|Star Wars character|
|First appearance||Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)|
|Created by||George Lucas|
|Portrayed by||Ian McDiarmid (Episodes I-III, VI and V 2004 DVD and subsequent releases)
Episode V original release:
Marjorie Eaton (body)
Clive Revill (voice)
Emperor of the Galactic Empire
Senator from Naboo
Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic
Dark Lord of the Sith
Sheev Palpatine, (colloquial: Darth Sidious and The Emperor) is a fictional character and one of the primary antagonists of the Star Wars franchise, mainly portrayed by Ian McDiarmid. In the original trilogy, he is depicted as the aged, pale-faced and cloaked Emperor of the Galactic Empire and the master of Darth Vader. In the prequel trilogy, he is portrayed as a charismatic Senator from Naboo who uses deception and political manipulation to rise to the position of Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic, and then reorganizes the Republic into the Galactic Empire, with himself as Emperor.
Though outwardly appearing to be a well-intentioned public servant and supporter of democracy prior to becoming Emperor, he is actually Darth Sidious, the Dark Lord of the Sith – a cult of practitioners of the dark side of the Force previously thought to have been extinct for a millennium in the Star Wars galaxy. As Sidious, he instigates the Clone Wars, nearly destroys the Jedi, and transforms the Republic into the Empire. He also manipulates Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker into turning to the dark side and serving at his side as Darth Vader. Palpatine's reign is brought to an end when Vader kills him to save his son, Luke Skywalker.
Since the initial theatrical run of Return of the Jedi, Palpatine has become a widely recognized popular culture symbol of evil, sinister deception, dictatorship, tyranny, and the subversion of democracy.
- 1 Appearances
- 2 Characteristics
- 3 In popular culture
- 4 References
- 5 Further reading
- 6 External links
The Emperor is briefly mentioned in the original Star Wars film - A New Hope, the first film in the original trilogy. Grand Moff Tarkin explains to his fellow Imperials that the Emperor has dissolved the Senate.
The Emperor first appeared in The Empire Strikes Back. He appears in hologram form to address Darth Vader, his Sith apprentice. He tells Vader that Luke Skywalker is becoming a serious threat to the Empire and must not become a Jedi. Vader convinces him that Luke would be a great asset if turned to the dark side.
In 1983's Return of the Jedi, the Emperor appears in person to oversee the last stages of the second Death Star's construction. He assures Darth Vader that they will together turn Luke, now revealed to be Vader's son, to the dark side. Unknown to Vader, the Emperor plans to replace his apprentice with Luke. When Vader brings Luke before his master, the Emperor tempts Luke to join the dark side by appealing to the young Jedi's fear for his friends, whom he has lured into a trap. This leads to a lightsaber duel in which Luke defeats and nearly kills Vader. The Emperor tells Luke to kill Vader and take his place, but Luke refuses and declares himself a Jedi. Enraged, the Emperor attacks Luke with Force lightning. Moved by his son's cries for help, Vader throws the Emperor into the Death Star's reactor shaft, killing him.
In the 1999 prequel Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, which is set 32 years before Star Wars, Palpatine is depicted as a middle-aged Galactic Senator from the planet Naboo who is secretly the Sith Lord Darth Sidious. As Sidious, he influences the corrupt Trade Federation to blockade and invade Naboo. Queen Padmé Amidala of Naboo flees to the planet Coruscant to receive counsel from Palpatine, unaware that he actually engineered the invasion. After a plea for help from the senate results in bureaucratic delays, Palpatine persuades the queen to make a motion to have Supreme Chancellor Finis Valorum removed from office.
When Padmé attempts to liberate Naboo, Sidious sends his Sith apprentice Darth Maul there to capture her. The invasion is eventually thwarted and Maul is defeated in a lightsaber duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi. Palpatine uses the crisis to be elected the new Chancellor of the Republic. He then returns to Naboo, where he befriends the young Anakin Skywalker, telling him that, "We will watch your career with great interest".
