Hi all! I was one of the major puppeteers on Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and like many others gained experience from the legendary Jim Henson. I portrayed three of the most memorable and popular Star Wars characters: Sy Snootles, Admiral Ackbar and Salacious B. Crumb. Here is how it all happened…and more…
I was born in Pittsfield Illinois on July 17 1956.
I discovered puppetry while I was attending University in New York studying acting and directing. My first paid professional performance was for the student union. I had built a walk-around bag booth and performed The true story of Prince George and the Dragon. I was paid the princely sum of $15 for the show - I still have the receipt I was given with my first check!
When I graduated I continued to perform my show at fairgrounds, shopping malls and in parks all across the north east of America. When I first started work at Jim Henson's I had to take a pay cut. I had been earning more money from people throwing money into my hat, but I wanted to learn how you become a millionaire doing puppets. My job was to design what would eventually be called animatronics for the Muppet movies.
Jim Henson and George Lucas were both very interested in what each other were doing. New things were being developed all the time and they had a friendly rivalry going. I was loaned by Hensons to Lucasfilm to do Return of the Jedi.
How did I get appointed to puppeteer Sy Snootles, Salacious Crumb and Admiral Ackbar in Jedi? Well…
I was already working in Phil Tippets workshop at ILM designing animatronics for the characters of Jedi. I knew that when pre-production was finished I would be going to England to perform Sy Snootles and Salacious Crumb. We were never given copies of the script for reasons of secrecy, so I had no idea who Admiral Ackbar was. I had done a lot of the design work for his close-up version and when I asked Phil who he was he said, "Oh, he's just another background character that appears later in the movie". So I asked if I could perform him, as I was familiar with his controls, and Phil said OK. It was as simple as that.
Some of you may already know this story but for those of you who don’t here’s the definitive version of the incident involving , Salacious Crumb, a loudspeaker and Harrison Ford:
It was the day we were filming the scene where Harrison gets unfrozen from the carbon. It was very important to the film because up to this point no one knew if his character had lived or died. Tensions were running high on set that day. All the animatronic characters had been in full costume for over four hours already while the Director of Photography got the lighting just right. Finally it was time to "turn over" on the shot.
Poor Harrison, covered in goo, comes sliding out of the carbon block. Carrie comes running in and has to plant a big wet kiss on his slime covered face. The curtains open on Jabba and his court and we all scream out, "We saw you kissing, we saw you kissing." Cut.
Harrison being the professional that he is, went to the director and pointed out that our screaming would cause problems in the sound edit, and he was right.
So Richard Marquand came over to the tired sweating aliens and told us all to do "take two" the same as before, but do it without making a noise. We did the second take without making a sound. It was now time for Tea break, but all the aliens had to stay in place, as it would take too long to redress us. The sound man had gone for tea but had forgotten to turn off my microphone which was connected to a speaker out in the main acting area.
It was during the break that Mr. Marquand came over and sat next to Salacious Crumb. He liked talking to him although he very rarely would talk directly to me. He couldn't as I was buried under the set with my arm stuck up though a hole in the floor.
He asked Salacious what he thought of the last take and Salacious replied, "The take went well, but this Harrison guy, is he going to talk during our laugh? Because it's really putting me off." My words went booming out over the floor on the speaker and the whole crew began to laugh at the cheekiness of the puppet. Everyone that is except for Harrison, who left the set and refused to return until, "The Asshole who said that was fired off the production".
An Assistant Director came under the set to tell me that they were going to have to fire me. I pleaded with him to let me apologize, but he said Mr. Ford was furious and only my head would do. So, I asked who was going to do my puppet for the rest of the filming. He said, "Well you are, but if anyone asks you, you have to tell them that you are the new guy!" On the call sheets for the rest of the filming it always said, "Salacious Crumb - The New Guy".
Sy Snootles was the hardest character to do. I designed her as a reverse string marionette which I operated with Mike Quinn. Instead of hanging the figure on strings and pulling her off the ground, the weight was supported on elastic from above and then pulled down so you could get a much more solid positive movement than a classic marionette would give. When Mike and I got the timing just right she was magical, when we didn't she would fly out of control and lose all sense of life.
They never gave us enough takes to get it right when the pressure was on, and so she was the first of my characters to be replaced by CG. If anyone has a copy that still has the original performance on it I would love to have a copy as I never bought one at the time. After all I had already seen the movie!
And some of my favourites.... I am very proud of my work on Howard the Duck. Although Tad Chenovski and I were only brought in three weeks before the start of filming to "fix things," and it was too late to do anything about the horrendous design of the duck, the amount of movement that we got out of the animatronics was very good.
Here was an animatronic character that was operating in the real world and staring in the movie. You must remember this was before Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the other big Animatronic films –
Some of my other successes were Boss Richfield in Dinosaurs, Alf, Ralph, Jim, and Tim in Labyrinth, Tik Tok in Return To Oz, and the best ever, the tiger in Fierce Creatures. No one ever even knew that he was animatronic!
I also worked on the Teletubbies , Walking with Dinosuars and….well the list goes on!
I’ve loved very minute of what I do and I hope it continues for a long, long time.
Enjoy the rest of the website!
I have been told that I am one of the few Star Wars autograph guests who "prints" my name, instead of a cursive signature.
There are two reasons for this. The first is I am left handed and my cursive writing is like chicken scratches. The second is, I hate when people show me a photo they have paid for and it is impossible to tell who signed it!