Peter Mayhew, Actor Behind Chewbacca’s Mask, Dies At 74

I sense a great disturbance in the Force. As if a billion voices are crying out "No, not Chewie!!!!"

Peter Mayhew, the actor who played Han Solo’s loyal sidekick Chewbacca in the original Star Wars movies and two sequels, died yesterday at the age of 74:

Peter Mayhew, behind Chewbacca’s mask in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, died at his home in Texas on Tuesday. He was 74.

His family confirmed the death in a statement on Thursday. A representative for Mr. Mayhew said he died after having a heart attack.

Mr. Mayhew — who was 7-foot-3 — donned a shaggy costume to play Chewbacca, the menacing yet cuddly Wookiee who was a sidekick to Han Solo and the co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon. He appeared in all three films of the original trilogy, as well as in “Revenge of the Sith” in 2005 and “The Force Awakens” in 2015.

“He put his heart and soul into the role of Chewbacca and it showed in every frame of the films, from his knock-kneed running, firing his bowcaster from the hip, his bright blue eyes, down to each subtle movement of his head and mouth,” Mr. Mayhew’s family said in its statement.

The actor Harrison Ford, who played Han Solo, said in a statement on Thursday that Mr. Mayhew “was a kind and gentle man, possessed of great dignity and noble character.”

“These aspects of his own personality, plus his wit and grace, he brought to Chewbacca,” Mr. Ford said.

Mr. Mayhew was born in London on May 19, 1944. He had a form of gigantism and had grown extraordinarily tall by the time he was a teenager.

He was in his 30s and working as an orderly in a London hospital when a film producer spotted him in a photograph. He was ultimately cast to play the Minoton — a towering bronze figure — in the 1977 movie “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.”

Shortly thereafter, he was recommended to George Lucas, who decided that Mr. Mayhew would be a good candidate to play Chewbacca in “Star Wars.” He would wear a Wookiee costume, with the creature’s voice provided by a sound engineer using recorded animal sounds.

The role altered the course of Mr. Mayhew’s life. In addition to appearing in “Star Wars” films, he did work in consulting and in commercials involving Chewbacca.

Mr. Lucas called Mr. Mayhew “a good friend” in a statement on Thursday and said he was saddened by his passing.

“Peter was a wonderful man,” he added. “He was the closest any human being could be to a Wookiee: big heart, gentle nature.”

After knee surgery in 2013 made it necessary for Mr. Mayhew to use a wheelchair, it was unclear whether he would be able to portray Chewbacca again. But after a period of intense rehabilitation, he was able to reprise his role one more time in “The Force Awakens.”

That was when he met Kathleen Kennedy, who had succeeded Mr. Lucas as the president of Lucasfilm. “I was immediately impressed by his kind and gentle nature,” she said in a statement Thursday. “Peter was brilliantly able to express his personality through his skillful use of gesture, posture and eyes.”

Mr. Mayhew regularly interacted with fans at conventions and on social media. He once tweeted a personal response to the woman whose infectious laughter about a Chewbacca mask charmed thousands of people in 2016.

More from Variety:

“Star Wars” actor Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca in the original trilogy, died on Tuesday, his family announced on his Twitter. He was 74.

He died at his North Texas home surrounded by his family, read the Twitter statement.

Though he spoke entirely in growls, snarls, and the occasional roar, Chewbacca’s unwavering loyalty to Han Solo made him one of the most beloved characters in the franchise. Much more than just the hairy co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon, Chewie’s dependability and trustworthiness helped the iconic Wookiee function as the series’ ultimate “wing man.”

He was discovered by producer Charles H. Schneer while working as a hospital attendant in London, and cast in Ray Harryhausen’s “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.” The next year, he was cast as Chewbacca, the 200-year-old Wookiee.

Mayhew went on to appear in “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi,” “Revenge of the Sith,” “The Force Awakens” and “The Star Wars Holiday Special.” He was active on the “Star Wars” convention circuit and wrote two books, “Growing Up Giant” and “My Favorite Giant.”

His height was not due to gigantism, but he measured 7 feet 3 inches. George Lucas originally had his eye on bodybuilder David Prowse to play Chewbacca, but Prowse decided to play Darth Vader instead and Lucas went with the even-taller Mayhew.

On TV, he made guest appearances on “Donny & Marie,” “The Muppet Show” and “Glee.” He seldom played roles outside of Chewbacca, except for “Dark Towers,” on which he played the Tall Knight and horror movie “The Terror,” in which he played the Mechanic.

As noted, Mayhew appeared as Chewbacca in all of the original Star Wars films, in the infamous holiday special, and in the seventh episode of the saga, The Force Awakens. Mayhew also had a brief appearance in the third episode of the prequel trilogy in a scene where Chewbacca, who was said to be 200 years old at the time of the first movie, saves Yoda from Stormtroopers seeking to carry out Emperor Palpatine’s Order 66 which involved killing the Jedi. In the eighth episode of the series, The Last Jedi, the role was taken over by Finnish actor Joonas Soutamo due to the fact that Mayhew’s declining health made it impossible for him to take on the role again.

Though he never spoke a line in the entire series, Mayhew was a fan favorite in the same way that the other actors were. In part, this was due to the fact that he was known to be especially open to engaging with fans at conventions and even posing for selfies during random airport encounters. Mark Hamill, posted this on his Twitter account after news of his co-stars death:

Rest in Peace, you lovable Wookie.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Obituaries, Popular Culture
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Monala says:

    Rest in peace. Thanks for bringing so many people joy.

  2. Franklin says:

    Good night furryman.

  3. Kathy says:

    Of all the alien characters in movies and TV who are people in suits, Mayhew was the one who seemed plausible as a real alien.

  4. James Pearce says:

    The best Chewie. Joonas Suotamo has the height, but he’s not Chewie.

  5. Kylopod says:

    I saw David Prowse, the original actor in the Vader costume, in person in 1997 at a showing of the Special Edition for Return of the Jedi. Unlike Mayhew, Prowse has long had bitter feelings about his experience in the films. He originally did all the speaking lines for the character, then Lucas went and had them dubbed by James Earl Jones without Prowse’s knowledge. At his 1997 appearance, he taught us lyrics to the Star Wars theme. They went as follows:

    Star Wars made me a fortune
    Paid off the mortgage
    Bought me a car….

  6. Hal_10000 says:

    Chewbacca never and intelligible word. You never saw the face of the actor. And yet he became iconic and beloved. There should be a special prize for people who can still act and act well under those constraints. RIP.