When you think of Emperor Palpatine your mind immediately forms an image of actor Ian McDiarmid. While he may have gone by different names, (Darth Sidious, Sheev) Palpatine has appeared in six of the nine episodes in the Star Wars saga. While McDiarmid has been fortunate to portray the character multiple times over the past 40 years, he actually wasn’t the first person to play the Emperor. In 1980, when the Emperor briefly appeared in The Empire Strikes Back, the character was actually portrayed by two different actors, one providing the voice and the other, the physical appearance. So who are the actors who were so critical to the history of Star Wars, that they gave us the first images of the greatest villain in the franchise?
Surprisingly, Emperor Palpatine was first portrayed by a woman. Under heavy makeup, the first person to appear on screen as Palpatine was an actress named Marjorie Eaton. Eaton had been an actress in film and on stage since her first appearance in Anna and the King of Siam in 1946, though many of her performances were uncredited. At the age of 78, she filmed her scenes for The Empire Strikes Back, under heavy makeup as well as the eyes of a chimpanzee being superimposed over the final image. Due to the fact that she was never credited for her work in the movie, as well as the fact that the scene was redone with Ian McDiarmid filling in the role, for many years fans weren’t sure who was the first person to play the Emperor. It wasn’t until 2016 that Marjorie Eaton’s work on the movie was confirmed. In addition to being the first person to ever play Emperor Palpatine Eaton, born in 1901, was the earliest born actor to ever appear in a Star Wars movie.
As for the voice, the first person to ever put words in the Emperor’s mouth was an actor named Clive Revill. Revill was an accomplished theater actor having appeared on the stage in multiple roles and was nominated for multiple Tonys, including Best Actor for his role of Fagin in the musical Oliver in 1963. As career continued, Revill would go on to have a successful career as a voice actor as well. In addition to providing the original voice of The Emperor, Revill also had voice performances in shows such as Transformers, Pinky and the Brain, Freakazoid, and Batman: The Animated Series. Unlike Majorie Eaton, Revill was credited for his work on The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, and even though the performance was later redone by McDiarmid to keep the continuity in line with the other movies, Revill is still credited for the movie.
Revill was actually given a few more opportunities to contribute to the Star Wars universe. In the video game Star Wars: X-Wing, Clive Revill provided the voice of General Dodonna and then in the sequel game Star Wars: X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, he is credited with providing the voice for Imperial Officer #2.
While Ian McDiarmid will always be the name most closely associated with the character, it’s important to remember the people who first brought the most fearsome villain in the galaxy to the screen for the first time.