The Star Wars community was saddened by the passing of Kenny Baker, the actor who portrayed fan-favorite astromech droid R2-D2 in the first six films of the franchise. Though Baker's face was never seen on screen, he had a profound impact on millions of viewers across the world, as Artoo became an integral part of the series. The feisty little robot is one of the first characters audiences see in the original movie, kickstarting the entire plot by delivering a secret message to Obi-Wan Kenobi. In essence, the whole saga happens because of R2-D2.
It's no coincidence that R2-D2 is always saving the day. In the DVD audio commentary for Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas himself stated that Artoo is his favorite character, and he always made sure there was at least one scene in each film where he came to the aid of the heroes (i.e. turning off the trash compactors, repairing the Naboo ship). Lucas was also quite fond of Baker, and reflected upon the actor's contributions to the films in a statement.
The Baker obituary on starwars.com including the following quote from Lucas:
“Kenny Baker was a real gentleman as well as an incredible trooper who always worked hard under difficult circumstances. A talented vaudevillian who could always make everybody laugh, Kenny was truly the heart and soul of R2-D2 and will be missed by all his fans and everyone who knew him.”
While many of the droids featured in the Star Wars films are remote controlled or CGI creations, Lucas knew from the start that the two main ones, C-3PO and R2-D2, would require a more personal touch by way of having performers play them. Having Baker in costume made Artoo feel more "human" than he would have otherwise, which certainly helped moviegoers connect with the robot. As Lucas says, Baker also deserves much credit for enduring tough working conditions, which included being in the suit in the scorching Tunisia heat (at times, the crew forgot he was in there). There was no shortage of hard times on the Star Wars set, but Baker kept his spirits high and made the best of the situation.
Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy also offered her thoughts on Baker, echoing Lucas' sentiments:
“We’re all saddened to learn of Kenny’s passing. There is no Star Wars without R2-D2, and Kenny defined who R2-D2 was and is. He will be greatly missed.”
Even today, the studio still understands the importance of having an actor under the dome. For Rian Johnson's Star Wars: Episode VIII, Jimmy Vee took over the role, continuing the tradition that Baker started 40 years ago. It's nice to see Lucasfilm committed to the old way of doing things, paying respect to the long-lasting legacy. R2-D2 is undoubtedly one of the most popular and beloved characters in the entire Star Wars lore, and that's in part because of what Baker brought to the droid. He helped make Artoo the icon he is, and can never truly be "replaced." Fans everywhere will miss him dearly.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens in U.S. theaters on December 16, 2016, followed by Star Wars: Episode VIII on December 15, 2017, the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25, 2018, Star Wars: Episode IX in 2019, and the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.