Ralph Morse - The Big Star Wars Interview
Ralph Morse ,His role as stormtroopers in both "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of
the Jedi" has influenced his songwriting, particularly "Starfighters Hit Zero" and "Am I
All That Is Left Of An Empire". "I Shot A ... Jedi" is one of Morse's most recent
explorations on the theme and forms the basis for his latest acting and writing project,
a musical scheduled for completion by the end of 2016
Thank you Ralph for your time for this Interview and the fans.
Can you tell me how you got cast in Star Wars?
Although it may seem strange now when I was offered an audition for the role of a desk officer in a new film "The Empire Strikes Back", I had no idea it was a Star Wars movie. At that time there were a number of films and television series set in India and I thought "The Empire" was probably another one. When I asked my agent, he simply said, "you'll find out when you get there". Even when I arrived at Elstree and was directed to the "Star Wars" stage I didn't immediately make the connection. It was only when I met the team that I knew it was in fact the second film to be made.
The original intention was for me to audition for a couple of lines as a desk officer. But while I was waiting, I caught sight of Peter Diamond. Peter Diamond had been the stunt director on the television series "Dick Turpin" in which I had played a blackguard in one episode entitled "The Upright Man". This was significant for a particular reason. We were filming at a coach house, somewhere in Hertfordshire, I believe, and I was all made up to look like a ruffian. At that stage in my career I hadn't grasped the simple fact that there is a lot of waiting around when making a film or television series and had wandered on to the set and asked Charles Crichton, the director what he wanted me to do. An assistant told me to fall down a staircase. I made several terrible attempts to fall convincingly when the stuntman actually called to do the shot turned up. Everybody thought that was who I was. To be fair in make-up and costume we did look very similar. Peter Diamond, the stunt director, then arrived and could have been very cross with me. As it was, he saw the funny side of things and allowed me to watch a few set ups. He had been a RADA trained actor himself and understood my desire and enthusiasm to get on with things.
When Peter saw me at the Star Wars audition, he remembered me. At that point they wanted reliable artists to work alongside the stunt team in some of the action shots and he thought I would fit in nicely.
After a brief wait, a proposition was put to me; I could have a couple of days work as the desk officer or a few months on the film mainly as a stormtrooper. I opted for the latter and that I was how I became cast in Star Wars.
How did playing various parts in two Star Wars movies change your life?
This is not an easy question to answer. I was a classically trained theatre actor and at the time was part of "Causes Theatre Company", a small but artistically significant touring company. I had no expectations of a huge film career and was undertaking extra work and small roles for the experience and as a way of supplementing my meagre theatre income and complimenting my work as a teacher. Much of my income, along with the other actors in the company, was used to keep "Causes" running as a viable artistic venture. We must have done something right because in 1980 I won the theatre associates best actor award for my performance as King Lear and Billy Fisher in Billy Liar for the company.
When the "Empire Strikes Back" was released, I therefore found it slightly bewildering that the media were more interested in my work as a supporting artist in a film than my success as an actor in the theatre. When I stepped back and thought about it, the answer was obvious. No more than a few thousand people had seen my theatre performances but millions had had their lives changed by Star Wars. It was, and still is, the biggest movie phenomenon of all time. My own cathartic moment had occurred a decade earlier, with a film that changed my perspective on art, film, music, religion, space and technology. That film was "(A Space Odyssey)" and it was an inspirational experience. For millions that cathartic moment occurred with "Star Wars" and by the time I started filming "Return of the Jedi" I had also made that connection.
Over the years new generations discover the magic of the movies, I consider myself privileged and honoured to be a small part of the "Star Wars" universe. Through my association with the films I have met some truly wonderful people. It is a joy to meet fans, to hear their own stories and I am humbled to be part of such a life affirming journey. To give you just one example. In 2011 a very virulent strain of what is commonly known as "swine flu" struck the UK. Many people died from the outbreak. In Colchester there was a young builder, Simon Leonard, who very nearly succumbed to it. He was rushed into a hospital in Leicester, England where he was placed on an extra-corporeal oxygenation unit. Basically because his lungs had failed, his blood was oxygenated by a machine until they began to re-function for themselves. Simon is a very caring and exceptional human being and wanted in some way to help the hospital that had saved his life.
