|by Frank D. Rich
After narrowly escaping from the Mos Eisley Space Port, the Millennium Falcon has come out of hyperspace only to discover the Empire has destroyed their destination, Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan. A lone Imperial T.I.E. Fighter flees the scene and the heroes give chase towards “a small moon.” Discovering they had taken the bait of an Imperial trap a moment too late, the Corellian Freighter is snared by the Death Star’s tractor beam and forced to land in Bay 327 of the massive space station.
As a command is given for all outboard shields to be closed, the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader approaches the captured freighter. Dozens of Imperial Storm Troopers have surrounded the craft while technicians quickly run through the docking bay. As Vader nears the ship, Captain Khurgee descends from the Falcon prepared to give his report.
“There is no one on board sir. According to the log the crew abandoned ship right after take off. It must have been a decoy sir; several of the escape pods have been jettisoned.”
Vader, who suspects the Princess has hidden stolen plans for the Death Star in a droid and the crew of this ship attempting to return them to her, asks Khurgee if any droids were found aboard the freighter.
“No sir. If there were any droids, they must also have jettisoned.”
Vader is distracted as he gives Khurgee the order to have the ship checked—“I sense something. A presence I have not felt since…”
As Vader leaves the bay, Khurgee can be heard addressing the troops.“Get a scanning crew in here on the double. I want every part of this ship checked.”
Captain Khurgee was portrayed by Chicago native Chris Muncke. A science fiction fan since childhood, Muncke found himself in a prime location to act in major motion pictures after he and his first wife relocated to London.
“There was a group of 30-35 American and Canadian actors working in the UK in the ‘70's,” Muncke explains. “There was a huge tax break to have movies made in the UK. Shepperton, Elstree and Pinewood were all major studios and there were masses of top-notch technicians and assistant directors. This was a big advantage for American studios, who came here to film instead of Hollywood. We had the locations and it was cheap.”
Although major parts were cast in America, a certain percentage of parts had to be actors from UK. “There were loads of work-a-day parts for us. They would hire the same guys for all these movies. Tony Forrest was in everything, same with Rick Le Parmentier and John Morton, there was a pile of us. I was in loads of films as well.If you looked at the cast list of American films made in the UK during that time, you’ll see many of the same names as credited actors.”
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope has earned close to 800-million dollars and the seven films of the Saga (including The Clone Wars movie) have earned over four billion. Expectations were set much lower for Muncke when he was presented with the opportunity to work on the film.
“My agent was Jack Hunter with the Filmright's Agency in London. Filmright's is still around, but Jack passed away years ago. One day he asked me if I liked science fiction and told me he that (casting director) Irene Lamb wanted to see me for ‘some little science fiction film that’s going on'.”
“I went along to see Irene; we’d been friends for ages," Muncke explains. "We talked about the film and she said that nothing was really going to happen with it, but it might be fun and I’d get to meet some people over at the Fox Studios. I went along to the 20th Century Fox Building in Soho Square and went up to George’s office. He had a temporary office there—a long rectangular room with windows on one long side and on one short side there was a desk, just near the door. On the other walls, he had storyboards. I looked at them and asked him how big of a film was this going to be. He said ‘Well actually it’s about nine episodes'."
“Right near the door there was series of storyboards of this young guy who is working with these funny looking robots and the guy in the storyboard really looked a lot like me. I thought ‘This is it now, I’m going to get a lead.’ I mentioned it to George and he said sorry, they had already cast that part. We had a chat, then I went away.”
“I got a call from Jack that Irene had rung and I got a part: one day’s filming and costume fitting. S,o I went down and they measured me for everything. Second fitting was okay. When it was my day to shoot, they sent a car for me, which was really great, and took me to Elstree studios. If you get a chance to go to Elstree Empire Days in May (2012) do it—the studio is absolutely brilliant.”
“I got my costume on. It was a nice looking costume and fit really well," Muncke continues. "(I) went to make-up and they trimmed my hair, but said they didn’t need to cut it. I said 'Well, I’m supposed to be an officer…’ and they told me that it was okay, because it was a totally different time altogether. I went into the set and it was an enormous sound stage...absolutely huge. I don’t know if you’ve seen the still of the entire hangar bay with the Falcon and all the troopers there. It was really that big. The Falcon was big enough to get up into—you could actually go into the Falcon. It was great.”
“There were a couple of guys there sitting in chairs and some people lounging around, and George was there doing some lighting. So, I sat down with these two guys. One guy was really, really short. He introduced himself as Kenny (Baker).”
On the topic of Kenny Baker, Muncke recalled a story he heard from Irene Lamb: “They made R2-D2 before they cast the part. They had to look around, and had a really hard time finding an actor, because by then human growth hormones had been used, so a lot of people with stunted growth were given the treatment and growing much taller than expected. They looked all over and finally found a guy from India, but after an hour in the can, he fainted. Lo and behold, they found Kenny and he just about fit and they squeezed him in.”
