Ian McDiarmid

Active - 1979 - 2019  |   Born - Apr 17, 1944 in Carnoustie, Scotland  |   Genres - Drama, Science Fiction, Mystery

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Biography by Rebecca Flint Marx

Known to millions of Star Wars fans as the scabby and nefarious Emperor Palpatine, Scottish actor Ian McDiarmid also happens to have built a career as one of the London theatre's most acclaimed and influential figures. The co-artistic director (along with Jonathan Kent) of Islington's Almeida Theatre since 1990, McDiarmid has been, in large part, responsible for the Almeida's transformation from obscure fringe theatre to one of London's most respected playhouses. Alongside Kent, he was named by one theatre critic as one of the "capital's prime impresarios."

Born in Carnoustie, Scotland, on April 17, 1947, McDiarmid grew up in Dundee, Tayside. Although he nurtured an interest in the theatre from a young age, he put aside his stage inclinations to study social sciences at St. Andrews University. Ultimately deciding that he was not suited for a career as a clinical psychologist, McDiarmid decided to take the plunge into acting, working for a year to support his training courses at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. After completing his study, he performed with various fringe theatres throughout Scotland and England, and eventually joined the vaunted Royal Shakespeare Company.

McDiarmid began moving into television and film in the late 1970s with his casting in a supporting role in the TV series The Professionals. He made his film debut in 1980, but did not have his first major -- or memorable -- role until he was cast as the Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi (1983). Like so many other actors in the Star Wars trilogy who traded in recognizable facial/bodily/vocal features for the demands of their often heavily made-up or computerized characters, McDiarmid did earn a certain amount of fame for his work in the film, but it was largely confined to the realm of enthusiastic Star Wars fans.

While the actor continued to appear onscreen in such features as Gorky Park (1983) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), his first love was the theatre, and it was in his capacity as a stage actor and director that he made and continues to make his greatest impact. In 1998, McDiarmid and Kent won the Evening Standard's Theatrical Achievement of the Year award. The following year, McDiarmid appeared in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow and reprised the role of Emporer Palpatine -- albeit a younger, less made-up version of the character -- for the hugely-hyped Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, which succeeded in introducing him to a new generation of Star Wars fans. After appearing in the World War I drama All the Kings Men the same year, McDiarmid returned to the role of Palpatine in 2002's Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones and again in the franchise-closer Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

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  • Became enamored of acting and the theater at age 5 after his parents took him to see a variety show in Dundee.
  • First acting experience was a role in a primary-school production of The Waltzing Matilda.
  • Performed with Glasgow's Citizens Theatre during the early 1970s.
  • Served as joint artistic director (with Jonathan Kent) of the Almeida Theatre in London from 1990 to 2002.
  • Knew he'd landed a part in Return of the Jedi when George Lucas complimented his nose.