In the 2002 sequel Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, Palpatine exploits constitutional loopholes to remain in office even after the official expiration of his term. Meanwhile, as Darth Sidious, he continues to manipulate events from behind the scenes by having his new Sith apprentice Count Dooku, a former Jedi master, lead a movement of planets in seceding from the Republic to form the Confederacy of Independent Systems.
Since the Separatists are secretly building a battle droid army, Palpatine uses the situation to have himself granted emergency powers. Palpatine feigns reluctance to accept this authority, promising to return it to the Senate once the crisis has ended. His first act is to allow the creation of a clone army to counter the Separatist threat; this results in the opening salvo of the Clone Wars. With the galaxy now at war as Sidious planned, Dooku brings him the secret plans for a new superweapon.
In the 2005 sequel Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine is captured by cyborg Separatist General Grievous, as part of a plan devised by Sidious. Palpatine is rescued by Anakin and Obi-Wan, but not before the Jedi confront Count Dooku again. A duel ensues in which Anakin defeats Dooku. Palpatine orders Anakin to kill the unarmed Dooku; after some hesitance, Anakin kills Dooku in cold blood. Palpatine then escapes with his Jedi rescuers and returns to Coruscant. By this point, Palpatine has become a virtual dictator, able to take any action in the Senate. He makes Anakin his personal representative on the Jedi Council, who deny Anakin the rank of Jedi master and order him to spy on the Chancellor. Palpatine tells Anakin the story of Darth Plagueis, a powerful Sith Lord who was able to manipulate life and death but was killed by his own apprentice. Eventually, Palpatine reveals his secret identity as a Sith Lord to Anakin; he knows that Anakin has been having prophetic visions of Padmé, his pregnant secret wife, dying in childbirth, and offers to teach him Plagueis' secrets to save her life.
Anakin informs Jedi Master Mace Windu of Palpatine's treachery. With three other Jedi masters at his side, Windu attempts to arrest Palpatine, but Palpatine produces a lightsaber from his sleeve and quickly dispatches all but Windu. Palpatine engages Windu in a duel and fires Force lightning at him, but Windu deflects the lightning back at its source, deforming Palpatine's face into the gray, wizened visage seen in the original trilogy. Just as Windu is about to dispatch Palpatine, Anakin appears and intervenes on the Sith lord's behalf, allowing Palpatine to kill Windu with another blast of lightning. Anakin then pledges himself to the dark side as Palpatine's new Sith apprentice, Darth Vader.
Palpatine orders the clone troopers to turn on their Jedi generals, while dispatching Vader to kill everyone inside the Jedi Temple and then murder the Separatist leaders on the planet Mustafar. Palpatine then reorganizes the Republic into the Galactic Empire, with himself as Emperor. Jedi Master Yoda confronts him in his Senate office and engages the Sith Lord in a lightsaber duel that ends in a stalemate. Sensing that his new apprentice is in danger, Palpatine travels to Mustafar and finds Vader near death following a duel with Obi-Wan. After returning to Coruscant, he rebuilds Vader's burned, mutilated body with the black armored suit from the original trilogy. Palpatine then tells Vader that Padmé was killed in the heat of Vader's anger, breaking what remains of his apprentice's spirit. Palpatine is last seen watching the original Death Star's construction, with Vader and Wilhuff Tarkin at his side.
The Clone Wars (2008)
In the 2008 animated film Star Wars: The Clone Wars (also set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith), Darth Sidious engineers a Separatist plot where Count Dooku turns Jabba the Hutt against the Republic by kidnapping his son Rotta and framing the Jedi for it. Meanwhile, Palpatine suggests that the Republic ally itself with the Hutts. Although Anakin Skywalker and his Padawan Ahsoka Tano foil the plot, the outcome suits Palpatine's ends: Jabba places Hutt hyperspace routes at the Republic's disposal.