He was, and continues to be, a costume re-enactor who appears at events across the country helping to raise money for good causes.
His thank you to Leicester was one of the most inspired and wonderful creations I have ever had the good fortune to witness.
With the support of business woman and sci-fi fan, Kerrie Williams, Simon created "Invasion Colchester". There is as far as I am aware nothing quite like it. "Invasion Colchester" takes place in the very heart of the town. Hundreds of characters in the most exciting costumes you can imagine descend upon the town for one day every year, meet, converse and interact with the general public.
Fully operational androids in a number of forms, including R2D2 mingle with the public while they also enjoy vehicles from cult films and television such as "The Dukes of Hazzard", "Only Fools and Horses" and "Dr Who."
The Star Wars characters, especially Darth Vader and his Stormtroopers are always enormously popular and it is a great honour for me to appear as myself and my alter-ego Johnny Cashbox. Local and national charities and other organisations benefit from the money that is raised through the event. It really is placing "The Force" for good on the streets. What finer legacy can you have?
... and this is just one example.
My association with Star Wars has certainly changed my life, but what is to me of greater importance, is how those films have changed the lives of others who have themselves gone to do things to make the world a better place. As I said earlier, I am humbled to be part of this great adventure ,,, and it continues.
What are your memories of filming?
I have many happy and vivid memories of filming. If you do not object, I will stick to the "funny" moments in this interview.
As an imperial Stormtrooper I remember falling over quite a lot. Depending upon how you landed it was not funny at the time, but looking back is often hilarious.
The obvious place to start is my first shot. I was given a helmet to wear and a blaster and instructed to run with three other stormtroopers down a corridor. Well, I couldn't see a thing through the helmet, staggered like a drunk, bumped into the other troopers and crashed headlong into a wall. After all the fuss of my casting, I began to think I should have taken the desk officer role after all.
Don't forget that each shot costs money. Our Chelsea boots left marks on the white set, the wall I had crashed into required repointing, my fellow troopers and myself needed minor repairs to our costumes but worse of all I felt like a fool. My embarrassment was relieved a little when an assistant took a look at my helmet. Some well meaning member of the crew had been asked to clean the lenses and had used "Brasso" an abrasive to do so and consequently scratched them so badly that it was like looking through the mottled glass of a toilet window. Fortunately, I was given a new helmet and could see better. It has to be said that the visibility of stormtrooper helmet is never good, but at least I could now see which vaguely direction I was supposed to be going. The re-shot was much more successful. There would, of course, be a lot more falling over to be done before I was finished.
Falling over during a shot is bad enough, but falling over trying to get on to the set is pretty bad by anyone's standards, but that is what happened during the Carbon Chamber sequence. The set was between fifteen and twenty feet off the ground and accessed through a series of ladders and ramps. Suffice to say, I nearly fell off trying to get on to it and had to be rescued by members of the crew. It was not so funny for one of my peers who did actually fell off during filming.
During the "get my shuttle" sequence the doors got stuck. These "automatic" doors were actually on pulleys and had managed to clog up. Whilst the set team were dealing with the problem, I started playing around with my blaster and tried holding it on my hip, as if I were carrying a shotgun in the wild west. When we were shortly after called upon to rehearse the scene I was still carrying my blaster in that style. Turned out is it wasn't a rehearsal after all and was actually being filmed and that is how I am preserved for posterity. (A clip of this shot appears in the interview I did for CNN Digital's "Great Big Story" in 2016).
The stormtrooper costume had other limitations. You couldn't fully bend your legs for one thing so kneeling was a technical impossibility. There was an effective, but rather time consuming solution; they simply cut "v" shapes out of the calf pieces on the body armour. You could then blast away until you had to stand up at which point a costumier would have to rebuild you. During filming, especially when explosions were involved, another important factor came into play. For action shots, the stuntmen had rubber suits that gave them a flexibility, not to mention a softer landing, than the rest of us. Sometimes you can really get involved with a sequence, so much so that when I consciously threw myself into a fall during a shot and landed firmly on my derriere, I felt it.
