This May the 4th, Star Wars Day (get it? May the 4th…?), I usually try to get a little Star Wars something published. Last year, I did a bit on the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. This year, it’s with a heavy heart that I found myself doing a memorial. The actor who gave life to ‘the mighty Chewbacca’, Peter Mayhew, passed away from a heart attack in his home in north Texas on April 30th. This was a punch in the gut for this diehard Chewbacca fanatic.
Mayhew brought a costume to life; a costume that looked like an odd but very organic cross between a dog and a bear, with a bit of Sasquatch thrown in. Through Mayhew’s unique body language, along with sound maestro/magician Ben Burtt’s wonderful audio mix of lions, walruses and other creatures, the ‘wookiee‘ Chewbacca was brought to memorable life. This was a character who ‘spoke’ primarily in gestures and animalistic vocalizations, but he was every bit as ‘real’ as his human (as well as robotic) counterparts. Much of that reality was due to the physical performance of Mayhew.
Chewbacca was not Mayhew’s only fantasy role. In 1977, he was also cast as the “Minoton” (a variation of the mythical, bull-like Minotaur of Greek mythology) in Ray Harryhausen’s “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” (costarring Jane Seymour). Most of the creatures in producer/FX-artist Ray Harryhausen’s movies were stop-motion puppets, but Mayhew played the Minoton in a full suit as well, for scenes where the creature had to interact with human actors.
Mayhew played the iconic Chewbacca off and on for 38 years, appearing in five live-action Star Wars movies (the Original Trilogy, The Force Awakens and Revenge of the Sith). He also appeared in the aforementioned Holiday Special, where we met Chewbacca’s now non-canonical Wookiee family (wife Malla, father Itchy, and son Lumpy). Mayhew even tutored his eventual replacement, Finnish basketball player Joonas Suotamo, on-set during the filming of 2015’s “The Force Awakens.” Suotamo has gone on to play the famed Wookiee in 2018’s “Solo” as well as 2017’s “The Last Jedi”; he is set to play Chewbacca once again in this year’s “The Rise Of Skywalker”, coming in December.
I’ve seen enough Chewbacca cosplayers in my many years of attending conventions to know that playing Chewbacca is a lot more than throwing on a hairy suit and mask. It’s the way one walks, as well as the broader movements and gestures to compensate for a lack of hand visibility or facial movements. It’s true acting, but with much of an actor’s traditional toolbox unavailable for use. This is where a talent like Doug Jones (“Shape of Water” “Hellboy” “Star Trek: Discovery”) or a Peter Mayhew comes along and breathes life into what runs the risk of looking like a lifeless pile of rubber, latex or fur without the right actor performing through it.
Native Englishman/naturalized-American Mayhew was working as an orderly in the radiology department at King’s College Hospital in London when he was discovered. According to Mayhew and George Lucas, his ‘audition’ consisted of merely standing up… letting his 7 ft. 3 in./2.18m height do the talking.
Despite the relative ease of landing the role of Chewbacca, I’d say it was Star Wars director/writer/producer George Lucas who truly got lucky. In Mayhew, he also found an amiable, kindly, soft-spoken man who endured hours in a fur suit that often got wet and moldy from filming during the infamous trash compactor scene at Elstree Studios. He endured a lot during the shoots of those movies, with a stifling hot (often smelly) costume, and a lack of visibility. As a claustrophobic myself, I couldn’t even begin to imagine that kind of endurance. The Peter Mayhew I met seemed to have an almost preternatural patience…
It was, in fact, at San Diego Comic Con in July of 2008 when I finally got the chance to meet Peter Mayhew and get an autograph. I was immediately struck by his soft-spoken, almost shy manner. He was, to employ the old cliche, ‘a gentle giant’ in every sense. During the moments I spoke with him, he always wore a very pleasant smile on his face. He also seemed just a tad humbled by the nonstop adoration he still received for this role he did (at that time) 31 years previously. I told him a brief story about my sister’s favorite toy when we were kids…her stuffed Chewbacca doll. That seemed to make his smile just a little bit wider. Some actors might lament being so associated with only one role, but I never got that sense off of him at all. Mayhew seemed very much a man at peace with his lot in life. After all, it’s not so bad to be associated with a universally beloved character by fans all over the world, right?
My positive impression of the ‘gentle giant’ only grew exponentially when I later learned of him during an interview I did with Chase Masterson (“Leeta” on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). Peter Mayhew was one of the first celebrities to lend his name to her anti-bullying charity organization, Pop Culture Hero Coalition (https://www.popculturehero.org). In 2010, a 7-year old girl named Katie was being bullied mercilessly by her classmates for liking Star Wars. Apparently girls liking Star Wars wasn’t considered ‘cool’ to some of Katie’s shortsighted classmates. Her mother Carrie wrote a blog on what happened to her daughter which came to Masterson’s attention. Through her work in mentoring gang members towards rehabilitation, Masterson arranged to meet Carrie and Katie, and even got Katie to meet Mayhew in person. It became a very different story at school when kids learned Katie was on a first name basis with “the mighty Chewbacca.” Chase Masterson was then inspired to merge the world of science fiction and fantasy icons both to inspire kids and send a strong positive message of anti-bullying.
The soft-spoken Mayhew was a hero in the real-world, giving inspiration to a bullied little girl when she needed it the most. Mayhew also did charity work on behalf of the Make-A-Wish Foundation (granting wishes to terminally ill children), St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital and the Toteman Epilepsy Awareness Project. Chewbacca would no doubt grunt in approval.
These are but a few examples of the good man we lost this past week. This May the 4th Star Wars Day, let’s all take a moment to remember the kindness and humanity of the late Peter Mayhew, who, for 38 years, gave life to the beloved Chewbacca.
Peter Mayhew, (May 19, 1944 – April 30th, 2019).