The year was 1982, and actor Ian McDiarmid was portraying Harry Hackamore, in award winning playwright Sam Shepard’s “Seduced.” The character was modeled after reclusive billionaire, and aviation innovator, Howard Hughes. McDiarmid, who was born on August 11, 1944, in Carnoustie, Tayside, Scotland, was thirty-eight years of age at the time, but convincingly played a much older man. Little did he know that his versatile acting skills would shortly pave the way for the opportunity for him to embody evil personified, in George Lucas’s Star Wars universe. Thanks to casting director Mary Selway attending the play and taking note of McDiarmid, he replaced a much older actor, who had already been cast in the role, but who couldn’t handle the contact lenses that were part of the Emperor’s makeup.
While the character of the Emperor was only mentioned in “Episode IV: A New Hope,” and shown in holographic form in “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back,” he played a larger part in “Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.” The role was raised to a significant on screen status in the prequel films, beginning with “The Phantom Menace,” in which McDiarmid portrays Senator Palpatine, a politician on the rise. Palpatine is secretly Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord, who has his sites set on becoming Chancellor. McDiarmid’s presence is especially prevalent in the third prequel, “Revenge of the Sith,” where his scheming ways allow him to create the first galactic empire. (As an aside, in “The Empire Strikes Back,” actor, Clive Revill, appeared and spoke as the holographic image of the Emperor, but McDiarmid was later edited in for the release of the original trilogy on DVD.)
According to McDiarmid, one afternoon, his agent called him to tell him that George Lucas wanted to meet with him, and that a car was being sent to pick him up. While still talking on the phone he looked out his window, and a car was pulling up outside to take him to the meeting. McDiarmid met with both Lucas and the director of the film, Richard Marquand. In an interview, McDiarmid recalls the first time he met Lucas to discuss the part of the Emperor, as well as what Lucas said to him when he was leaving:
“It was filmed at Elstree Studios in England. I remember distinctly going there to meet George and the director of that film, Richard Marquand, for lunch. Everything was so secretive, but we talked, and as I left George said to me,‘Great nose’. He denies saying that, but I remember it vividly and when I got back home the phone was ringing and it was my agent calling to tell me I got the part.”
Following Return of the Jedi, McDiarmid appeared in the Frank Oz directed movie “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” Oz is known to Star Wars fans the world over as the man who has voiced the beloved character of Jedi master Yoda, in five of the six films. In addition to Star Wars, McDiarmid has worked with Lucas on the television series based on the early life of the iconic character of Indiana Jones. In an episode of “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” titled “Paris, October 1916” he was cast in the role of Professor Levi. While the actor has appeared in a number of television and film roles since he made his debut back in 1976 on the television series “Red Letter Day” as the character of Blade, he still maintains that his first love is the theater.
Prior to acting, McDiarmid studied and received a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology at the University of St. Andrews. It didn’t take him long to determine that psychology was not what he had a passion for, the theater was. In fact, he had known that acting was what he wanted to do with his life since he was five years of age, after his father had taken him to see a production called “Tommy Morgan.” Shortly thereafter he began training at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow.
During the years 1986 through 1989, McDiarmid was the Associated Artistic Director for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Afterward, for over a decade, McDiarmid, along with actor and director Jonathan Kent, was the Joint Artistic Director of London’s Almeida Theater in Islington. Academy Award winning actor Kevin Spacey and BAFTA winner Ralph Fiennes were two actors of note that McDiarmid and Kent were able to get to perform at the small venue, which was originally considered a fringe playhouse, but has since gained a tremendously positive reputation. The tireless efforts of both Kent and McDiarmid paid off in 1998 when they won the Evening Standard Theatre Award, which has been presented annually since 1955 by the Evening Standard newspaper, and is given for outstanding achievement in London Theater. In 2001, he won the London Critics Circle Theatre Award for Best Actor for his role in the play “Faith Healer.”
What does the future hold for McDiarmid, especially now that J.J. Abrams is directing “Star Wars: Episode VII” which is scheduled to be released in December of 2015 which is the first of the reportedly many films Disney will be producing? I’ll leave you with the thought McDiarmid offered on the subject. The quote is taken from an interview he gave to SciFiNow magazine this past July in Essen, Germany, during Star Wars Celebration Europe.
“Yes, I’m sort of interested in any future development he might have…Unfortunately, as you probably know, he died at the end of Episode VI, Vader sent him to cosmic hell so he’s not going to feature in any of the new Disney ones, I don’t think. On the other hand they’ve got lots of exciting ideas for spin-offs about separate characters and so on, and then there is the television series which George has talked about…for a number of years, and that takes place between Episodes III and IV when the Emperor is very much alive. So I think he probably does have a future.”