker had been "very poorly for a long time":
"It was expected, but it’s sad nonetheless. He had a very long and fulfilled life. He brought lots of happiness to people and we’ll be celebrating the fact that he was well loved throughout the world. We’re all very proud of what he achieved in his lifetime... When he was a child, he was told that he probably wouldn’t survive through puberty, being a little person in those times, they didn’t have a very good life expectancy. He did extremely well in his life."
Baker was very active on the convention circuit over the years, meeting many fans face-to-face for autographs and photos. Shield says that he was invited to the L.A. premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but was unable to make it since he was too ill to travel. However, he was able to reconnect with Star Wars director George Lucas when Lucas made a trip to Manchester following the UK premiere. R2-D2 is a much-loved and long-standing member of the Star Wars family, and Baker is sure to be fondly remembered.
R.I.P. Kenneth George Baker: August 24, 1934 – August 13, 2016