He wasn’t on screen for very long, but if you shout “Porkins” in a room full of Star Wars fans (of a certain age), you’ll hear most of them recite a line or two.
- “Red Six, standing by…”
- “I’m right behind you Red Two…”
- “I have a problem here…”
- “I can hold it…”
- “No, I’m alright, arrgh [boom].”
That’s pretty much the extent of his dialogue, and you’d be hard pressed to find Porkins — played by the late character actor William Hootkins — in the original Star Wars Yavin IV briefing (although I want to say he’s on the far left in the corner).
However, if you type in “Porkins” on YouTube or Google, you’ll find many tributes and discussions and parodies.
My favorite is Alex Damon’s piece from Star Wars Explained:
The Persistance of Porkins
But why the fan fascination with the portly pilot?
After all, Jek Porkins is only a bit player in the battle; to which Hootkins himself said, “If I had known Star Wars would catch on like it did, I would have insisted on a character with continuity.”
Garrick Hagon, who played Biggs Darklighter — a more important character to be sure, but another role with a limited amount of screen time — told me he has a theory about Porkins, and all of the other pilots in A New Hope.
“The characters [in the Y and X-wings] themselves were quite individual,” said Hagon. “You have to be very brave to cast Bill, wonderful Bill, and put him in a little X-wing with a costume that split up the back because he couldn’t fit into it.
“But it was very brave, and very wise to make them such individuals, you know?
“There were individual characters, and they were very good actors,” added Hagon. “You know, you were sneaking very good actors with a lot of experience into those planes, and it was a nice group to be a part of.”
Giving a Hoot
Known to his friends as “Hoot”, Bill was born in Dallas, Texas, and began his stage career at St Mark’s school, Dallas County. He joked that classmate Tommy Lee Jones was better looking and got all the best parts. “I supported from then on in,” he said. He went to Princeton, and studied astrophysics before transferring to oriental studies. On the recommendation of his friend John Lithgow, he moved to Britain in the early 1970s to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. He subsequently made his home in London.
In London, Hootkins found his way into an X-wing, and into his fellow actors’ hearts. For example, Angus MacInnes (Gold Leader) wrote to me, saying, “I considered Bill a friend.
“He was always cheerful and a very funny guy,” added Angus. “But that didn’t mask a deep intelligence.
“When I think of the friends I made and have now lost to life and living I think of Bill…”
There’s a lot of folks who think of Hootkins, a man who appeared, not only in Star Wars, but in Raiders of the Lost Ark as Major Eaton (“Top men…”), and Batman (1989) as Lt. Eckhardt (“Where have you been spending your nights?).
In fact, Bill holds over 120 credits in a widely varied career that spans stage, screen, and console.
An Everyday Hero
However, it might just be his Star Wars bio, which gives the best clue as to Porkins particular popularity:
Jek Porkins was a pilot and trader who abandoned his homeworld when the Empire moved in and developed a new military base there. The burly rebel pilot flew an X-wing at the Battle of Yavin under the call sign Red 6. His X-wing developed a mechanical problem early in the battle, leaving him struggling to maneuver. Before Porkins or his astromech could fix the problem, one of the Death Star’s turbolasers zeroed in on the X-wing, incinerating it and killing Porkins instantly.
You see, Porkins was simply an everyday guy trying to make a difference. And, while many of us fancy ourselves as the Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, or Han Solo of our own stories, many of us may harbor a sneaking suspicion (at least I do) that we may — in fact — simply be Porkins; a normal person, caught up in whatever, trying to do our best.
Which is why I think so many of us (again, of a certain age) looked for signs that our favorite traveling salesman, Jek Porkins, had found his way into the Battle of Scarif.
For his part, Lucasfilm’s Matt Martin was graciously non-committal when asked if Jek had made the jump.
Same as Biggs.
— Matt Martin (@missingwords) September 25, 2017
If you follow that thread up, “Same as Biggs” means (I think) that “an extra that resembles him was and that wasn’t an accident…”
In any regard, I’ll take it…
A Top Man
In any case, I wish I could have spoken to Mr. Hootkins, who, like many Star Wars actors wondered alound about his small role.
“In a sense, my career’s been downhill ever since,” he once said in an interview. “Fans still come to greet me at the stage door with action figures of my character and embarrassing photographs for me to sign.”
However, there was — again — an ability to connect with folks who saw a kindred spirit in the big man in the little fighter. A consistent face on the convention circuit, an autograph from Hoot was a cherished treasure.
“I still didn’t realise what power would come from that job until a year later I received my first fan letter. In it was a drawing of my scene by a little boy, and it was actually a clearer and more understandable version of the scene than George Lucas’! He asked if he could have an autographed photo,” Hootkins told Whatsonstage.com.
“When I checked the return address, it was the leukaemia ward of a children’s hospital.
“It’s a blessing to me that I have any power to make even the tiniest difference in other people’s lives,” he said.
And it’s that wish to “make even the tiniest difference” that makes Porkins so memorable.
Indeed, yay we all be as blessed as Mr. Hootkins. JB
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