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August 13, 2016 at 09:26 PM EDT

The little Star Wars actor who helped bring heart and soul to the droid R2-D2 has died. Kenny Baker died Saturday at age 81 after a long illness.

Representatives at Lucasfilm coonfirmed his passing to EW after The Guardian first reported his death.

“Kenny Baker was a real gentleman as well as an incredible trooper who always worked hard under difficult circumstances,” George Lucas said in a statement on the official Star Wars site. “A talented vaudevillian who could always make everybody laugh, Kenny was truly the heart and soul of R2-D2 and will be missed by all his fans and everyone who knew him.”

In the days before precision robotics, the 3-foot-8-inch British actor would slip inside the hollowed out models of Artoo to make him shudder, wobble, and spin his dome in reaction to dialog. Although scenes of the droid rolling were usually done with a motor or cable, fans can easily tell when Baker is inhabiting the astromech by the black exhaust tubes connecting his undercarriage to the robot’s feet, which obscured Baker’s legs.

Designed by Ralph McQuarrie, the Laurel and Hardy of the Skywalker universe introduced the term droids. ''They are the perfect odd couple. One is blue, short, stocky, and free; the other is golden, fussy, and rigid. More than any other robot on this list, they are fused with their performers [Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels] in voice and mannerisms.''
© & TM Lucasfilm Ltd.

 

Baker played Artoo in all three original films and the three prequels but was in a wheelchair by the time The Force Awakens was released. Still, he was credited as a droid consultant on the film and remained a popular presence for years before that on the sci-fi convention circuit. 

“We’re all saddened to learn of Kenny’s passing,” Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy said. “There is no Star Wars without R2-D2, and Kenny defined who R2-D2 was and is. He will be greatly missed.”

Although most of his scenes were opposite C-3PO actor Anthony Daniels, they had a notoriously testy relationship in real life. Baker actually formed a unlikely bond with a different co-star. Last year, 7-foot-2-inch Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew told EW he and Baker became close friends during the original trilogy, partly because the tallest and smallest actors on set enjoyed sharing their experiences from such different perspectives.

R2-D2 wasn’t Baker’s only Star Wars contribution, though; in Return of the Jedi he also played Paploo, an Ewok who steals a speeder bike

Baker was working with another tiny actor, Jack Purvis, in a nightclub act when both were hired by George Lucas to work on 1977’s Star Wars. Purvis, who died in 1997, played one of the Jawas — and Baker brought life to one of the most iconic robots in film history.

Born in Birmingham, England, on Aug. 24, 1934, according to Baker’s bio on his official website (there is some debate about whether he was 81 or 83), his parents were of average height, and Baker credited the Christian disabilities group The Shaftesbury Society with helping him overcome the challenges dwarfism presented.

He was a teenager when he started performing in 1950, joining a group of little-people variety entertainers called Burton Lester’s Midgets. From there, he literally joined the circus as clown and ringmaster. He went on to form a musical comedy act called The Mini Tones before Star Wars made him world famous. He would go on to perform in films such as Labyrinth, Amadeus, Flash Gordon, Time Bandits, and The Elephant Man

Baker had two children with his late wife, Eileen Baker, who joined her husband in the Star Wars universe by playing one of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Funeral details for Baker were not immediately announced. 

Although R2-D2 is now mostly a remotely operated robot, with small actor Jimmy Vee taking over inside the droid when the human touch is necessary, Baker’s contribution to the character endures nearly 40 years after he first slipped into that metal canister.

Fans never saw Baker’s face onscreen, but his feisty, playful spirit radiated from within.

For more Star Wars news, follow @Breznican.

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