Entertainment Movies Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew dies, after years of portraying Star Wars’ Wookiee smuggler
Updated:

Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew dies, after years of portraying Star Wars’ Wookiee smuggler

chewbacca-star-wars
Peter Mayhew famously played Wookiee warrior and smuggler in the Star Wars movies. Photo: Lucasfilm
Share
Twitter Facebook Reddit Pinterest Email

Peter Mayhew, the man who played Han Solo’s Wookiee sidekick Chewbacca in the Star Wars films, has died aged 74.

The actor’s family announced on social media that the English-American actor had died on April 30, surrounded by family in his North Texas home.

“Peter was the man behind the mask of Chewbacca in the original Star Wars trilogy, episode 3 of the prequels, and the New Trilogy,” they said.

“He fought his way back from being wheelchair-bound to stand tall and portray Chewbacca once more in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

“He also consulted on The Last Jedi in an attempt to teach his successor.

“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.”

Co-star Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker, remembered Mayhew as “the gentlest of giants”.

“A big man with an even bigger heart who never failed to make me smile and a loyal friend who I loved dearly — I’m grateful for the memories we shared and I’m a better man for just having known him,” Hamill said on Twitter.

A memorial service for family and friends will be held on June 29, with a memorial for fans set to take place in early December in Los Angeles.

Mayhew was discovered while working in a hospital

Mayhew, seven feet and three inches tall (2.21 metres) and diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, was practically born for the role of Chewbacca when Star Wars creator George Lucas began his hunt for a tall actor who could fit the role of the hairy alien.

peter-mayhew-chewbacca-dead
Peter Mayhew said on Twitter in 2018 that he had successfully undergone spinal surgery to help improve his mobility. Photo: ABC

The actor had been discovered by producer Charles H Schneer, who saw him standing above the crowd while working as an attendant in a London hospital.

Schneer cast Mayhew in the 1977 film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.

That led to roles in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, before an appearance in prequel film Revenge of the Sith, and new trilogy entry The Force Awakens.

He did not play Chewbacca in the most recent Star Wars episode, The Last Jedi, but was listed in the credits as “Chewbacca Consultant”.

Speaking to the ABC in 2015, Mayhew said that sitting on the couch, waiting to meet George Lucas, the decision that he would be cast as Chewbacca was made as soon as the director walked in.

“George walks in, I stand up, and he says, ‘Hmmm, I think we’ve found him’ to his co-producer,” he said.

star-wars-cast
Peter Mayhew (far right), with Harrison Ford, Anthony Daniels and Carrie Fisher in 1978. Photo: Twitter

In the Star Wars saga, Chewbacca looms large as Han Solo’s right hand man, a deft pilot who is handy with his bowcaster — a crossbow-like blaster.

Chewbacca becomes a member of the Rebel Alliance after helping Luke Skywalker rescue Princess Leia from the Death Star, before fighting in the Battle of Endor to help destroy the Death Star’s second iteration in Return of the Jedi.

Mayhew was a naturalised citizen of the United States.

He had double knee surgery in 2013, and was briefly hospitalised in 2015 with a bout of pneumonia.

He announced on Twitter last year that he had successfully had spinal surgery to help improve his mobility.

In recent years, Mayhew had used a wheelchair to help get him around, as well as a cane which looked like a lightsaber.

The news comes two years after the death of Princess Leia actress Carrie Fisher, who died from sleep apnoea and a combination of other factors after taking multiple drugs, though officials could not conclusively determine what caused her death.

Chewie in quotes: Wookiee’s growl wasn’t Mayhew’s voice

For such a memorable role in Hollywood history, Peter Mayhew did not have a lot to say as Chewbacca in the Star Wars films.

Variations of the Wookiee’s signature growl was the only offering from Chewbacca’s character throughout the saga, and it was not produced by the vocal chords of Mayhew in costume.

Instead, sound designer Ben Burtt composed various grounds by recording bears, a badger, a lion, a seal and a walrus, and using different soundbites to convey different emotional tones.

Nevertheless, the signature roar coupled with Mayhew’s masterful costume movements completed the package of an iconic character:

Urrrrrgharrrrgh!

Chewbacca, scaring off an MSE-6 repair droid en route to the Death Star’s prison block.

Urrrrrrrrrrgharrrrgh!

Chewbacca as he fights with scrap workers to retrieve C3PO’s destroyed remains on Bespin.

Urrrrrgharrrrghargh!

Chewbacca, roaring, as he says the final line of Episode IV: A New Hope during the Rebel medal ceremony.

People loved ‘teddy bear’ Chewbacca

The original Star Wars film release would go on to gross $US775 million ($1.1 billion) worldwide, and the following two films to complete the trilogy would cement the series in the eyes of fans, Mayhew said.

“Empire was the one that really got the fans going because it was a united family, and Jedi was basically for kids because of the Ewoks and other little guys,” he told the ABC in 2015.

“Then there was a gap and I thought, ‘Hmmm, I better find something else to do’.”

He began touring sci-fi conventions and travelled the globe to attend up to 30 each year.

Crowds of thousands would queue to meet the man who played Chewbacca.

“It was frightening to a point,” he said.

Mayhew said that despite Chewbacca being 218cm tall and two centuries in age, people fell in love with him because he was essentially a big old teddy bear.

“He’s loved by the kids,” he said.

“All of the families who are there have had a teddy bear or a security blanket, and Chewie [is that, he] looks after everybody.”

-ABC