The Clone Wars (animated series)
In the subsequent animated series, Palpatine was voiced by Ian Abercrombie from 2008 to his death in 2012, and by Tim Curry from 2012 to 2014. In the series, Palpatine continues to serve as Supreme Chancellor while his Sith identity remains behind the scenes via holograms. In the second season, Sidious hires bounty hunter Cad Bane to infiltrate the Jedi Temple and steal a holocron. He then takes a valuable Kyber memory crystal that contains the names of thousands of Force-sensitive younglings - the future of the Jedi Order - from around the galaxy. The final stage of the plot: to bring four Force-sensitive children to Sidious's secret facility on Mustafar. Anakin and Ahsoka again foil the plot, but Bane escapes and all evidence of Sidious' involvement is lost. In the fifth season, Sidious personally travels to the planet Mandalore to confront his former apprentice Darth Maul after becoming leader of Death Watch, killing Savage Opress before torturing Maul with the intent to make use of him. In the final season, Sidious goes to lengths to conceal the full nature of his plan from the Jedi by attempting to silence the Clone Trooper Fives when he learns of Order 66 and having Dooku wipe out anything tied to Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas.
In Star Wars Rebels, Palpatine is now the Emperor of the Galactic Empire. He briefly appears offscreen at the end of the season 2 premiere, "The Siege of Lothal", voiced by Sam Witwer. Darth Vader informs Palpatine that the Rebel Alliance cell on Lothal has been broken. However, Vader tells him that Ahsoka Tano, the apprentice of Anakin Skywalker, is alive and is now helping the Rebels. Palpatine sees this as an opportunity to seek out other remaining Jedi (such as Obi-Wan Kenobi). Palpatine then tells Vader to dispatch an Inquisitor to hunt down Ahsoka.
Books and comic
The first appearance of Palpatine in Star Wars literature was in Alan Dean Foster's (writing as George Lucas) novelization of the script of A New Hope, published as Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker (1976).
Star Wars: Lords of the Sith was subsequently announced as one of the first four canon novels to be released in 2014 and 2015. In Lords of the Sith, Vader and Palpatine find themselves hunted by revolutionaries on the Twi'lek planet Ryloth.
Star Wars Battlefront II adds a canonical tale spanning the destruction of the second Death Star through the events of The Force Awakens. The story takes an Imperial perspective, following an elite squadron known as Inferno Squad, led by protagonist Iden Versio, as they help to execute Operation Cinder following the Emperor’s death. Operation: Cinder was carried out by the Galactic Empire as a means of devastating several Imperial planets in 4 ABY, only a few weeks following the Battle of Endor. The operation was part of the "Contingency", a plan devised by Emperor Palpatine to ensure that the Empire and its enemies did not outlive him should he perish. The plan was put into action following the Emperor's death during the Battle of Endor.
In April 2014, most of the licensed Star Wars novels and comics produced since the originating 1977 film Star Wars were rebranded as Star Wars Legends and declared non-canon to the franchise by Lucasfilm. Star Wars Legends literature elaborates on Palpatine's role in Star Wars fiction outside of the films.
Palpatine/Darth Sidious is a central character in Genndy Tartakovsky's Star Wars: Clone Wars micro-series, which is set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. The character's likeness in the series is based on that in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, and he is voiced by Nick Jameson. In the first chapter, Palpatine is informed by Obi-Wan Kenobi that the Jedi have discovered that the InterGalactic Banking Clan has established battle droid factories on the planet Muunilinst. Palpatine agrees to send a strike force that includes Anakin Skywalker, and suggests that Anakin be given "special command" of Obi-Wan's fighters. Yoda and Obi-Wan initially speak against the idea, but reluctantly concede. In the seventh chapter, a holographic image of Sidious appears shortly after Dooku trains Dark Jedi Asajj Ventress. Sidious orders Ventress to track down and kill Anakin. He remarks to Dooku that Ventress is certain to be defeated, but that the point of her mission is to test Anakin. In the final chapters, a hologram of Sidious again appears and orders General Grievous to begin an assault on the galactic capital. Later, the Separatist invasion of Coruscant begins and Palpatine watches from his apartment in the 500 Republica. Grievous breaks through the Chancellor's window and attempts to kidnap him, leading to a long chase while Palpatine is protected by Jedi Shaak Ti, Roron Corobb and Foul Moudama. After Grievous apprehends the Jedi, Palpatine is taken on board the Invisible Hand, setting the stage for Revenge of the Sith.
