I had been warned Peter Mayhew often got tired of the “same old” Star Wars questions, so when I interviewed him in 2003, I used that nugget in an attempt to get him onside.
“What questions do you get asked most?” I asked the man who played beloved wookie Chewbacca in the Star Wars franchise, the wingman to Harrison Ford’s buccaneering Han Solo.
He chuckled. “Was it hot in the suit?” he said in his Londoner accent. “And what was Harrison Ford like?”
“Say, was it hot in the suit?” I asked.
Another deep chuckle. “Like wearing winter clothes in the summer time,” he said.
“And … what was Harrison Ford like?”
“We had a good professional working relationship,” he said, smiling.
“He would give me advice and I would take it: ‘Do this, don’t do this, because you’re going to lose position.’”
Mayhew relished his position as the man in the furry suit, a role he won because of his unique size – he was 2.18m (7 foot two) – but which fit him perfectly.
The former hospital worker died of a heart attack aged 74 on April 30, surrounded by loved ones at his home in Texas.
“The family of Peter Mayhew, with deep love and sadness, regrets to share the news that Peter has passed away,” read a statement on Twitter.
Sixteen years ago, Mayhew was in Australia for the 2003 Supernova Comic Book Convention. He towered above everyone, but strangely didn’t seem to occupy that much space.
As his Star Wars colleague Mark Hamill put it on Twitter, “He was the gentlest of giants.”
He was the gentlest of giants-A big man with an even bigger heart who never failed to make me smile & a loyal friend who I loved dearly-I'm grateful for the memories we shared & I'm a better man for just having known him. Thanks Pete #RIPPeterMayhew #Heartbroken @TheWookieeRoars pic.twitter.com/8xbq9HEWF2
— Mark Hamill (@HamillHimself) May 2, 2019
Ford echoed the sentiment in a statement, saying Mayhew “was a kind and gentle man, possessed of great dignity and noble character.”
The actor, who had a form of gigantism, was a hospital orderly when cast in the original Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope), which was shot predominantly in England.
He had previously played a minotaur in the 1976 film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger after its filmmakers saw his photograph in a newspaper article about men with big feet.
Though he was chosen for his height (he said in 2017 he nailed his audition just “by standing up”), for many Star Wars fans Mayhew brought Chewbacca to life with his unique mannerisms, knee-knocking run and attitude.
“Basically it came out of my own mind,” he told me of creating the persona.
“You’re in a situation, and you’re around other people who react to whatever is going on around you. You just learn by watching the others reacting to that situation.”
His own reactions often included him saying a guide line in English or improvising a growl. All of his vocalisations were later overdubbed with the now famous Chewbacca howl created by sound designer Ben Burtt.
Did Star Wars creator George Lucas provide any back-story to the wookie?
“Nothing at all,” he said. “It was rather strange.”
He wasn’t given much dramatic direction, either. “It was more a practical thing of, ‘You’re there,’” he said, laughing again.
Like most who worked on the original 1977 film, nobody had an inkling of how successful it would become.
When it took off, “It felt wonderful,” Mayhew said. “You sort of grow with it. You see the reports of fans going crazy … It’s most actors’ dream.”
Still, on a much lower pay scale than his colleagues, he was forced to return to his old hospital job.
“Bills have still got to be paid,” said Mayhew, who later became a regular at sci-fi and comic conventions and wrote two books.
But his favourite role would always be Chewie.
“When you’ve got three generations of fans, there’s going to be certain characters they support,” said Mr Mayhew, who had spinal surgery in 2018 and needed to use a wheelchair.
“A lot of the audience enjoy Chewbacca from growing up with him.”