I did play other roles in "The Empire Strikes Back". Corporal Derdram is one such character. A close-up profile shot of him appears during the Millennium Falcon's assault on Darth Vader's Executor Star Destroyer. Irving Kershner was a little concerned that I was a little too high in the mise en scene, (the overall image). I suggested that I bend my legs while they filmed it. Didn't realise how long it would actually take to shoot it and had terrible cramp in the back of my legs for days afterwards. If you look at the sequence in the finished movie you can see that I am neither standing or sitting.
During the attack on Hoth, I was a rebel soldier running in the direction of the huge studio doors. The crew were throwing large blocks of polystyrene at us to add a sense of peril and urgency to the sequence. I resolved to fall appropriately if a piece hit me but nothing did. It was the only time in the filming of "The Empire" that I actually wanted to fall over, but ... didn't.
I need not have worried as "The Return of the Jedi" brought more crashing about!
I discovered yet another way to fall over. In order to create a greater sense of movement and pandemonium for the evacuation of the second "Death Star" small androids, about the size of radio controlled toy racing cars were incorporated into the action. Putting it all together, I am again running down a corridor, wearing a helmet that offers very little visibility and there are tiny robots moving around. There was an inevitability to this combination. The funny thing was when I tripped over one of these little androids and again crashed unceremoniously into the wall and fell to the ground, it was the health and safety of the robot that everybody was concerned about!
The basic truth is this; all stormtroopers fall over, however, unless they are being shot at or blown up, they are not supposed to!
With this is mind, the last memory I would like to share with you today is the strangest. Darth Vader, a number of other stormtroopers and myself spent a day filming what can only described as "bizarre" series of shots. We were positively encouraged to behave in un-stormtrooper like ways and strike the silliest poses we could think up. It was a fun day and quite unlike any other in the whole of the filming. I couldn't see how it would fit into the narrative and wondered if it was going to form some kind of dream sequence.
What I didn't discover until later, was that while we were enjoying ourselves, on the main stage, Vader's death scene with Luke was being filmed, with Sebastian Shaw as the mask-less Darth. Our scenes were not used in the final movie.
What was it like meeting and working with Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill?
It is very hard to think of Carrie without feeling deeply saddened by her loss at such a comparatively young age. She was an articulate, highly intelligent, witty and most of all warm human being. In most of the scenes in which we appeared together we tended to be shooting at each other. I remember talking to her briefly early one morning by the studio doors. She looked very delicate and I asked her if she was feeling all right. She told me she was a little tired, but fine and thanked me for my concern. When I saw her next it was on the set of the Carbon chamber, where she was totally focussed and in role as Leia. The world is a much poorer place without her. I had only a couple of conversations with Harrison Ford but found him to be a totally focussed and consummate professional.
I enjoyed many happy exchanges with Mark who was a joy to talk with. One little memory that always makes me smile. During a break in filming I was playing cards with some other stormtroopers. We had partially shed our armour and were quite relaxed despite the limitations of being perched items we had found on set. At one point I caught a fellow player smirking at me. I assumed he had a good hand and was pleased with himself. After a few minutes they all started laughing. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and when I turned round to see, it was Mark. He had been standing behind me most of the time and was reading my cards and had been making signs to indicate my hand to my fellow card players. Mark is very approachable, friendly and with a great sense of humour. At this point, a member of the crew appeared with a camera and took a shot of us. I have yet to see this picture published but it is out there, somewhere.
What is the favourite of all the roles you have played in Sci-Fi?
I have enjoyed all of my sci-fi roles. Before I give you the answer to your question, I would like to briefly mention a few others from the roles I have played.
Filming "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" was great fun. When your character is called the "Young Smartarse" and you single-handedly solve the solution to the infinite improbability generator and then get executed by your peers you have a complete story. Discussing the role with the writer, Douglas Adams, only added to the enjoyment of filming.