Literature and comics
Palpatine made his first major appearance in Legends in 1991 and 1992, with the Dark Empire series of comic books written by Tom Veitch and illustrated by Cam Kennedy. In the series (set six years after Return of the Jedi), Palpatine is resurrected as the Emperor Reborn or "Palpatine the Undying". His spirit returns from the netherworld of the Force with the aid of Sith ghosts on Korriban, the Sith world, and possesses the body of Jeng Droga, one of Palpatine's elite spies and assassins known as the Emperor's Hands. Droga flees to a secret Imperial base on the planet Byss, where the Emperor's advisor Sate Pestage exorcises Palpatine's spirit and channels it into one of many clones created by Palpatine before his death. Palpatine attempts to resume control of the galaxy, but Luke Skywalker, now a senior Jedi Knight, sabotages his plans. Luke destroys most of Palpatine's cloning tanks, but is only able to defeat the Emperor with help from Leia Organa Solo, who has received rudimentary Jedi training from Luke. The two repel a Force storm Palpatine had created and turn it back onto him, once again destroying his physical form.
Palpatine's ultimate fate is further chronicled in the Dark Empire II and Empire's End series of comics. The Dark Empire II series, published from 1994 to 1995, details how the Emperor is once again reborn on Byss into a clone body. Palpatine tries to rebuild the Empire as the Rebel Alliance grows weak. In Empire's End (1995), a traitorous Imperial guard bribes Palpatine's cloning supervisor to tamper with the Emperor's stored DNA samples. This causes the clones to deteriorate at a rapid rate. Palpatine tries to possess the body of Anakin Solo, the infant son of Leia Organa and Han Solo, before the clone body dies, but is thwarted once again by Luke Skywalker. Palpatine is killed by a blaster shot fired by Han, but his spirit is captured by the mortally-wounded Jedi Empatojayos Brand. When Brand dies, he takes Palpatine's spirit with him, destroying the Sith Lord once and for all.
Novels and comics published before 1999 focus on Palpatine's role as Galactic Emperor. Shadows of the Empire (1996) by Steve Perry and The Mandalorian Armor (1998) by K. W. Jeter—all set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi—show how Palpatine uses crime lords such as Prince Xizor and bounty hunters like Boba Fett to fight his enemies. Barbara Hambly's novel Children of the Jedi (1995), set eight years after Return of the Jedi, features a woman named Roganda Ismaren who claims that Palpatine fathered her son Irek. The Jedi Prince series of novels introduces an insane, three-eyed mutant named Triclops who is revealed to be Palpatine's illegitimate son. Created from DNA extracted from Palpatine and placed into a woman, he was born mutated, cast away and forgotten. Triclops had a son named Ken who became known as the "Jedi Prince".
Beginning in 1999 with Terry Brooks' novelization of The Phantom Menace, Star Wars writers chronicled the role of Palpatine prior to A New Hope as a politician and Sith Lord. The comic "Marked" by Rob Williams, printed in Star Wars Tales 24 (2005), and Michael Reaves' novel Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter (2001) explain Darth Sidious' relationship with his apprentice Darth Maul. Cloak of Deception (2001) by James Luceno follows Reaves' novel and details how Darth Sidious encourages the Trade Federation to build an army of battle droids in preparation for the invasion of Naboo. Cloak of Deception also focuses on Palpatine's early political career, revealing how he becomes a confidante of Chancellor Finis Valorum and acquainted with Padmé Amidala, newly elected queen of Naboo. Palpatine's role during the Clone Wars as Chancellor of the Republic and Darth Sidious is portrayed in novels such as Matthew Stover's Shatterpoint (2003), Steven Barnes' The Cestus Deception (2004), Sean Stewart's Yoda: Dark Rendezvous (2004), and Luceno's Labyrinth of Evil (2005) and Darth Plagueis (2012).
