Ralph Morse | Corporal Derdram | Star Wars

Ralph Morse
Corporal Derdram, Stormtrooper (The Empire Strikes Back), Stormtrooper (Return of the Jedi)
Interview: July 2016

Let’s start at the very beginning: How did you get started in the movie business?

I was just over half way through my training as an actor and teacher at the prestigious Rose Bruford College when I was given the opportunity to gain some experience of the film industry by appearing in the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me. At the time, it was my intention to be a classical theatre actor but I soon discovered that by alternating supporting film roles with teaching I was able to maintain a modest income that enabled me to undertake artistically rewarding theatre projects that I would not otherwise financially have been able to do.

I was therefore fortunate to have been involved in some of the most influential films of the late seventies and early eighties including two Star Wars movies, three James Bond, Flash Gordon and An American Werewolf in London.

You just mentioned you were in two Star Wars movies. How did you get cast for both The Empire Strikes Back and the Return of the Jedi?

By the time I got the audition for The Empire Strikes Back, I was on the books of a number of agencies, for theatre, commercials, radio, television and film. I received a call from one of my agents who told me he had put me up for a small speaking role in a new film, “The Empire Strikes Back.” It may seem odd now, but I had no idea what the film was about, so I asked my agent. He simply said, “Don’t worry you’ll find out soon enough when you get there.” At that time a number of television programmes and films were set in India, so I thought that was probably the Empire they were referring to. Even when I arrived at Elstree and saw the Star Wars sound stage, I still didn’t make the connection. It was only when I actually met the assistant director that it finally dawned on me. I never did find out however, exactly what the part entailed, because something strange happened. I caught a glimpse of Peter Diamond, who I knew from Dick Turpin, a series in which I had appeared as a blackguard in one episode, The pright Man. Peter Diamond had been the stunt director. We had filmed the episode at an old coach house in Hertfordshire and wandered on to the set, basically because I was fed up with waiting around. Rather arrogantly I asked the director Charles Crichton, when I was going to be needed. An assistant director looked at me, all dirtied up to look like a blackguard, and told me they needed me to fall down a staircase. I thought that it was a rather odd request, but if that was what they wanted me to do, then so be it. After a few unconvincing falls, the stuntman they had been expecting turned up. They thought I was him. To be fair, under make-up there was a passing similarity between us.

Peter Diamond arrived on set, and could have easily have been quite angry, but he was always a real gentleman, and seeing the funny side of the story, let me watch some of the stunt set-ups. I later discovered he was a RADA trained actor himself and understood my eagerness.

When Peter saw me at my Star Wars audition he recognised me and we nodded and waved to each other before he disappeared again. I didn’t give it much more thought, although the assistant left my own devices for twenty minutes or so before returning with a proposal. The part I was being considered for would take no more than two days to shoot. Alternatively, if I fancied being a Stormtrooper, I could have several months work on the film. So that was how I became a Stormtrooper. I later discovered that Peter Diamond had suggested me for the role. Having spent over four months on the film, I was then invited to reprise the Stormtrooper role in Return of the Jedi.

Can you share some remarkable things that happened during the making of the movies?

My first shot is the one that always springs to mind. I was in my Stormtrooper costume, which was quite uncomfortable and difficult to move in but it was the helmet that gave me the most problems. For my first shot, I had to run down a corridor with three other Stormtroopers. So I ran straight into a wall, fell over and knocked the other Stormtroopers over in the process. This happened because I couldn’t see anything. A member of the crew had been asked to clean the helmets and had done so with “Brasso”, a cleaning abrasive. As a result the lens material on the eye openings had become glazed over.

Fortunately, I was soon given a new helmet, and although visibility was still poor I could, at least, vaguely see where I was going. Most Stormtroopers fell over from time to time and it could be quite painful. Another example was in the evacuation of the second death star in Return of the Jedi where I was again running down a corridor. For this sequence small droids, based on radio controlled cards had been introduced to create another sense of movement to the scene. Running at speed, I managed to hit one of these machines, knock it flying and again crash into a wall and fall over. The crew rushed to the aid of the droid, while I was left to pick myself and tend to my injured pride. The weirdest experience in filming also occurred on Return of the Jedi, although this never appeared in the final movie. Darth Vader and several Stormtroopers, of which I was one, took part in very comical and rather silly sequences in which we struck comic poses, bumped into each other, fell over and generally behaved in an inappropriate fashion. What we did not know at the time was that while we were involved with these bizarre events, on another set, Mark Hamill and Sebastian Shaw were filming the death scene of Darth Vader.

You appear in several scenes and you’ve played various characters; Corporal Derdram, Stormtrooper and a rebel soldier. Which character and which scene was the most fun to do or stands out the most?

A number of scenes stand out for different reasons. Although he has relatively small time on screen, Corporal Derdram has one key shot, and that is when he ducks as the Millennium Falcon appears to charge into Darth Vader’s Executor Star Destroyer. Irvin Kershner was a little concerned that my position in shot was too high and spoiling the mise-en-scene. If you look at the still of me, as Corporal Derdram, you can see that there is an arc on the set and my head is nicely positioned with the top of my cap just touching the arc. I suggested to “Kersh” that if I bent my knees a little and lowered my centre of gravity, it would work. That was how we filmed it, and if you look at the still you can actually see that I am neither sitting nor standing. Irvin Kershner was a wonderful director to work with.