When I was shooting "Flash Gordon", in my role as an Arborian, I was writing a musical play, "Roger (A Busker)" about a missing model. I was lucky enough to spend some time with Carolyn Evans, a professional model herself, who was also in the film and she gave me insight into the industry that helped inform my writing. Although my role was small, it nonetheless helped to inform my theatre career and look back on filming with great fondness. Poliodorus, in "Riverworld"
also informed my writing and he even shares the name of a character in my play "The Bridging Zone."
I grew up with Dr Who so it was a real pleasure to work on "The Keeper of Traken" with Tom Baker. Tom and I both trained at Rose Bruford College and it was great to share our experiences of our alma mater. A very talented actor, it was honour to work with him.
Four years ago I met up with Nick Joseph at Invasion Colchester. Nick played Arhul Hextrophon in "A New Hope". We also discovered we had both appeared in the "Blakes 7" episode "Animals" together. He remains a close friend. The canvas may be large, but sometimes the world is quite small, and meetings like this make the film and television industry such an enjoyable world to inhabit.
Now to the answer - My favourite sci-fi role
It is pleasing to be identified by fans as Corporal Derdram in "The Empire Strikes Back", but taking all things into consideration, the role that continues to generate the most interest, has the iconic status and contains that underlying sense of danger and mystery is the imperial stormtrooper. It is always great fun for an actor to play a villain. The role has not only influenced some of my most significant songs but one that is embraced by each new generation with enthusiasm. To quote a line from the song, "Am I All That Is Left Of An Empire",
"... Maybe in the future small boys will want to dress like me!"
What are your future projects?
Firstly, I am appearing in a documentary film due for release later this year. Directed by Stewart Buck it is entitled,
"A World War II Fairytale: The Making Of Michael Mann's The Keep." I played a Wehrmacht soldier in "The Keep" and the documentary is a thorough and enlightening exploration of how this classic cult film was made. There are over ninety contributors from all the areas of the industry and it is a wonderful project with which to be involved.
As you rightly observe, I have made a number of appearances as a musician on film over the years, the last being "Vinyl" in 2016.
Originally as a member of the Musician's Union I was sometimes invited to appear, miming to original recordings made for the particular film or television programme. I also used to carry a guitar with me when on location or in the studio. This was mainly to occupy myself during the long gaps between filming. It also gave me the opportunity to play impromptu sessions with actors and artists not necessarily famed as musicians. One of the most musically pleasing was during the making of "If You Go Down In The Woods Today", a comedy drama written by and starring the late great Eric Sykes. He was a very fine guitarist and I had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon in the countryside playing music with him. As a result over the years I have made occasional appearances where I have played the music that your hear on film. This logically brings me on to Johnny Cashbox.
Johnny Cashbox is my main performance character. I am what is known as a "performance artist". That is to say, I incorporate various forms of expression in my artistic work. Johnny is both a musical persona and a comedy creation. He is also a street theatre artist and may be found performing comedy and song in a variety of locations many of which are not normally associated with public p.erformance.
A few years ago, Johnny and his band "TheDragonflyRising" were invited to perform at "Divine Betty's" club in Maida Vale, London
We were asked to perform some "Velvet Underground" songs under our other guise as "The Pelmet Overload." One of the songs was "Venus In Furs" and through a musician who attended the performance became briefly involved in a sequence in Vinyl that included an alternative version of the song.
To give Johnny his full title: "Johnny Cashbox, the Space Cowboy, Universal Superstar, An American Hero."
I have written many songs for him, and he and the band appear at sci-fi related events during the course of the year,
For "Invasion Colchester" this year I am hoping that Johnny will be performing a special set with my friend and guitarist John Simpkin, who played Klaatu and a fellow stormtrooper in "Return Of The Jedi."
Message from Ralph
I hope these few memories are of interest to the fans of the Star Wars and other Sci-Fi films and television programmes with which I have the pleasure to have been involved.
We are all part of a wonderful global family. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been involved with some of the most significant films in the whole sci-fi genre. It is a great honour for me to be able to share some of those experiences with you all.
I wish you joy and happiness in your lives and "May the Force (always) be with you"