Following the theatrical release of Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars literature focused on Palpatine's role after the creation of the Empire. John Ostrander's comic Star Wars Republic 78: Loyalties (2005) chronicles how, shortly after seizing power, Emperor Palpatine sends Darth Vader to assassinate Sagoro Autem, an Imperial captain who plans to defect from the Empire. In Luceno's novel Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader (2005) (set shortly after Revenge of the Sith), the Emperor sends Darth Vader to the planet Murkhana to discover why clone troopers there refused to carry out Order 66 against their Jedi generals. Palpatine hopes these early missions will teach Vader what it means to be a Sith and crush any remnants of Anakin Skywalker.
In Star Wars fiction, Palpatine is a cunning politician, a ruthless emperor, and an evil Sith Lord. The Star Wars Databank describes him as "the supreme ruler of the most powerful tyrannical regime the galaxy had ever witnessed" and Stephen J. Sansweet's Star Wars Encyclopedia calls him "evil incarnate".
As a senator, Palpatine is "unassuming, yet ambitious". In Cloak of Deception, James Luceno writes that Palpatine carefully guards his privacy and "others found his reclusiveness intriguing, as if he led a secret life". Despite this, he has many allies in the government. Luceno writes, "What Palpatine lacked in charisma, he made up for in candor, and it was that directness that had led to his widespread appeal in the senate. ... For in his heart he judged the universe on his own terms, with a clear sense of right and wrong." In Terry Brooks' novelization of The Phantom Menace, Palpatine claims to embrace democratic principles. He tells Queen Amidala, "I promise, Your Majesty, if I am elected [chancellor of the Republic], I will restore democracy to the Republic. I will put an end to the corruption that has plagued the Senate." A Visual Dictionary states that he is a self-proclaimed savior.
As Emperor, however, Palpatine abandons any semblance of democracy, as noted in Star Wars, when he abolishes the Imperial Senate. Sansweet states, "His Empire ... is based on tyranny."
Revenge of the Sith implies that Palpatine was the apprentice of Darth Plagueis, while later Expanded Universe materials say explicitly that he was. Palpatine is characterized as "the most powerful practitioner of the Sith ways in modern times." Palpatine is so powerful that he is able to mask his true identity from the Jedi for decades. In the novel Shatterpoint, Mace Windu remarks to Yoda, "A shame [Palpatine] can't touch the Force. He might have been a fine Jedi."
The Star Wars Databank explains that the Force "granted him inhuman dexterity and speed, agility enough to quickly kill three Jedi Masters" (as depicted in Revenge of the Sith). Stover describes the duel between Yoda and Palpatine in his novelization of Revenge of the Sith thus: "From the shadow of a black wing, a small weapon ... slid into a withered hand and spat a flame-colored blade[.] When the blades met it was more than Yoda against Palpatine, more the millennia of Sith against the legions of Jedi; this was the expression of the fundamental conflict of the universe itself. Light against dark. Winner take all." During the duel, Yoda realizes that Sidious represents a small but powerful Sith Order that had changed and evolved over the years, while the Jedi had not: "He had lost before he started."
According to the Databank and New Essential Guide to Characters, Palpatine possesses great patience and his maneuverings are as a dejarik grandmaster moves pieces on a board. He is depicted as a diabolical genius.
Palpatine was not given a first name in any canonical or "Star Wars Legends" sources until 2014, when the character's first name—Sheev—was revealed in the novel Tarkin, written by James Luceno. The Lucasfilm Story Group approached Del Rey Books and asked if they wanted to use the name, which was created by George Lucas, in the Tarkin novel, to which Del Rey agreed.
Lucas's conceptualization of Palpatine and the role the character plays in Star Wars changed over time. From Return of the Jedi onwards, Palpatine became the ultimate personification of evil in Star Wars, replacing Darth Vader as the central villain.
When the original Star Wars trilogy was filmed, the Emperor was unnamed and his throne-world unidentified. The name would not be used in film until the prequel trilogy and the first mention of the name Palpatine came from the prologue of Alan Dean Foster's 1976 novelization of A New Hope, which detailed the Emperor's rise to power. Foster writes,
Aided and abetted by restless, power-hungry individuals within the government, and the massive organs of commerce, the ambitious Senator Palpatine caused himself to be elected President of the Republic. He promised to reunite the disaffected among the people and to restore the remembered glory of the Republic. Once secure in office he declared himself Emperor, shutting himself away from the populace. Soon he was controlled by the very assistants and boot-lickers he had appointed to high office, and the cries of the people for justice did not reach his ears.
