Dak Ralter was dead in every way that a rebel pilot could be dead. He got blasted early in the Battle of Hoth, his body sizzling and smoking in the cockpit behind a wide-eyed Luke Skywalker. Then, in case there was any doubt about the matter, an Imperial AT-AT stomped his snowspeeder with a hoof the size of a satellite dish.
The desecration didn't end there. Sometime after the movie, The Empire Strikes Back, hit theaters in 1980, he was robbed of his name - it was changed to Dack, possibly due to a copyright conflict with the Dak ham brand.
The final insult came in 1997, when an anniversary edition of the fanzine Star Wars Insider listed John Morton, who played Dak, as missing in action and presumed dead. The boyish bit-part actor never made the rounds at Star Wars role-playing games and conventions. His character was enshrined in trading cards, trivia questions and Lego figurines, but the man behind the orange flight-visor had disappeared like dust in deep space.
Yet Dak wasn't dead, exactly.
"I was in Annapolis," John Morton said.
He was raising a family and working in public relations. And - until local Star Wars fanatics informed him otherwise - he had no idea he was an intergalactic legend.
"That's what I discovered in 1997, when I got found," said Morton, 58, whose pilot's eyes are now encircled with spectacles, and who organizes Web conferences for a living. And the fans discovered him. Over the last decade as the original Star Wars trilogy was re-released and three prequels were added to the canon (Episode III Revenge of the Sith is in theaters now), a rebel pilot was resurrected and a forgotten actor remembered. Now, even as the Star Wars hype may be subsiding, John Morton says he won't let his character die again, because reviving Dak also meant recovering a deeply missed part of himself.
In The Empire Strikes Back, the second installment of George Lucas' epic series, Dak is Luke Skywalker's gunner during the rebels' desperate attempt to hold back the Empire's lumbering four-legged war machines. Dak appears in only a few frames, and in most of these he is nodding over the dashboard of the snowspeeder, having already expired under a hail of laser fire.
Morton himself has often questioned his character's enduring appeal, but now thinks it's linked to Dak's one intelligible piece of dialogue, spoken with a brave smile as he jumps into the speeder with Skywalker.
Quoth Dak: "Right now, I feel I could take on the whole Empire myself."
"It's that line," Morton said, shaking his graying head. "It's the confidence, the idealization of youth against evil, that life-sacrificing commitment."
It's also the soul-crushing crunch that soon follows, as the AT-AT stamps out his proud young spirit.
"Even though he gets squished, he's a martyr dying for a larger cause," said Shane Felux, a Star Wars tribute-filmmaker who recently invited Morton to appear at a local screening. "He has that kind of rogue bravado we'd all like to have. Dak was a real rebel."
And so, it turns out, was the young man who played him.
Part of a Naval Academy clan with Annapolis roots running back more than 100 years, Morton alarmed some members of his family in the early 1970s when he jettisoned a military career and began opposing the Vietnam War.
"I turned against all of that," he said. "I decided I didn't want to work for the government."
After graduating from George Washington University with a degree in international relations, Morton moved to England in 1971 to pursue an advanced degree at the London School of Economics - where his thesis, coincidentally, focused on an obscure Hungarian communist named George Lukacs. But he was also increasingly drawn to the world of film. London in the early 1970s was a radical and artistic place, Morton said.
"There was punk upheaval, and real talk of social revolution," he said. "I didn't particularly want to go back to America."
He fell in with a crowd of expatriate actors and American draft dodgers, eventually setting up house with his young wife - a reporter for The New York Times - and several other couples in what amounted to a commune. He dabbled in dramatic writing and did behind-the-scenes electrical work for theatrical productions.
At night, he played guitar at various pubs. It was at one of these appearances that the handsome performer with the long blond ponytail was scouted by a representative of a local theater company. Although he'd had no formal training as an actor, Morton was cast as the lead in a stage adaptation of a Frank Stockton short story about a musically inclined hippie.