Did Ian McDiarmid Play Palpatine In the Original ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy?

One historically great thing about the Star Wars films (or at least the original trilogy) is George Lucas managed to land some notable British thespians typically known for doing more intellectual fare on the stage.

Being able to hire Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing were real acting coups only the former seemed to despise.

By 1983, Lucas was able to hire a renowned Scottish stage actor named Ian McDiarmid. While latter wasn’t even yet 40 at the time, he was basically an acting replacement for the role of the dark side Emperor, Darth Sidious.

With his return as Senator Palpatine in the prequels (and possibly Episode IX), how much value has McDiarmid provided to the Star Wars saga?

Ian McDiarmid
Ian McDiarmid at Star Wars Celebration Chicago | Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images

The original emperor in ‘Empire Strikes Back’ was a strange figure

If you can remember back to when The Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, you’ll remember the very first image of the emperor. This particular scene had the emperor looking considerably different than how we saw him in Return of the Jedi. George Lucas was able to land yet another stellar British actor (Clive Revill) to voice the emperor in Empire.

However, the look of the Sith Lord was far more nefarious when you do comparisons between Empire and Return of the Jedi. Based on behind-the-scenes imagery revealed several years ago, prosthetic makeup artist Rick Baker hired his wife and superimposed chimp eyes over her face.


The result was an eerie presence Lucas has since removed from his own directorial cuts of the original trilogy. Now Ian McDiarmid has been digitally inserted into those classic Empire scenes to provide a more logical continuity, which some fans might say is nothing but a retcon.

Was it really a smart move to make the emperor look more human by Return of the Jedi?

McDiarmid brought dramatic stage acting to the Emperor/Palpatine

There isn’t any doubt Lucas hiring Ian McDiarmid brought a Shakespearean touch to the emperor and Palpatine that helped elevate the Star Wars movies. At the same time, some fans have found McDiarmid’s acting as the emperor very much like a theatrical Shakespearean performance, which some might argue is a little over the top.

When mixed with the famous cackle and sometimes contrived dialogue, it was easy at times for the emperor to become unintentionally funny.

Perhaps McDiarmid intended it this way coming from the classic school of stage acting. His performance as Senator Palpatine was much more subtle and nuanced, though, when he returned for The Phantom Menace. The same goes when he resumed the role as the emperor in Episodes II and III.

Every fan can also recall the ironic laughs he provided in making sly references to things we know would happen later. One of the most memorable is when Palpatine said in TPM: “You young Skywalker. We’ll watch your career with great interest.”

Everyone’s dying to know if McDiarmid will be back in ‘Episode IX’

At 74 years old now, McDiarmid is old enough to portray the emperor at a more age-appropriate time. It’s still hard to believe the young age he was when originating the role. Most people thought he was an actor well into his 70s already then.

For fans, the reveal of the emperor coming back in The Rise of Skywalker seems more than obvious. What role he’ll play (likely as a Dark Side Ghost) is still one of the best kept secrets for the film.

Will we see a pivotal scene of McDiarmid’s emperor (in ghost form) revealing he’s a direct descendant of Rey? Theories keep percolating about this, but it might seem too obvious.

What would be really epic is to see a battle between the ghosts of Luke and the emperor going at it to bring the Star Wars saga full circle. Fortunately, McDiarmid has found joy being a part of this universe, despite most British stage actors resenting the connection just to receive a paycheck.