However, it is unclear whether Lucas intended Palpatine to be the reigning Emperor or just the first of a succession of Emperors. Michael Kaminski, author of The Secret History of Star Wars, claims that Lucas' initial notes discuss a line of corrupt Emperors, not just one. If Palpatine was the first, Kaminski infers, he would therefore not be the current. Later Lucas would abandon this idea, opting instead to focus on a sole villainous ruler.
During story conferences for The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas and Leigh Brackett decided that "the Emperor and the Force had to be the two main concerns in the Empire Strikes Back; the Emperor had barely been dealt with in the first movie, and the intention in the sequel was to deal with him on a more concrete level." Lucas ultimately decided instead to feature the Emperor in Return of the Jedi.
In that film, the initial conception of Palpatine was superseded by his depiction as a dictatorial ruler adept in the dark side of the Force. The Emperor was inspired by the villain Ming the Merciless from the Flash Gordon comic books. The rise of Palpatine involving an ambitious and ruthless politician dismantling a democratic republic to achieve supreme power is in part inspired by the real-world examples of Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler. Other elements of the character come from Richard Nixon. Lucas said that Nixon's presidency "got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships. Because the democracies aren't overthrown; they're given away." Lucas also said, "The whole point of the movies, the underlying element that makes the movies work, is that you, whether you go backwards or forwards, you start out in a democracy, and democracy turns into a dictatorship, and then the rebels make it back into a democracy."
Lucas wanted to establish the Emperor as the true source of evil in Star Wars. Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan noted, "My sense of the relationship between Darth Vader and the Emperor is that the Emperor is much more powerful ... and that Vader is very much intimidated by him. Vader has dignity, but the Emperor in Jedi really has all the power." He explained that the climax of the film is a confrontation between Darth Vader and his master. In the first scene that shows the Emperor, he arrives at the Death Star and is greeted by a host of stormtroopers, technicians, and other personnel. Lucas states he wanted it to look like the military parades on "May Day in Russia."
Lucas fleshed out the Emperor in the prequel films. According to Lucas, Palpatine's role in The Phantom Menace is to explain "how Anakin Skywalker came to be Palpatine's apprentice" and the events that lead to his rise to power. The true identity of Darth Sidious — the phantom menace — is left a mystery, and his relationship to Palpatine is not clear, though popular consensus agreed that Darth Sidious and Palpatine were one and the same. Film critic Jonathan L. Bowen remarks, "Debates raged on the Internet concerning the relationship between Darth Sidious and Senator Palpatine. Most fans believed the two characters are actually the same person with logic seeming to support their conclusion." Bowen notes that the debate was fueled by the fact that "suspiciously Darth Sidious does not appear in the credits."
In Star Wars and History published by Lucasfilm, it describes Palpatine's consolidation of power as being similar to the Roman political figure Augustus, named Octavian before renaming himself. Both legitimized authoritarian rule by saying that corruption in the Senate was hampering the powers of the head of state; both pressured the Senate to grant extraordinary powers to deal with a crisis, falsely claiming that they would rescind those powers once the crisis was over; and both relied on their strong control over military force.
When the Emperor first appeared in The Empire Strikes Back, he was portrayed by Marjorie Eaton under heavy makeup. Chimpanzee eyes were superimposed into darkened eye sockets during post-production "in order to create a truly unsettling image". The character was voiced by Clive Revill. The makeup was sculpted by Phil Tippett and applied by Rick Baker, who initially used his own wife, Elaine, for the makeup tests.
"With Kershner," Revill said, "you had to keep the reins tight — you couldn't go overboard. It was the perfect example of the old adage 'less is more' — the Emperor doesn't say very much. But when he finally appears, it's at a point in the saga when everyone's waiting to see him. It's the Emperor, the arch villain of all time, and when he says there's a great disturbance in the Force, I mean, that's enough oomph!"  Years later, during production of Revenge of the Sith, Lucas decided to shoot new footage for The Empire Strikes Back to create continuity between the prequels and original trilogy. Thus, in the 2004 DVD release of The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition, the original version of the Emperor was replaced by Scottish Shakespearean actor Ian McDiarmid, and the dialogue between the Emperor and Darth Vader was revised.
