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Interview with Toby Philpott (aka “Jabba’s Left-Hand Man”)

Toby Philpott (Wookiepedia page here) was one of the original puppeteers of Jabba in Return of the Jedi, having controlled Jabba’s left hand, part of his head, and his tongue. I knew of Toby through my research about Jabba, and because he is one of the upcoming signers on the Jabba Connoisseur Series Autographs from Wattographs, so naturally I was pretty excited. He very generously offered to send me a packet of gum with Jabba on it that he had acquired a few years ago, and I asked if he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions for me and my readers. He has actually given a number of interviews in the last several years, so I tried to ask questions that didn’t overlap too much with what he had already said before. I suggest you read the other interviews to get the full picture. There are definitely some great stories about his background, his work on ROTJ, and on other films such as The Dark Crystal.

When you started work on Return of the Jedi, was Jabba more or less finished as a puppet? What were your impressions when you saw him for the first time?

I was offered the job when Jabba was still very much in development (and very secret). I had to go see the guys to get a cast taken of my arm (so they could make the ‘glove fit’ for the arm inside). I would get to see the prototype, etc, but he didn’t completely come together until quite near the time.  I had been working on The Dark Crystal, so I was quite used to the size and ambition of the puppet, and the necessary processes we would have to go through in developing the movement, etc.

Do you have a favorite moment from your time on the Return of the Jedi set?

Well, sometimes we were background, and sometimes in high focus, and we could never tell how much of us was in shot so we used to work really hard some days, when on the edge of the frame! (On Dark Crystal our monitors showed the actual shot, so you knew how much you were contributing – but The Muppet People obviously cared more for their puppeteers’ comfort, as that was their speciality. On ROTJ we did not have a through-the-lens shot so we have to believe what we were told. On that basis, I enjoyed when we were doing stuff in high focus, in spite of the pressure, so specific moves like hitting C3PO, or eating the frog were my favourite times…

What are some of your more memorable experiences interacting with Star Wars fans in the years since then (such as at conventions)?

Well, you have to understand that I didn’t really think about any of this for 20 years.  Six weeks work, done, paid for. A year later we got to see the finished movie, and that was it.  I only discovered about the fan base when I came online back in 1999, and immediately got interviewed by the Blue Harvest website, etc.  Fairly shortly after that I started discussing conventions with Michael ‘HR’ Nielsen, who recommended I get some pictures made and come on out.  My pictures were really not good quality (I had no idea!) but as I was a ‘first-time signer’ I had a line of people waiting!  I started telling the stories extra loud, to reach back down the line.  Since then I have improved my display, the quality of pix, etc – and tried to make a bit of a show of it.  For instance (drawing on my street performer approach) I don’t turn up in t-shirt and jeans, but always wear a red shirt and a green jacket – so that in all convention photos online you can easily spot me!  I like to chat and play with people, even off duty, but I have occasionally drunk slightly too much when in the bar with fans!

Despite being rather grotesque, Jabba has remained one of the most popular Star Wars characters. Why do you think that is? What is the appeal of the character? When you were helping to bring Jabba to life in ROTJ, did you expect to still be talking about him nearly 30 years later?

I certainly didn’t expect to be talking about him now!  Although we knew Star Wars was huge (we were working on the third film) it was hard to think an alien character would play that large a part. George Lucas famously films lots but cuts it up. Actors don’t get many sustained scenes, for instance.  So for Jabba to have 10-15 minutes of screen time is massive!

He is not a total baddie like the Emperor or Darth Vader, he has an amiable, party-animal quality that appeals to people, I think.  He seems more like a rogue than an evil being. He’s a pirate and an outlaw, and we all love pirates. He’s The Godfather, and we find Marlon Brando fascinating, if scary. Jabba also resembles Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon, who is funny, even if you would never trust him.

What did you think when you first saw the CGI Jabba from the Special Edition of Star Wars? How about the later versions (such as in The Phantom Menace)? Do you think Lucas would ever try and replace the ROTJ Jabba with CGI?

I don’t like the cgi Jabba for obvious reasons (it puts people like me out of work!) but also because it doesn’t look convincing to me.  Some cgi does work, but it seems best if your eye doesn’t dwell on it too long (e.g. cgi stuntmen, or velociraptors, etc). They have improved the look, but George apparently never much liked the puppet, so I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in the future he re-worked the original to match the cgi, rather than the reverse. It’s his raw material, he can do what he likes with it!

Anthony Daniels has said that his least favorite piece of C-3PO merchandise is the infamous ceramic tape dispenser. Do you have a least favorite piece of Jabba merchandise? Or one that you thought was the strangest? What about a favorite?

It still amuses me to see the range of stuff that turns up at our desks, although I am harder to surprise now, of course, having seen at least one of almost everything. I don’t like the sculpt on some of the cheaper Jabba models (Hasbro?) but some of the large limited edition ones are wonderful.  At times I have acquired some models, but tend to end up giving them away again.  My own favourite (and he still comes with me to signings, because he fits in my pocket) is the Pepsi bottle-top I got in Japan.

You’ve said that you’re not really a collector, but do you own any Jabba merchandise, or have any souvenirs from the film?

As I said above, I have occasionally had a Jabba model or to, but tended to pass them on.  My crew shirt (Revenge of the Jedi) got worn a bit, but I eventually gave it to a young friend who wore it every day for a year (and he works outdoors in the country) so it got pretty well worn out and destroyed. I know collectors wince at the idea, but I quite like the idea of things being used, rather than kept ‘virgin’.  I know John Coppinger still has his brand new in plastic! Apart from that, all I have is a couple of call-sheets, that survived in a box in a friend’s attic, and then turned up unexpectedly.

Thank you for your time, Toby!

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 25, 2011 5:46 pm

    Sorry, mate! Somehow I forgot to update the interviews page with this exchange we had.

    I have put that right now.

    You remain my first point of reference for any Jabba-related questions.

    Thanks for everything! toby

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