The other gentleman sitting with Muncke on the docking bay set, who was extremely tall, introduced himself as David Prowse. “So here I am between two men: one three-foot tall and the other 6’9”. We chatted, and for me, it was like a vertical tennis match."
“I hadn’t seen the script, only my scene," Muncke explains. "David filled me in on some of it. George explained Vader’s power, his position and the fear he commanded. He also explained the level of commitment he expected from his officers.”
During a lull in the conversation, Muncke asked Prowse, the former World British Weight Lifting Champion and Mr. Universe runner up, if he worked out. “He very nicely filled me in on his career. We had a good laugh.”
“We ran the scene a few times and went thru the moves. David was there and running lines with me. He was trying to make me laugh— it was just fun. We managed the scene a couple of times, then we did the long shot—that beautiful, beautiful long shot of the entire scene—and then close-ups again: a couple closes-ups of me, couple of two shots and basically that was it. George said ‘Great, that’s fine, thank you Chris, perhaps we’ll see you again.’ I was done by four, got my £100 and that was it. I went away happy, thinking that was fun. I’d been a science fiction fan since I was a kid.”
Today the Star Wars franchise is arguably the most popular in the word, and certainly one of the most successful. It’s easy to forget that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the outlook for the film’s success was not so bright.
“After that I didn’t hear anything about the film for about a year. I had been to see Irene a couple times and she said that (the) science fiction film is coming up soon. I asked her what the film was like.”
“Its absolute crap from what I hear," Lamb told Muncke. "I’m trying to get my name taken off of the credits because I’m frightened it’s going to bomb so badly” Lamb confessed. Muncke asked Lamb if that was true and she said it was: “Everybody who has seen the rough cut thinks it’s just going to bomb terribly.”
Lamb’s take on the potential for Star Wars was not uncommon for those close to the production of the film. When it came time for cast and crew to preview the film expectations were quite low.
“They sent along invitations to one of the press showings. Now the main preview was being shown at Leicester Square Dominion Theatre.The cast, crew and press watched the preview at the Dominion Theatre on Tottenham Court Road," said Muncke
The packed theater was full of chatter before the film began. The dimming of the lights did nothing to quiet the large crowd. When John Williams' score suddenly filled the theater, the 3,000 people in attendance were immediately silenced, both literally and figuratively.
Muncke continues, “The music started and that stopped everyone in their tracks. Then the scroll ran and everyone thought ‘Oh great, it’s Flash Gordon, we all remember this one.’ Then we read the scroll, then the pan, not down but up to the planet, absolutely wonderful! Then Leia’s ship coming over and the blaster fire...and that bloody cruiser that kept coming...and coming...and coming...and by the time the whole cruiser was there and over Leia’s ship, we were cheering and clapping.”
“No one had seen anything like that before.” Muncke recalled. “No one was making science fiction then. It wasn’t until that film was made that people went back to making Sci-Fi. Even Star Trek had nothing on this! What Star Wars had was just fabulous characters and a really iconic story told by a really, really good film maker.”
“The closest thing to that kind of science fiction film was 2001: Space Odyssey, but it was a different class of film," said Muncke. "They wanted everything to be matter of fact (in 2001), so you see the Pan Am shuttle to the moon.They wanted it to be normal. In Star Wars, everything was weird, nothing was normal. It was absolutely fantastic.”
“By the time it was over we were all clapping and cheering and knew it was going to be a hit." Muncke enthuses. "When the film opened, 20th Century Fox’s stock went up so quickly it was taken off the market for a weekend or so.”
“Months later I went a party and a tall, slender dark-haired person said to me 'You don’t remember me, do you? We sort of worked together for a day over at Elstree'," said Muncke I asked him which film and he said it was Star Wars. I apologized and told him it totally escapes me. “I was the gold robot, my name is Anthony Daniels.” He was going around doing promotion, parties, et cetera,. and no one knew what he looked like. He had a bunch of red matchboxes that said “C3-PO Was Here,” and he left them around at parties. I got to hand it to Anthony—he was in all six films, was one of the unsung heroes. People put Anthony down, because he was a little bit annoyed by that. Imagine, creating that character through six films with not getting very much recognition for it. It would be like the guy who did Gollum never working again. They’re hidden behind the mask.”
Initially, when Muncke and his first wife moved from the US to the UK, he was not allowed to work as an actor. He formed a theater company with actor Steven Berkoff, but also needed steady income until he obtained permanent residency. “By virtue of my (college) degree, which is in drama and zoology, they said I’d be a competent primary school teacher, "said Muncke. "So, I started teaching in ‘69 to ’71, then given permanent residency and allowed to work as an actor officially.”