Lucas and director Richard Marquand cast McDiarmid to play Emperor Palpatine for Return of the Jedi. He was in his late 30s and had never played a leading role in a feature film, though he had made minor appearances in films like Dragonslayer (1981). After Return of the Jedi, he resumed stage acting in London. In an interview with BackStage, McDiarmid revealed that he "never had his sights set on a film career and never even auditioned for the role of Palpatine." He elaborated, "I got called in for the interview after a Return of the Jedi casting director saw me perform in the Sam Shepard play Seduced at a studio theatre at the Royal Court. I was playing a dying Howard Hughes."
McDiarmid was surprised when Lucas approached him 16 years after Return of the Jedi to reprise the role of Palpatine. In an interview, he stated, "When we were doing Return of the Jedi there was a rumor that George Lucas had nine films in his head, and he'd clearly just completed three of them." McDiarmid added, "Someone said that, 'Oh, I think what he might do next is go back in time, and show how Vader came to be.' It never occurred to me in a million years that I would be involved in that, because I thought, 'oh well, then he'll get a much younger actor to play Palpatine. That would be obvious." However, "I was the right age, ironically, for the first prequel when it was made. ... So I was in the very strange and rather wonderful paradox of playing myself when young at my own age, having played myself previously when 100-and-I-don't-know-what."
Palpatine's role in the prequel films required McDiarmid to play two dimensions of the same character. Recalling the initial days of shooting The Phantom Menace, McDiarmid stated, "Stepping onto the set of Episode I for the first time was like going back in time, due to my experience in Jedi. Palpatine's an interesting character; he's conventional on the outside, but demonic on the inside — he's on the edge, trying to go beyond what's possible." McDiarmid added another layer to the character in Attack of the Clones. He noted, "[Palpatine] is a supreme actor. He has to be even more convincing than somebody who isn't behaving in a schizophrenic fashion, so he's extra charming, or extra professional — and for those who are looking for clues, that's almost where you can see them." McDiarmid illuminated on the scene where Padmé Amidala is almost assassinated:
There's a moment in one scene of the new film where tears almost appear in his eye. These are crocodile tears, but for all those in the movie, and perhaps watching the movie itself, they'll see he is apparently moved — and of course, he is. He can just do it. He can, as it were, turn it on. And I suppose for him, it's also a bit of a turn-on — the pure exercise of power is what he's all about. That's the only thing he's interested in and the only thing that can satisfy him — which makes him completely fascinating to play, because it is an evil soul. He is more evil than the devil. At least Satan fell — he has a history, and it's one of revenge.
In Revenge of the Sith, McDiarmid played a darker interpretation of the character. He explained that "[...]when you're playing a character of solid blackness, that in itself is very interesting, in the sense that you have no other motivation other than the accumulation of power. It's not so much about not having a moral center, it's just that the only thing that mattered is increasing power." He admitted, "I've been trying to find a redeeming feature to Palpatine, and the only one I've got so far is that he's clearly a patron of the arts because he goes to the opera." McDiarmid compared the character to Iago from William Shakespeare's Othello:
Everything he does is an act of pure hypocrisy, and that's interesting to play. I suppose it's rather like playing Iago. All the characters in the play — including Othello until the end — think that "Honest Iago" is a decent guy doing his job, and he's quite liked. But at the same time there's a tremendous evil subconscious in operation.
McDiarmid noticed that the script for Revenge of the Sith demanded more action from his character than in previous films. Lightsaber combat was a challenge to the 60-year-old actor, who, like his costars, took fencing lessons. The close-up shots and non-acrobatic sequences of the duel between Palpatine and Mace Windu were performed by McDiarmid. Advanced fencing and acrobatic stunts were executed by McDiarmid's doubles, Michael Byrne, Sebastian Dickins, and Bob Bowles.
