Empire Chronicles: Emperor Palpatine
Welcome to a look Inside The Holocron. A collection of articles from the archives of *starwars.com that are no longer directly available.
(*Archived here with Permission)
Empire Chronicles: Emperor Palpatine
“There is a great disturbance in the Force”
In the spirit of Empire‘s 30th anniversary this week (May 21st), we felt that a visit from one of the film’s most resonant characters — Emperor Palpatine — was in order, given his pivotal role within the Star Wars saga.
Turning in a performance that lasted less than a minute, Empire‘s Palpatine gave audiences their first exposure to the deeper mysteries of the Sith, a term that was still vaguely defined at the time (in fact, most fans hadn’t even heard of the Sith until the word appeared on a 1977 Star Wars bubblegum card).
What makes the Emperor’s appearance in Empire noteworthy to those with a scholarly interest in the films is the character’s different voice and appearance in the 1980 original — different, that is, from Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine performances in Return of the Jedi and the prequels. For the 2004 DVD release of Empire, Ian McDiarmid gave a new performance — with a couple dialog tweaks — for the film’s Emperor, giving the character a uniform look and voice to mesh seamlessly with the rest of the saga.
Since our Empire Chronicles feature strives to document the behind-the-scenes story of the characters, creatures, and spacecraft of The Empire Strikes Back, we’re limiting our discussion of Emperor Palpatine to his original 1980 performance, which consisted of a woman’s face, a Broadway actor’s voice, and — would you believe — a chimpanzee’s eyes.
George Lucas (ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster)
“Aided and abetted by restless, power-hungry individuals within the government, and the massive organs of commerce, the ambitious Senator Palpatine caused himself to be elected President of the Republic. He promised to reunite the disaffected among the people and to restore the remembered glory of the Republic. Once secure in office he declared himself Emperor, shutting himself away from the populace. Soon he was controlled by the very assistants and boot-lickers he had appointed to high office, and the cries of the people for justice did not reach his ears.”
— Prologue, Star Wars: A New Hope novelization (Nov 1976)
Laurent Bouzereau, author
“During meetings George Lucas and [initial screenwriter] Leigh Brackett decided that the Emperor and the Force had to be the two main concerns in the film; the Emperor had barely been dealt with in the first movie, and the intention in the sequel was to deal with him on a more concrete level. Eventually this idea was used later on, in the third film. The Emperor, however, was then envisioned as a bureaucrat, Nixonian in his outlook and sort of a Wizard of Oz-type person.
— Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays (1997)
Mark Hamill, actor, “Luke Skywalker”
“Originally, I saw a lot of sketches [of the Emperor], and I told them how I thought he should be. I thought he should be like the Wizard of Oz. Maybe the images should change so you can’t really get a fix on him. Have it like a beautiful woman’s lips moving, and that fades to a stop-frame animation creature, to an actor in makeup. So you just can’t pin it down.”
“The first time I saw the Emperor I was disappointed. I thought he was too human, too ordinary. You figure if Darth Vader bows and says, ‘Yes, My Lord,’ the guy’s got to be a real horror. But it’s interesting because the Emperor was an actress, dubbed with a male voice, and monkey’s eyes superimposed.”
— Starlog #40 (Nov 1980)
Ken Ralston, Effects Cameraman
“To create the hologram of the Emperor we shot a person in makeup with the eye sockets blacked out. George wanted to put some different, stranger eyes in the Emperor so we wound up shooting a chimpanzee and then match-moving the eyes into the Emperor. That was again rephotographed off of a television screen to get the look of the hologram.”
— Star Wars: The Definitive Collection laserdisc commentary (1993)
Clive Revill, original voice of “Emperor Palpatine” for 1980 release
“I’d done a film for [Empire director] Irvin Kershner called A Fine Madness…I got a call from Kershner, and he said, ‘Listen, I want you to come down and read something.’ I didn’t have anything planned that day, so I went down to the recording studio. He showed me some clips, and he said, ‘Read it and get some oomph in it.’ So I read the stuff through, and gave it the oomph, and they tinkered around with it — and the result is that I get a lot of mail.”
— Star Wars Insider #49 (May/June 2000)
Michael Matessino, author
[Regarding the music in the Emperor scene]: “For this ominous sequence, [composer John] Williams applies very quiet atonal strings and celeste.”
— The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition Soundtrack liner notes (1997)
Thank you for reading this post.