Peter Mayhew, the British actor known for playing Chewbacca in the original Star Wars trilogy and two other films in the Jedi film series, has died. He was 74. Mayhew died April 30 at his North Texas home, his family announced on Twitter.
Born in leafy Surrey, England, the towering Mayhew played the hirsute Chewbacca character from 1977 to 2015, beginning with the original Star Was film and carrying through to Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens before he retired from the challenging role that charmed millions of fans but never gave a glimpse of his true face on screen. For Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), Mayhew handed off the Yeti-like role to Finnish upstart Joonas Suotamo, a former Penn State University basketball player who was born four years after Return of the Jedi (1983) closed out the original trilogy in George Lucas’ space opera.
Mayhew’s first acting job was the uncredited 1976 role of the malevolent minotar in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. He was discovered by the producers in a newspaper photograph accompanying a feature article about men with inordinately large feet. The rangy Brit needed every bit of that footing, of course, to support his 7-foot-3 frame — which, for context, gave Mayhew a two-inch height advantage on NBA great Shaquille O’Neal.
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Star Wars creator Lucas found his future Wookiee working as an orderly at King’s College Hospital in London where he had to duck to navigate the corridors of the radiology department. Star Wars folklore holds that Lucas assured the novice actor that his role as a shaggy, space smuggler would more or less require Mayhew only to “stand up” in costume on camera.
Far more than that would be required, of course, over the five live-action films that featured Mayhew as Han Solo’s loyal wingman, gifted mechanic and hero of the Rebel Alliance — even if he didn’t get a medal like Solo (Harrison Ford) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) at the climax of the first movie.
The concept for the character, Lucas would explain, was inspired by his beloved Alaskan malamute named Indiana. That canine muse would also lend his name to another Lucas creation,Indiana Jones the hero of Raiders of the Lost Ark hero Indiana Jones. The name Chewbacca, meanwhile, was an interstellar riff on “Sobaka,” the Russian word for “dog.”
Known for his plaintive howl/wail (which sound designer Ben Burtt sculpted from the guttural utterances of bear, badger, lion, and walrus), Chewie was cheered on in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars VI – Return of the Jedi (1983). In Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) Chewbacca may have had his greatest screen moment as he helps save the life of the Jedi master Yoda during the Battle of Kashyyyk, his native planet.
Mayhew’s furry swan song finally came in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. (Mayhew was credited as a special Wookiee consultant on Star Wars: VIII – The Last Jedi in 2017.)
Mayhew also played the role on the small screen in the infamously absurd 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, which co-starred Bea Arthur and visits the Wookiee home-world to introduce fans to Chewbacca’s family tree (not the figurative kind either — the family literally lives in a tree). His woolly relatives have names that sound like rash symptoms (his father is called Itchy, his daft son answers to Lumpy) and generally seemed like a deep-space version of the Country Bear Jamboree without the banjos.
Mayhew also donned his famous suit of yak-and-rabbit-hair for Glee, The Muppet Show and Donny and Marie; once he wore it while growling along with the Top 10 List on Late Show with David Letterman. Over the years, the screen version of the costume became more elaborate (with a cooling system, for instance) and effectively dramatic in action.
Mayhew, meanwhile, also became a unmistakable figure on the fan convention circuit, known not just for his gangly frame and dark spray of wavy black hair but also for his eccentricities, like his trademark dragon-headed cane or the spiffy lightsaber model that replaced it in recent years. (That same lightsaber cane would be temporarily confiscated by concerned airport security officials in Dallas in 2013.)
Mayhew brought his interpretation of Chewbacca to the short films and video games (including 2015’s wildly popular Battlefront) and recorded dialogue for “Wookiee Hunt,” the Season Three finale of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the acclaimed animated television franchise.
Mayhew worked sporadically as an actor outside the Star Wars universe. His biggest non-galactic role was as the Tall Knight in Dark Towers, the 1981 BBC series that was part of its “Look and Read” program. Other credits include Terror (1978), Yesterday Was a Lie (2008) and most recently Killer Ink (2016).
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.
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