McDiarmid's performance as Palpatine was generally well received by critics. Todd McCarthy of Variety commented, "Entertaining from start to finish and even enthralling at times, 'Sith' has some acting worth writing home about, specifically McDiarmid's dominant turn as the mastermind of the evil empire." A reviewer for The Village Voice wrote that "Ian McDiarmid's unctuous Emperor turns appropriately vampiric as he attempts to draw Anakin into the Sith fold with promises of eternal life." Still, his performance was not without detractors; David Edelstein of Slate critiqued, "McDiarmid isn't the subtlest of satanic tempters. With his lisp and his clammy little leer, he looks like an old queen keen on trading an aging butt-boy (Count Dooku) for fresh meat — which leaves Anakin looking more and more like a 15-watt bulb." McDiarmid had expressed interest in reprising the role of Palpatine in the planned Star Wars: Underworld TV series, which remains unproduced.
Make-up and costumes
Ian McDiarmid required little make-up in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. He recalled, "I'm ... slightly aged [in Attack of the Clones]. In the last film, I had a fairly standard make-up on, but now, they're starting to crinkle my face." Transforming McDiarmid into Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith, however, required extensive make-up. McDiarmid remarked in an interview with Star Wars Insider magazine, "Yes—that was a four-hour job, initially, although we got it down to about two-and-a-half in the end. But this was just a little bit of latex here and there, a little bit of skin-scrunching." He told the Homing Beacon newsletter, "When my face changes in the film, my mind went back to the early silent movie of The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney, Sr.." Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that he "looks uncannily like Death in The Seventh Seal" (1957) and film historian Robin Wood compares him to the hag from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
Palpatine's wardrobe, tailored by costume designer Trisha Biggar, played an important part in the development of the character throughout the films. In Attack of the Clones, explained McDiarmid, "The costumes ... have got much more edge to them, I think, than the mere senator had in The Phantom Menace. So we see the trappings of power." In the next episode, McDiarmid remarked, "To wear the costumes as the character I play is wonderfully empowering." McDiarmid's favorite costume in Revenge of the Sith was a high-collared jacket that resembles snake or lizard skin. He stated that "it just feels reptilian, which is exactly right for [Palpatine]." According to Trisha Biggar, Palpatine's costumes proved the most daunting challenge. She said, "His six costumes get progressively darker and more ornately decorated throughout the movie. He wears greys and browns, almost going to black, taking him toward the dark side."
In popular culture
With the premiere of Return of the Jedi and the prequel films and the accompanying merchandising campaign, Palpatine became an icon in American popular culture. Kenner/Hasbro produced and marketed a series of action figures of the character from 1983 to 2005. According to John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett, "These action figures allow children ('4 & up') to handle the symbols of the Force."
Academics have debated the relationship of Palpatine to modern culture. Religion scholars Ross Shepard Kraemer, William Cassidy, and Susan Schwartz compare Palpatine and Star Wars heroes to the theological concept of dualism. They insist, "One can certainly picture the evil emperor in Star Wars as Satan, complete with his infernal powers, leading his faceless minions such as his red-robed Imperial Guards." Lawrence and Jewett argue that the killing of Palpatine in Return of the Jedi represented "the permanent subduing of evil".
Since Return of the Jedi and the prequel films, Palpatine's name has been invoked as a caricature in politics. A Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial noted that anti-pork bloggers were caricaturing West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd as "the Emperor Palpatine of pork" with Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska having "clear aspirations to be his Darth Vader." The charge followed a report that linked a secret hold on the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 to the two senators. Politicians have made comparisons as well. In 2005, Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey compared Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee to Palpatine in a speech on the Senate floor, complete with a visual aid.
A Fox News editorial stated "no cultural icon can exist without someone trying to stuff it into a political ideology. The Star Wars saga, the greatest pop culture icon of the last three decades, is no exception... Palpatine's dissolution of the Senate in favor of imperial rule has been compared to Julius Caesar's marginalization of the Roman Senate, Hitler's power-grab as chancellor, and FDR's court-packing scheme and creation of the imperial presidency."
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