One of the Bespin scenes I shot has become known as the “get my shuttle ready sequence. The sliding doors operated manually by the crew kept sticking and as a result filming ceased until the problem was remedied.

In the break, I started playing around with my blaster, and tried holding it side-saddle as though I were carrying a shotgun in a western movie. I was still doing it for a rehearsal about ten minutes later. Turns out it was not a rehearsal as they were actually filming it and that is the one used in the final film. In 2015 I was involved in a video for CNN Digital’s Great Big Story and that was the clip they used.

Probably the longest delay occurred during the filming of the Carbon chamber sequences from The Empire Strikes Back. The set was incredibly hot and uncomfortable. I had to be helped on to the set as I was having great difficulty climbing the various ladders and ramps that accessed it. The conditions were unbearable and my lenses were steamed up and one Stormtrooper, who was not a stuntman, fell off the set. We were moved around quite a lot, interchanging with stuntman as necessary and found myself at various stages standing next to Darth Vader, Boba Fett and Han Solo. Eventually we took a break, during which “Kersh” took some pictures of us that would surface many years later. Although the hardest of all the sequences in which I was involved it is also one of the darkest and most exciting to watch.

The evacuation of the Hoth Rebel base was great fun to film. It was a huge set taking up the whole of the main sound stage, with ice corridors at the top and enormous doors at the bottom. There were fantastic three dimensional paintings on one wall of x-wing fighters in addition to the full size models on the set. Lastly the full sized Millennium Falcon took up much of the top half of the sound stage. As a rebel, I was running towards the big doors while the crew were throwing broken pieces of polystyrene at us. I resolved that if one hit me I would fall as dramatically as possible. I never got to try that move out as nothing landed on me.

Back in 1980, when The Empire Strikes Back came out your character, Corporal Derdram, didn’t have a name. Over the years he got one, thanks to a Star Wars card game. When did you find out about the name and what did you think of the fact that your character finally got a name some 17 (!) years after the movie?

When I attended Collectormania 17 at Milton Keynes MK Dons Stadium in 2011, a fan gave me a collector card and told me that my character’s name was Corporal Derdram. It was a nice surprise to find out that he had an identity.

How do you look back at your parts in two Star Wars movies after three decades, especially since Star Wars is still so much alive these days?

I have very fond memories of the making of both films and feel honoured and privileged to be part of the Star Wars family.

You perform as Johnny Cashbox. Not all of our readers know who who he is (shame on them!) So could you tell them – in your own words – what this character does and who he is?

I am a performance artist. That is to say that my concerts are tailored to my audience and involve a number of disciplines; acting, comedy and music.

When Johnny Cash died in 2003, I started getting requests to include his songs at my gigs. These proved increasingly popular and I even considered doing a tribute act but decided that a new character would probably serve me and my audience more effectively and Johnny Cashbox was born.

While Johnny Cashbox does perform Johnny Cash songs, the majority of his repertoire includes original material much of it related to the sci-fi genre.

Cashbox is in many ways as much Han Solo as he is Johnny Cash. Some song titles may give you a clue; “Starfighters Hit Zero”, “Am I All That Is Left Of An Empire” and “I Shot A Jedi”. Johnny also appears at conventions with his own comic unique take on events. Why not check out “Johnny Cashbox – Universal Superstar – Invasion Colchester” on Youtube. Johnny performs both solo and with his band TheDragonflyRising”. An eccentric and unusual character that is always changing and developing.

You have attended many conventions and met many fans. What do you regard as the funniest, strangest or weirdest thing that has ever happened to you at a convention?

At Collectormania 17 a large image of Corporal Derdram was displayed above my signing. There were a wide range of Star Wars characters walking about and there was a real carnival atmosphere. I noticed a man in an Imperial Officer uniform. Approaching the table he looked at me and said, “Do you recognise me?” It was a difficult question to answer as I did not recall ever meeting him. “Refresh, my memory” I politely said.

“I am you, of course!” he exclaimed. He then went on to explain that he played Corporal Derdram in role-plays. Having only just a few minutes before been told by a fan that my character had a name, it was a most pleasant surprise to discover that cos-players were actually portraying me in action scenarios.

Can you tell something about your current or future projects?

I am currently writing an original theatre piece that explores the nature of reality and fantasy; it is provisionally entitled, “I Shot A … Jedi”, after my song.

Without giving too much away, here is a taster. When the audience looks at the stage performance it will be for them to decide whether they are in the real world or the Star Wars universe. That decision will affect how they see the drama and the central character; is he simply someone who is deluded or is he the most dangerous monster in the universe? Johnny Cashbox and TheDragonflyRising will be providing the music.

I am hoping to premiere the show in time for the Pantomime season.

I hope it will! Many thanks for your time!