'Star Wars: Return of the Jedi' at 40: What it was like seeing Darth Vader's death scene for the 1st time

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (Image credit: Lucasfilm)

My recollection of seeing "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi" the day it premiered is dominated by one peculiar memory. It's etched indelibly into my teen brain as the time when my good buddy Mike Sawyer rudely (but hilariously) blurted out "Tighter, Gomez!" just as Luke removes Darth Vader's helmet and the Sith's bald, egg-shaped head is revealed to look exactly like "The Addams Family's" smooth-skulled crackpot, Uncle Fester, as played by the late Jackie Coogan. 

Fans of that classic '60s TV show will recall that Fester loved to stick his head in a vice while Gomez Addams screwed it down to relieve his headaches. Needless to say, that intense screen moment when Vader was exposed was shattered for not only myself, but the rest of the snickering audience too, and 40 years later it remains an indelible part of my "Star Wars" past.

Only those of a certain age would make that humorous and juvenile association, but on that particular premiere date of May 25, 1983 on a sunny spring afternoon it became the '80s equivalent of a viral meme in that Northern California movie house.

So, on this celebratory occasion I wanted to avoid the compulsory trajectory of most online anniversary retrospectives where pundits debate the merits of the fuzzball Ewoks and whether or not their tiny arms could generate enough force to hurl rocks at fully armored Imperial soldiers to knock them over like bowling pins, or the Empire's flawed thinking while engineering a second Death Star complete with another vulnerable means to its own destruction.

Yes, "Return of the Jedi," once the undesired stepchild of the original trilogy, does still feel fresh with exceptional production values, gorgeous model miniatures, smooth-as-silk stop-motion sequences, majestic matte paintings, meticulous costumes, and another soaring score by the Academy Award-winning composer John Williams. But it's deserving of a more serious dissection above and beyond mere quibbling about petty alterations and minor plot holes.

Luke Skywalker in Jabba's palace in "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi." (Image credit: Lucasfilm)

Instead, let's dispense with those obligatory rundowns of box office numbers, replaced victory songs, and casting rosters and instead break down that vital aforementioned sequence where Luke Skywalker aids an ailing, wheezing Darth Vader following the Emperor's unexpected plunge in the reactor core and removes his ink-black helmet before he ultimately expires.

The moving two-minute death scene begins exactly at the two-hour mark near the end of the third act after Admiral Ackbar's military prowess results in a super star destroyer taking a nosedive into the surface of the Death Star 2. We cut inside the armored space station as chaos erupts and TIE fighter pilots and Stormtroopers jam the hallways as emergency klaxons sound.

Luke Skywalker carries Darth Vader shortly before his death in "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi." (Image credit: Lucasfilm)

Luke shoulders his staggering dad towards an escape shuttle amid the mayhem in a gritty sequence that captures the ballet of confusion in a shaky, cinéma vérité-style shot as Vader stumbles and falls to the polished hanger floor. 

Cut to Imperial officers and their helmeted staff dashing for the exits as we dolly beneath the shuttle's entry ramp to reveal Luke now dragging his father by two hands until he stops at the foot of the walkway. Vader is barely alive and asks Luke to help him take his mask off.

Luke, the considerate son and honorable Jedi that he is, eyes filled with true compassion, reminds pop that he'll expire without his helmet, to which Vader replies that he wants to look at Luke for once with his own eyes. Are they REALLY gonna show his face?! Nah.

Darth Vader's true face is revealed. (Image credit: Lucasfilm)

Luke relents and honors this dying wish. Here, the Academy Award-winning sound effects master, Ben Burtt, the sonic guru who concocted the legendary library of official "Star Wars" sounds, chooses the perfect crackling, hissing noises as the helmet and mask are peeled away, mirroring the removal of evil layers of the Dark Side that have poisoned Vader's soul for years.

James Earl Jones delivers the perfect pitch, timing and inflection in Vader's voice here and there's a swelling voyeuristic anticipation that bleeds beyond the silver screen and out into the aching hearts of the captive audience as we await the unveiling.

Mark Hamill delivers an exceptional performance here as he kneels with his dying dad and we at last see what's been lurking beneath the iron lung's breathing apparatus and it's … Uncle Fester! Well not exactly, but I'll be damned if it doesn’t bear a striking resemblance. The camera holds on a tight close-up of Luke as father and son share an intimate, tearful moment.

Read more: 40 years on, 'Return of the Jedi' is still up there with the best of 'Star Wars'

Jackie Coogan as "The Addams Family's" Uncle Fester. (Image credit: ABC TV Network)

Although David Prowse portrayed Vader in the costumed scenes with Jones providing the voice, 77-year-old Shakespearean actor Sebastian Shaw was cast for the critical death scene with Luke and was directed by Richard Marquand himself. 

George Lucas was also present as the cameras rolled. Shaw's role was kept under absolute secrecy until that single day of filming on the grand soundstages of Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, England.

Anakin Skywalker finds salvation and redemption before asking Luke to tell his sister, Leia, that he was correct about goodness still being inside him, right before dying.

I'm not exactly sure about the makeup department's thought process that went into the clown-white grease paint Anakin Skywalker had applied when his headgear was pulled off, but no human being outside a Ringling Brothers circus would be colored in that stark sickly hue... lack of sunlight or not!

Anakin Skywalker greets his son in "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi." (Image credit: Lucasfilm)

Despite my inconsiderate friend yelling out "Tighter, Gomez!" at that pivotal second on May 25, 1983, I'm still not clear on what I really expected to see beneath the iconic helmet, but my instincts tell me it was not that pasty-white Humpty Dumpty clone with the glassy eyes and burn-scarred skull.

While Mike Sawyer's silly comment that cracked up an entire theater audience and snapped the tension during an emotionally resonant finale lingers, that touching, beautifully-written scene still kind of freaks me out to have seen Darth Vader smile, even if he was redeemed for all eternity in that galaxy far, far away.

Anakin Skywalker passes away at the end of "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi." (Image credit: Lucasfilm)

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Jeff Spry
Contributing Writer

Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.