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DAK STRIKES BACK

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

From connections forged through that production, he made it to the big screen, sort of. He landed a long succession of near-monosyllabic parts in movies being filmed around London: He played Robert Redford's chaplain in A Bridge Too Far, showered with Richard Gere and other GIs in a scene in Yanks and "was part of the wallpaper" in Cuba, starring Sean Connery. Morton also had the rare distinction of dying in outer space three times, as an astronaut in Superman II, a pilot in Flash Gordon, and, when he was 32 years old, as Dak.

He got that part through a casting director he knew, never thinking it would make him a poster-boy for martyred youth. He didn't even grasp that - back home, in a galaxy far, far away - the first Star Wars release had become a mega-hit.

"We were installed in London," he said. "We were in our own world."

The month or so in the spring of 1979 that he spent on The Empire Strikes Back set wasn't particularly memorable, or completely pleasant. The actors in the ice-glazed Battle of Hoth often suffered from pinching headaches, caused, Morton believes, by fumes from the mounds of dendritic salt that served as snow. Most of his time was spent with Mark Hamill in a model snowspeeder, as director George Lucas told the two actors how to flicker their eyes over the control panels and pretend to search the sky for enemy fire. Crew members constantly shook the cockpit to simulate turbulence. This did not improve the headaches.

Still, Morton was disappointed to learn that the script doomed Dak. He'd heard from Hamill that Lucas was planning a series of nine movies. "It was sad in the sense that there was no hope of going back" for any sequels, he said.

At that point in his life, Morton could have really used the work. For one thing, he wasn't that young any more; his matinee good looks would soon fade, and that scared him.

"There were still guys around doing one-line parts in their 40s," he said. "I knew I couldn't ride this forever."

Slowly, he was giving up on a dramatic career. After the year The Empire Strikes Back was filmed, Morton would never act for the big screen again.

In the early 1980s, he and his wife moved to Los Angeles, peddling a script that Morton had written in hopes of launching a second career as a screenwriter. The film fell through, though, and after a series of failed ventures the couple landed in Manhattan, strapped for cash. The marriage foundered; eventually, it would disintegrate.

What Morton did next was the bohemian equivalent of turning to the Dark Side: He took a job in public relations.

"That was tough," he said. "Suddenly, I realized I'm not an actor anymore. I'm not a playwright. I'm in PR. This is my life now.

"It was a bad feeling." Crunch.

From the mid-'80s on, Morton worked for a series of defense-related trade publications, then organized conferences for military contractors. He remarried twice, had two daughters and banished any thoughts of cinematic glory from his mind.

But then, in 1997, the Star Wars Insider published its rebel-pilot reunion feature; Morton was outed by friends and family in Annapolis, and the Dak renaissance began.

Ever since, Morton has attended dozens of conferences and film premieres, sometimes wearing a button on his chest that reads: "I am dead." He's signed countless autographs, developed a form letter to respond to fan mail, fielded midnight phone calls, and, several times, found Star Wars pilgrims on his front porch.

"I mean celebrity, if that's what this is, is pretty weird," Morton said.

Local fans think it's pretty cool.

"There's almost more thrill to meeting a guy like that, who you can almost identify with," said Teddy Durgin of Halethorpe, a fan and film critic who runs the review Web site, FlickVille.com. "He's a regular guy in the Star Wars universe, and a regular guy in the real universe."

Recently, Morton has been rediscovering his artistic side. He is writing plays with a local workshop group and plans to publish a book about Duke Ellington.

He doesn't dwell on The Empire Strikes Back too much; he just has one dusty videotape.

Every once in a while, though, he thinks back to those days in the cockpit, dodging imaginary blasters and maneuvering his way to immortality alongside the greatest rebel of them all. He hopes he did some serious damage to the Empire before going down. He can't honestly remember.

"But," he said, "I think I got my shot off."

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