Star Wars actor Richard LeParmentier, whose lack of faith Darth Vader found disturbing, has died at age 66 according to Reuters. He played the sneering admiral Conan Antonio Motti — named after Conan O’Brien — an Imperial Navy officer fiercely committed to the idea that his beloved Death Star was invulnerable and “the greatest power in the universe.” Needless to say, Motti’s overconfidence was his weakness.
In this Star Wars fan’s unhumble opinion, LeParmentier contributed to the best scene of the best movie in the best franchise of all time, when he told Darth Vader that his “sorcerer’s ways” and “sad devotion to that ancient religion” were no match for the technological supremacy of the Death Star.
First of all, it goes to show that in any galaxy you don’t just haul off and insult someone’s religion. In our world you’d rightly be fired. In that Galaxy Far, Far Away, you might get a crushed windpipe. Civility, people! But it’s also the most critical exposition scene to that point in Star Wars. And, yes, I’m including Obi-Wan’s discussion with Luke about the nature of the Force and his family legacy. That scene on Tatooine establishes background for the mythology of the whole series.
But the scene with Admiral Motti and Darth Vader goes even further, setting up the idea of the Death Star as the superweapon that needs to be destroyed before it can unleash unstoppable terror itself, not to mention the tension between technology and mysticism, and the idea that overconfidence is a weakness that can be very easily exploited — a theme that runs through the franchise. It’s also just a damn funny, beautifully shot scene, with the actors filmed in a minimalist, monochromatic setting flooded with fluourescent light that sets up the idea of the Empire’s spiritually arid industrial might.
Everybody remembers Darth Vader’s reaction to Motti’s curled-lipped contempt. The way he telekinetically choked the guy inspired countless 30 Rock jokes about Star Wars as a lesson for workplace civility. Even George Lucas realized the unusual popularity of that moment. In 2007, when he appeared on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Lucas decided, as a backhanded compliment to the host, to give a first name to the character previously known as “Admiral Motti”: Conan.
LeParmentier, who died in Austin, Texas while visiting family, was well aware that Star Wars was his most memorable contribution to the big screen, though he also had bit parts in Octopussy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Superman II — at the time he was married to Sarah Douglas, who played evil Kryptonian Ursa. He made appearances at Star Wars conventions and once said of his spotlight moment, “I did the choking effect by flexing muscles in my neck. It set off a chain of events, that choking. I can’t do it anymore because, oddly enough, I have had an operation on my neck and had some 21st century titanium joints put into it.”
In a statement, his relatives Rhiannon, Stephanie, and Tyrone LeParmentier said, “Every time we find someone’s lack of faith disturbing, we’ll think of him… He has gone to the Stars, and he will be missed.”
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt