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Kenny Baker, the 3-foot, 8-inch actor who played beloved robot R2-D2 in six Star Wars films beginning with the 1977 original, has died at his home in Preston, England following a lengthy illness. He was 81.
The news was first reported to The Guardian by Baker’s niece Abigail Shield. “It was expected, but it’s sad nonetheless,” she said. “He had a very long and fulfilled life.” (Although the Guardian reported his age as 83, and other reports list him at 82, Baker wrote on his own website that his birth date was August 24, 1934).
The British Baker had roles in Time Bandits and The Elephant Man, TV’s The Goodies, among others, but it’s his work inside Star Wars‘ beeping, whirring little white, silver and blue robot that brought him worldwide and lasting fame. (Coincidentally, TCM aired Time Bandits Saturday afternoon as part of the channel’s 24-hour tribute to actor Ralph Richardson).
“He did extremely well in his life,” Shield said. “He was very ill for the last few years so we had been expecting it. He had been looked after by one of his nephews who found him on Saturday morning.”
Baker played R2-D2 in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and the three prequels that kicked off in 1999.
Shield said her uncle was told as a child that he “probably wouldn’t survive through puberty, being a little person in those times, they didn’t have a very good life expectancy.” She said Baker met his wife Eileen after she saw him on a TV show and wrote him a letter. They married soon after. “Sadly she died of epilepsy about 20 years ago,” Shield told The Guardian.
Baker’s niece said the actor had lung problems and was often confined to a wheelchair. “He was asked to go out to LA for the new Star Wars premiere but he was told he was too ill to travel. Luckily he did manage to meet George Lucas again when he came to Manchester.”
Kenneth George Baker was born in Birmingham, England, and while still a teenager joined theatrical troupe Burton Lester’s Midgets and later Billy Smart’s Circus, British pantomime productions and ice shows. He was cast in Star Wars after director George Lucas saw his musical comedy act The Mini Tones.
He was married to wife Eileen Baker from 1970 until her death in 1993. The couple reportedly had two children.