“I made a reasonable living as an actor," he continues. "Then, I started a second family. We had two kids and another one on the way and we needed a steadier income. I stopped acting in 1990 and went back to teaching full time. Being an American teaching in an English primary school was great. I had the accent. I’m a bloke, not a woman. I had a lot of advantages as a teacher. I didn’t have to fight for kids’ attention, I just got it.”
In addition to Star Wars, Muncke has acted in another popular movie franchise. In the James Bond film The Spy Who Love Me he played a weapons officer who helps Bond dismantle a Polaris Missile. “They used to play The Spy Who Loved Me during Christmas time in the UK," he said. "Kids would come back from break saying ‘Oh Mr. Muncke, we saw you on television'. Eventually, they asked me if I was in any other movies, and I told them yes: Star Wars. I didn’t have any photos, just this one little Topps card my son from my first marriage had literally gotten in a sweet (candy) thing and would show his friends: 'That’s my dad! He was in Star Wars.’ I carried that card around for ages. What would happen, because one of my classes found out that I was in Star Wars, they would pass it down to their brothers and sisters—and soon the whole school knew so for the twenty years I taught there everyone knew that I had been in Star Wars.”
“From 1990 until 2002 I worked as a full time teacher," he said, "then I retired in 2002 and became a supply (substitute) teacher for a few years, then in 2006 I stopped. I couldn’t do it anymore, my knee was (hurt) too bad and I couldn’t get around. I couldn’t physically give the kids what they needed anymore.”
While waiting for permanent residency, teaching allowed Muncke to make ends meet. Teaching would also help him transition into the next chapter of his life.
“I had one child’s mum ask me if I had thought about doing conventions and if she could give my number to a friend of hers, Muncke said. “I didn’t know anything about the convention circuit at all, or about the world-wide fan family. That’s what I call it, because it’s like a big family.”
“Four years later I got a call from Graham Miles, who works with Jason Joiner, a UK convention producer. Right out of the moon, he asked if I was Chris Muncke and if I was in Star Wars. He asked if I’d like to come to a convention in Coventry and sign autographs.” Having never participated in a convention before, Muncke said he was interested and asked Miles how much it would cost him to attend the event.
“He told me I had it all wrong—they were going to pay me. I asked how much, and he told me £500! So, I went to the stadium in Coventry and I was absolutely gobsmacked! It wasn’t a big even,t but lots of cosplay. I sat next to Kenny (Baker) who I hadn’t seen since my day at Elstree. I had a wonderful day, they provided all the autographs and I signed my name. I didn’t do a lot of business, but enough. Jason was happy. That was about three or four years ago.”
“I’ve only done a dozen or so," Muncke said. "I did Fan Days in Dallas. By that time I had done a few here, one in Germany. It was a gas! Matthew Wood was next to me, everyone wanted him to do the Grievous voice. After awhile I said to him (in a mock Grievous voice): 'If you do that voice one more time, I’m going to slice you to bits!'."
I met Jeremy (Bulloch) for the first time in Dallas. He came up to me in the hotel lobby and introduced himself. I told him who I was and he said "I know—I know all about you. Come sit down and have a drink.”
“These people are so nice," said Muncke. "They know you and you know them. It’s like being in a play. When you’re in a play, from the smallest part to the biggest part, you are a team. If you haven’t met them before, but you were in the same film, television show or play, you shared an experience. One way or another you worked together. You’re part of a company. You say, ‘We’ve worked together. We’ve never actually met, but we worked together.’ Actors are really a strange creature.”
Muncke has a unique perspective from being part of two major franchises that have strong fandom and frequent conventions. “The events are pretty similar. I like the Bond events because they are very sophisticated, everyone is super knowledgeable about the films. They have real hard definite ideas about who they like and what they like. Not that Star Wars fans are not, they are more families. Bond is more “event-y” than Star Wars Celebrations. All Star Wars events are celebrations of one kind or another.”
According to Muncke, the biggest difference between the Bond and Star Wars conventions is the attendees dressing up as characters from the films, often referred to as cosplay, aka "costume play." Cosplay is major business in the world of conventions. Several Star Wars-related costume groups are well represented at conventions worldwide, including The 501st Legion, The Rebel Legion and Mandalorian Mercs. Creating a costume can be very expensive and require countless hours to perfect.
“I love the cosplay, that they put so much time an effort and work so hard to get it just right. I had a dozen people bringing me pieces of cloth asking was the imperial costume like this, was it darker, was it smooth, was it shiny? I gave an Imperial order at CV that all Princess Leias' had to come see me at my table. They enjoy it so much and I enjoy seeing people have a good time.”
