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Friday January 6, 2012

Swordsman played Darth Vader in the light sabre scenes

Former technical director of the Canadian Fencing Association also taught Errol Flynn and other actors

In the early 1980s, Bob Anderson was in the middle of a long career choreographing some of the greatest swordfights ever to appear on film when he took a job as technical director of the Canadian Fencing Association.

That such a high-profile figure in the small world of fencing - a man who had just doubled for Darth Vader in the epic light sabre battles of The Empire Strikes Back, no less - would move to Ottawa for a decidedly less glamorous job was indicative of his love for developing young talent.

It was a passion that would see him school actors from Errol Flynn to Viggo Mortensen during six decades as a fight director and stunt double. It would also lead him to play a key role in setting up Canada's coaching system for young fencers.

Anderson died on Jan. 1 in a West Sussex hospital.

Born Robert James Gilbert Anderson on Sept. 15, 1922, in the southern English county of Hampshire, he joined the Royal Marines as a young man and fought in the Second World War. While still in the military, he developed a parallel career in fencing, representing Britain with a sabre at world championships in 1950 and 1953.

His movie career began in 1952, shortly after making the cut for the Helsinki Olympics, when he was hired as a stunt double for Errol Flynn's The Master of Ballantrae. So impressive were his skills that he doubled for nearly everyone who crossed swords with Flynn. He also earned the dubious distinction of stabbing the iconic swashbuckler in the thigh, which only seemed to raise him in the actor's esteem.

An injury prevented him from fencing in the Olympic finals. The following year, he was appointed the national team's coach.

Meanwhile, the film work kept coming. He was a fight double in From Russia With Love and Casino Royale, and staged the fights in swashbuckling films from Barry Lyndon to Kidnapped to The Highlander. In the late 1970s, he was hired to coach Jedis and Siths in the Star Wars franchise. In the second and third films of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, he reprised his stuntman days by playing Darth Vader in the fight scenes.

Simultaneously, he took the job in Canada. It was a coup for the Canadian Fencing Association.

"He was a very friendly, outgoing fellow, very dedicated to the sport," recalled John ApSimon, who was then an executive with the organization. "A person of his calibre was a great draw for the children: You can imagine what it was like if the Darth Vader double was teaching you how to fence."

Anderson was happy to oblige his young fans. On one occasion, he even dressed up as the Sith lord for a show-and-tell session at ApSimon's daughter's middle school.

Tim Stang, a staffer at the Canadian Fencing Federation, was a young fencer who crossed paths with Anderson during a competition in Ottawa. "He had just come back from working on a movie set and he saw me fencing, came over and gave me some advice," he said. "It didn't matter what level you were at, he treated everyone with respect. He was a true gentleman of the sport."

During his time in Canada, he built the country's fencing development system, instituting a five-level coaching program.

He still found time for his film career, of course, taking time off to return to England for his stint in Return of the Jedi. Despite being in his early 60s by that point, Anderson was up to the physical demands of the role, which included work with a trapeze. He also had to fight while wearing four-inch lifts to help him equal the stature of the six-foot-five bodybuilder David Prowse, who played Vader.

In 1987, he staged the fights in The Princess Bride, which ApSimon said Anderson counted as his favourite film to work on.

Anderson left Canada in the early 1990s, subsequently dividing his time between England the United States, where he worked as a fight director and coach on many more movies, including The Three Musketeers, First Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Despite his Hollywood paycheques and impressive résumé, he never gave up his coaching and teaching duties. In an interview that ran in The Globe and Mail during his time in Canada, he said that his primary motivation in making movies was to inspire people to take up his chosen sport.

"It's all been a lot of fun for the last 30 years and it's made it possible for me to follow my life in fencing both here and in Britain," he said of his film career. "I admit I like the publicity, but mainly it's to publicize fencing."

Anderson is survived by his wife, Pearl, and three children.