The name David Prowse might not ring a bell but he’s the actor and bodybuilder who played one of cinema’s greatest icons. His character wears a mask and a black cape, uses a red lightsaber and has a tendency to asphyxiate subordinates who disappoint him. Exactly, David Prowse is Darth Vader. Or rather Darth Vader’s body, as the voice was provided by the actor James Earl Jones and his face in Return of the Jedi was Sebastian Shaw.
Although Prowse’s greatest character is undeniably Darth Vader, when this huge actor (who measured 1.96m and weighed 118kg in his prime) became a Sith Lord, he was 42 years old, already had a decent career behind him, and was reasonably well known. He played a body-guard in A Clockwork Orange, starred as Frankenstein’s monster in three films and appeared as a strongman character in various other movies. It was his role as the Green Cross Man, however, that brought him widespread fame in the United Kingdom.
Green Cross Man is a superhero. His superpower? Helping British kids cross the road safely and avoid being killed in traffic accidents. Yes, Green Cross Man was part of a UK government safety campaign than ran from 1971 to 1990, and Prowse was the face of the superhero for over 14 years.
The Green Cross Man managed to save over 250,000 kids.
“The time I spent working for the government’s road safety campaign as the Green Cross Man is the best job I’ve ever had, including my Star Wars role, and by far my proudest achievement,” he explained to the newspaper, The Guardian. “When the campaign started in the mid-70s, there were 40,000 children every year who became road accident casualties, a terrible statistic which needed to be addressed, which was why the Green Cross Man was created.”
Over those years, Prowse and the government made countless short films explaining how to cross the road. It was all based on the Green Cross Code, which taught children to stop, look both ways, listen and think before leaving the kerb. The structure was simple. From his tower at Green Cross Control, Green Cross Man observes a number of screens which must have been cutting edge technology at the time but now appear rather comical. One of them lights up in red when two children cross the road without looking and are almost run over by a blue car. “Oh, oh! This looks dangerous,” says Prowse. “I think I’d better have a word with those two.”
So he taps on his watch and tele-transports to their side, allowing the spectator to fully appreciate his superhero suit. Dark tight leggings, green calf-high boots, shoulder pads and a green cross on his white, fitted top. An outfit that would look ridiculous on anyone without Prowse’s physical stature. “That wasn’t very clever, was it?” he says to the two offenders. “If you’d been looking and listening all the way across that wouldn’t have happened.” The two kids cross the road safely and end of film.
Although British celebrities such as the glam rockers Les Gray and Alvin Stardust, the boxer Joe Bugner and a robot reminiscent of Doctor Who’s arch enemies all participated in the campaign, the clear star was Prowse and his suit. After the successful films, the huge actor went on tour around the country’s schools for four years, visiting up to three each day.
Silly as it may seem, the campaign managed to cut the total number of kids involved in road traffic accidents. In other words, Green Cross Man is calculated to have saved over 250,000 children from death or injury. It’s an enormous figure and an achievement that had such an impact on Prowse and his personality that, on various occasions, he has declared road safety to be his true passion. So much so, that in 2014 he got back into character for another series of ads. This time around, the suit doesn’t look quite so good, and Prowse has white hair and something of a squint. His objective is no longer children but adult pedestrians; he’s concerned about statistics that show adults now account for 36% of traffic casualties, with people being killed while immersed in their smartphones or musical devices.
The new series features pedestrians with headphones, mobiles and loud music. Production values are visibly improved and the whole commercial lasts for over a minute, compared to the average 30-second running time of the original spots. After saving a hipster from being run over — he’ll have his reasons — Green Cross Man lets rip his first speech. “Everywhere I look, pedestrians are using headphones, smartphones, social media and all manner of other infernal mobile inventions that distract them.” He finishes off with his trademark phrase: “Remember! Always use the Green Cross Code, because I won’t be there when you cross the road.”
It’s still to be seen whether the campaign will manage to repeat the success that saw Prowse awarded with an MBE in 2000 for his services to charity and road safety. In any case, Luke Skywalker can feel proud of his father.