“I did one show in Birmingham. The first day was absolutely great, but the second day a guy came up and was absolutely distraught, he left his armor in an area that was supposed to be locked up. Someone broke in. They didn’t steal the whole costume, just one piece. It cost him £3000.”
Each signature is unique to its owner, but Muncke, like many other actors, has added his own trademark. To each autograph he adds his phrase ‘Live Forcefully’. “To be absolutely honest, I copied Dave's (Prowse) idea to include Capt. Khurgee, and then the ‘Live Forcefully’ just came out the end of my Sharpie at some point and I've just kept using it 'cause I can't think of anything else!”
“One of the things I do now, I make sure if there are kids and families come along, they cant afford to pay for an autograph, if they have £25 they’re going spend it on somebody who is really well known. Instead of letting them go by I’ll get them to come over I’ll sign a little card. People tell me ‘For God’s sake stop giving away freebees’. I tell them I won’t ever stop because you never know—today’s kid is tomorrow’s collector.”
“I talked to Dave about this (signings and conventions) and he said ‘This is my pension. I have my State pension, this is my Actor’s pension.’ And for him and a lot of us older actors, that’s what it is. I have my state pension and my Teacher’s pension. But the income that this brings to a lot of these guys really means life or death to them. It’s their main source of income.”
Muncke’s biggest convention to date was Celebration V in Orlando, Florida. “I had a lot of fun. I have a badly arthritic knee and spent most of the time at my table. Everybody was so nice, absolutely brilliant, they look after you so well. I was absolutely delighted to be invited to CV. You meet people from all over the world. I am hoping that this year Hasbro would make a 12-inch Khurgee figure. At CV they took a lot of photographs and had me sign a release form. Who knows?”
Interacting with the fans who made Star Wars the phenomenon it is today is important to Muncke and something he genuinely enjoys. This was evident to me when I met him at Celebration V.
“I love meeting all the fans and seeing their reactions to the film. I’m absolutely impressed with groups like 501st. It was just this one little job I did thirty years ago and it allows me to be a really close part of it. I’ve had a great time. After CV, I was at Denny’s with a huge crowd from the 501st, talking about the films and what it was like for them when they first saw it. I was in it in the 70’s, they saw it in the 90's for the first time when they were 10 or 11.”
Muncke became an Honorary Member of the 501st Legion on September 25, 2010. He was presented his membership plaque at Star Mania in Swansea, Wales by 501st member Magnus Mueller. The 501st Legion began the Honorary Membership program in 2001.
“I started the Honorary Member program as a way for us to show our favorite celebs how much they mean to us in the Legion.” explains 501st Founder and Legion Adviser Albin Johnson. “The first Honorary Member awards were given to Star Wars authors Timothy Zahn, Michael Stackpole, and Aaron Allston at StellarCon in High Point, North Carolina. It was a big success. Since then the program has grown to include a vast array of people who have helped produce the movies, books, video games, and TV products. We've even extended it to Honorary Friends who didn't work directly on the films but have nonetheless demonstrated a love for Star Wars and a support of the 501st Legion.”
“Magnus Mueller, a German fan, costumes as Captain Khurgee,” explains Muncke. “Who would know? Why would he pick—out of all the characters—my little character? Mind you, Khurgee is Captain of the Line, the only captain in the entire six film Saga. That’s all expanded universe. My character didn’t have a name. ‘An officer comes down.’ That’s all I was: ‘an officer’.”
Mueller explains why he became the official Captain Khurgee costume double. “I was five years old when I saw the movie with my father and Captain Khurgee was, for me, so impressive.” Mueller, who also honored Alan Harris with Honorary Membership into the 501st last year, goes on to say “I love the secrecy and fantasy I see with characters like Khurgee or Bossk.”
Muncke, who has been recovering from a serious fall late last year, is eager to get back to meeting Star Wars fans across the globe. “My fall forced me to cancel several appearances I had scheduled. I’m looking forward to getting back to doing conventions.” Muncke went on to joke “I can picture people planning a convention and asking each other ‘Can we get Chris Muncke? Is he still alive?”
Although he had yet to see The Phantom Menace in 3-D at the time of this interview, Muncke is hoping to make it his first 3-D movie. “I’m a big fan of the Original Trilogy. I think George Lucas did a fabulous job marrying the Prequel to Original Trilogy.The Prequel story is good, but as films, not as good. he story just builds beautifully from 4-6. I love watching the Prequels. Contrary to popular belief, I love Jar Jar Binks. I like the Original Trilogy best, and of them I have to say I like A New Hope the most. It’s the one I’m in and also it just starts the story off beautifully.”
In one day’s work, thirty-five years ago, Muncke had a small role in one of the most loved films in the history of cinema. It was a film that has touched the lives of millions. In twenty years of teaching, he touched the lives of the school children of Hertfordshire, England. Chris Muncke has truly “Lived Forcefully.”