Former Star Wars Actor John Morton
Jun 01, 2018 12:00AM
Morton said he went off “doing his other life,” after his acting career began to wind down. He worked as a reporter covering the defense industry, a conference director, and a public relations official.
But after the Star Wars movies were re-released, beginning in 1997, Morton suddenly became a hot commodity again.
Aside from Star Wars, the 71-year-old Morton, an Annapolis resident, had a notable but unheralded acting career. He appeared in seven other movies, including Superman II, Flash Gordon, A Bridge Too Far, and The Shining.
A Bridge Too Far in 1979 gave Morton the opportunity to brush shoulders with legendary actors Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier, Sean Connery, and Robert Redford.
How thrilling was it? Morton played a military chaplain who counseled Redford’s character in a movie.
But his brief appearance in The Empire Strikes Back is what Star Wars’ fans celebrate. Morton played Dak, Luke Skywalker’s gunner, and delivered the famous line “Right now, I feel I could take on the whole Empire myself.”
“I didn’t want to pursue acting as a career. I always saw myself as a writer of some sort. While I was doing all of this acting, I was putting together screen plays.”
The Star Wars obsession keeps Morton busy. Over the past 20 years, Morton has attended about 70 Star Wars and comic book conventions in the United States and Europe, signing more than 10,000 autographs. He’s also saved all the letters he received from fans requesting autographs—more than 500 he estimates.
Morton, who was born in New York City and attended school in Annapolis, is a prolific writer who worked for defense publications for 11 years while penning two books for the U.S. Naval Institute as well as one chronicling the legendary Duke Ellington’s appearance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. He also wrote five screen plays, and four stage plays.
Morton’s ties to Annapolis and the Navy run deep. His father, grandfather, and great grandfather were Naval Academy graduates along with his daughter Margaret. Morton himself served four years in Navy Reserve. We recently talked to Morton about his role in The Empire Strikes Back, signing autographs, his acting career, and passion for the guitar.
How did you get into acting?
I didn’t want to pursue acting as a career. I always saw myself as a writer of some sort. While I was doing all of this acting, I was putting together screen plays. The second screen play I wrote was called The Operator. I went out to Hollywood for it, but it didn’t make it. Then I went to New York and wrote some stage plays. One I did was Uninvited Family and it ran on 42nd Street for a month. I also wrote a play called Hubris and I tried to get it going in New York. I also did a little bit of work in off-off-Broadway and I was in One Life to Live for a day. I said I had enough and came back to Annapolis in 1984.
How did your role in The Empire Strikes Back come about?
That was about my fourth or fifth film. Once you get an agent and union membership, you start getting sent to casting directors for films, TV productions, and commercials. My first role was Robert Redford’s chaplain in A Bridge Too Far. The Empire Strikes Back was just a logical follow. They were casting in London and using Americans and Canadians in big-budget American films. I was cast as a rebel pilot and didn’t really know until I arrived on the set who the actual character would be. They told me when I arrived I was going to play Luke Skywalker’s tail gunner or weapons officer. My name was Dak. The obvious thing about Dak is that he is Luke Skywalker’s co-pilot. He says in the movie to Luke as they are scrambling, “Right now I feel I could take on the whole Empire myself.” That’s the line people love. They feel it’s an expression of youthful idealism.
Can you talk about how the character Dak has grown in popularity over the years?
He figured as a character in comic books and the Star Wars novels. In the 1990s, he was a pretty legendary pilot in video games. Before they started re-releasing the films in the late 1990s and the sequels, the whole genre was kept live in comic books, video games, and fiction books. Dak was incorporated into stories. I had no knowledge of this because I was doing other things. It was only when the films were re-released in 1997 that I suddenly became aware of this huge Star Wars interest. No one remembered any of the other films I was in.
What do you think of the autograph-seeking fans that love your character?I have come to appreciate the people who are into Dak. They come up to me, they are all dewy-eyed and saying, “I can’t believe it. I am meeting you. Dak has been such a presence in my life. It’s a really big deal.” They are fan boys. I say, “Are you the second son? Do you have an older brother?” They say, “Yea. How did you know?” For many of these kids who are young men now, Dak was the character they always played because their big brother played Luke. The younger brother was always Dak.
Did you have any special relationship with the star actors?
Mark Hamill and I had this in common: he too was a Navy junior. His father was a destroyer man like mine—a Navy captain. We had the same experience of being bounced around the country and being the new kids on the block. So we were very tight. I was on the film set for four weeks, and we were kind of joined at the hip. We had lunch together every day. I last saw Mark at the Star Wars Celebration VI in Orlando in 2012. It was good to catch up.
You have been signing autographs at Star Wars conventions on and off for 20 years. What appeals to you about them?
I am getting paid to do this. When I first starting doing it, I was exclusively raising money for children’s charities. In the 1990s, they were giving you an appearance fee. I was not real comfortable taking money from kids. I was earning a good living as a conference director doing defense, homeland security, and environmental clean-up conferences in D.C. I told the promoters, “Please find a children’s charity I can raise money for.” I turned conventions down from 2003 to 2010 because life was too hectic in D.C. I got back into it in 2010.
Can you talk about your passion for playing the guitar?
I started playing in 1963 as a sophomore in high school. I was in a jug band. I continued playing in college. When I went over to London, I put a band together and we started playing on the pub circuit. Once I started acting, I didn’t play for money. Then I played off and on as a solo performer. In Washington, I played at the Cellar Door. In the 1990s, I played a lot with a rhythm and blues guitarist from New Orleans. He was working with the Broadneck Presbyterian Church. They were playing a lot of gospel. I played with them through the 1990s. I also have mixed sound for a gospel group called the Queen Sisters. I was pretty well known in the African American community as this white guy mixing sound for the Queen Sisters. I have been in all the churches that do Gospel.