‘I was Jabba the Hutt, but CGI killed my film career’

Toby Philpott – Markus Wissmann/Alamy Stock Photo

Toby Philpott, 76, is a puppeteer who rose to fame in the 1980s as the man behind Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi, as well as animatronics on the film The Dark Crystal.

He worked with fellow puppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz, famous for their work on The Muppets, and later took a “steady job” at his local library, aged 51. He lives in central Wales today with his civil partner, the artist Julie Shackson.

How did your childhood influence your attitude to money?

I grew up in post-war north London during rationing. My mother changed from acting and singing to becoming a voice teacher to get a more stable income because we were always poor. My father had a bohemian life as a puppeteer in the 1930s, he was a farmer in the Blitz then a puppeteer again without much interest in money. Fortunately, we lived in a house owned by my grandfather who was a principal.

My father wrote the Dictionary of Pupetry in 1969, and people I met in the puppetry world, like Jim Henson, knew about him. My parents divorced when I was young. My mother taught me the value and difficulty of money and told me to keep track of my bits and pieces. She remarried and went to Malta, leaving me with an aunt for two years and my sister with another aunt. So my teenage years were a bit rough.

What was your first job?

I dropped out of school at 18 because I didn’t want to do A levels. I wandered for a few months and then volunteered on an archaeological dig. Within a few months I started getting paid as a site assistant.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance - Kevin Baker/TV Stills

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance – Kevin Baker/TV Stills

How did you survive as a street performer?

For years I was precariously self-employed, walking around at 23; it was in mexico that my juggling hobby became a job. A man came up to me in a small town while people were watching me practice and said: “Where’s the hat?” And he took his hat around the crowd and came back full of money; and took a 10pc cut.

Then I realized that juggling could pay for my food and lodging. My girlfriend and I went to the next market place and I did juggling and magic and learned to walk on my hands. I started doing shows where poor people were, and if they couldn’t give money, they would buy me a drink or a meal or put me up.

After that hand-to-mouth life for six months, I came back to earn my living in the same way, as a comic juggler. In the 1970s I did schools, festivals, fairs, and children’s parties. I got £30 a night for medieval feasts; so for four nights I could get £120 [say £700 today] per week for a few minutes of work.

The person who hired me was taking much more than an agent’s fee, so in the end I walked away and found three sources of income: my solo shows, teaching night classes in juggling, clowning and acrobatics. Then I joined the actors’ union Equity and got TV work, like Play School.

Do you use cash, debit or credit cards?

I finally got a bank account at 33 because my friends got bored of giving me cheques. I said at the bank that I had “erratic income as a solo juggler” and the person at the counter said: “Can you wait? The manager wants to interview you.”

I thought they are going to say you have no fixed income so you don’t have one. The manager said: “Do you juggle? I belong to the Magic Circle and if I were brave enough I would make my living as a magician.”

Does money make you happy?

I had a lot of fun with the money I earned from movies because it acts like a magic wand. One Friday I took a taxi to Heathrow after work, spent the weekend in Copenhagen at a juggling convention and was back at work on Monday.

Are you ripped off?

I was offered a sci-fi convention in Japan, all expenses paid. On the last day they paid an actor and he said they would run out of cash, so we flew home penniless.

Did you learn lessons about money?

Not lending money to friends. I needed it at the end of the year to pay my tax and they failed to pay it back. If I have a surplus I will happily give it to friends and family and they can give it back if and when possible; which they usually do.

Toby Philpott worked the left arm, head, tongue and part of Jabba the Hutt's body - Cinematic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Toby Philpott worked the left arm, head, tongue and part of Jabba the Hutt’s body – Cinematic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

What was your biggest payday?

In 1982-83 I earned £27,000 [£74,000 today] for a mix of The Dark Crystal and Return of the Jedi (on which I was Jabba the Hutt’s left arm, head, tongue and body part). Jim Henson made sure everyone was paid well: £350 a week plus overtime. After the films I received £1,000 each as a buyout [total £5,500 today].

Have you had a lot of trouble with money?

I was destitute and even homeless at times. In 1982-83 I didn’t put enough aside to pay a £7,000 tax bill because I thought I was going to get another film job. I considered bankruptcy or running away, but decided to fight the tax people. When they realized I had no assets, they pretty much wrote it off, even though I said I’d pay it back if and when I got more high-paying work.

Have you made profitable TV commercials?

I was offered John Smith’s ad – the job of juggling a dog for 10 seconds – but I was working on a film at the time so he passed it on to another juggler. It was frustrating in the end for years and won awards.

Did CGI threaten your puppetry career?

The last film I made was Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a hand-drawn animation in the classic Disney style. Puppeteers I knew stayed employed: they did Spitting Image or filmed in LA and invented animatronics or Pixar computer animation. But I was a physical acrobat of the Jim Henson generation and the next well-paying job didn’t come. So I started setting up a circus training space in London, where you can get a degree in circus skills today.

Did you gamble?

No, my hobby as a child was magic. I studied playing cards and dice; randomness and probable outcomes; the cheating methods, confidence tricks and how casinos make money – that blew me away. When I was working at the fair, if the one-armed bandits paid out too much, my boss stuck an orange over one of the cherries.

Did library work provide financial security?

Yes. In the 1990s I was touring with Nofit State Circus and one winter I was so broke I applied for a temporary job as a computer assistant. The council library gave me an interview and I thought my CV was so weird they wouldn’t hire me.

But the man said: “Do you play football? We have a team of five,” and I got the job. The internet was about to explode and with another guy I was the troublemaker for the whole system, running 125 computers and helping staff in the branch libraries. Later word got out and the Daily Mail wrote: “Jabba the Hutt is a librarian.”

For signed Toby Philpott film related pictures visit tobyphilpot.uk

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