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Peter Mayhew, original Chewbacca actor in Star Wars, passes away at 74

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May 2, 2019

Peter Mayhew, the man who brought Chewbacca to life in the original Star Wars trilogy and beyond, has passed away at the age of 74 in his North Texas home. His death was confirmed by his family on Twitter.

"The family of Peter Mayhew, with deep love and sadness, regrets to share the news that Peter has passed away. He left us the evening of April 30, 2019 with his family by his side in his North Texas home," reads the tweet, which was accompanied by a letter documenting the actor's life, good nature, and strong spirit.

While he was hidden behind a mask and costume of shaggy brown hair for a lot of his career, most Star Wars fans know that the name "Peter Mayhew" is a synonym for Chewbacca, the Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk, who became Han Solo's best friend and co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon after Han saved him from a life of slavery at the hands of the Empire. Wookiees are hairy aliens that are incredibly powerful, very smart, and live for hundreds of years.

Mayhew brought the character—who only speaks in now-iconic bark/roar-like noises—to vivid life for nearly every project set in George Lucas's sci-fi universe, including the mockumentary Return of the Ewok, Disney's Star Tours attraction, and the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978.

Mayhew Ford and Hamill

Credit: Gerardo Mora/Getty Images for Disney

Due to health issues in 2015, Mayhew had to split his role of Chewbacca with Finnish basketball player Joonas Suotamo for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and had to completely retire by the time The Last Jedi kicked off production. Suotamo became Chewie full-time for Episode VIII, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Episode IX. Nevertheless, the 6-foot-10-inch basketball player did not take Mayhew's retirement for granted and was completely humbled to take over for such a legend.

"Chewbacca is one of the most iconic characters in the history of film, and Peter's development and portrayal of this beloved Wookiee has spread so much joy around the globe," Suotamo wrote in a statement on Instagram after the Solo casting was announced. "Peter's guidance and kindness have been invaluable gifts which warmed my spirit and prepared me for this journey. I aspire to make Peter proud and bring Star Wars fans the Chewie they know and love."

Peter Mayhew was born in Barnes, South West London, England, on May 14, 1944, less than a month before the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day during World War II. Due to a connective tissue disorder known as Marfan syndrome, Mayhew grew to an incredibly tall height of 7 feet 3 inches.

"When I go to restaurants I can never get my legs under a table. I bump my head in planes. People who sit behind me in the theater hate me. But I have given up apologizing to the world," Mayhew reportedly once said.

He landed his first film role while working as a hospital attendant at King's College. Film producer Charles H. Schneer spotted his photo in a local newspaper story about men with large feet and decided to cast Mayhew in the 1977 fantasy film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, whose special effects were done by the legendary Ray Harryhausen.

That same year, Mayhew made his Star Wars debut as Chewbacca. He had still been working as an orderly when George Lucas approached him for the role, saying all he had to do was stand up, as Chewie has no human lines of dialogue, although Han (Harrison Ford) can understand his language. Lucas wanted a tall person from the start and had originally asked bodybuilder David Prowse to play the Falcon's co-pilot.

Prowse, at 6 feet 6 inches, decided to play the stand-in for Darth Vader instead (James Earl Jones later dubbed the character's dialogue), and Mayhew got the role of a lifetime; it worked out, as he wanted to play a hero. After he got the part, he is said to have visited a zoo and observed the movements of large animals, so as to incorporate them into Chewbacca's own range of motion.

Mayhew went on to play Chewie in the aforementioned holiday special the following year, which introduced the Wookiee's family as well as the rest of the original trilogy, Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983). In 1980, he also made an appearance as Chewie on the The Muppet Show.

During the shooting of Empire, Mayhew fell sick and was unable to work, prompting director Irvin Kershner to replace him with another tall actor. When Mayhew recovered, however, all footage of the replacement actor was scrapped and re-shot, as Kershner felt that the stand-in did not properly match Mayhew's own movements, proving that playing Chewbacca was more than just putting on a costume and standing around.

"It's curious that when you look down at people you see their defects, their irregularities more clearly. I like my bird's-eye view. I think it's what gives Chewie his pride, his bigness. Bigness of heart," Mayhew once said.

While the live-action version of Chewbacca wouldn't return to the franchise until Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith during the battle scenes on Kashyyyk with Yoda (Frank Oz), Mayhew revived the hairy beast for several media appearances over the years, including commercials for Cingular Wireless (below), where he is recording lines of dialogue that all sound the same. Chewbacca was even honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the MTV Film Awards in 1997. In 2011, Mayhew did some voice work for the animated show Star Wars: The Clone Wars for the episode titled "Wookiee Hunt."

In addition to Star Wars, Mayhew also made a number of appearances in other movies and TV shows, like Terror (1978), Dark Towers (1981), The Kenny Everett Television Show (1985), Comic Book: The Movie (2004), Dragon Ball GT: A Hero's Legacy (2005), Yesterday Was a Lie (2008), and Glee (2011).

Mayhew's 2010 memoir Growing Up Giant explored the theme of growing up differently and doing one's best. By 2013, he was forced to undergo double knee replacement surgery as a result of his large stature and his health troubles, but he did get a cool cane that looked like a lightsaber. That same year, he released a second book, My Favorite Giant, co-written with his wife Angelique. Illustrated by former Disney artist and animator Terry Naughton, the children's book is full of Mayhew's personal insights and, like his first book, explains how you should get to know people who are different from you.

Sadly, Mayhew's health troubles were only beginning, and he had to split his time as Chewbacca with Suotamo by the time The Force Awakens began filming in 2014. The following year, he was briefly hospitalized after coming down with pneumonia. When The Last Jedi started principal photography that same year, Suotamo had transitioned to playing the character full-time, although Mayhew was still kept on in a consulting capacity.

A citizen of Boyd, Texas, Mayhew became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2005. When the Fort Worth Star-Telegram interviewed him about it, the actor joked that he didn't get a medal at this Arlington-based ceremony either, an on-the-nose reference to the end of A New Hope when Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) bestows medals upon Luke (Mark Hamill) and Han for their help in destroying the first Death Star. Nevertheless, Chewie still gets the last line of the entire movie when he roars, right before we cut to the credits.

No matter how you spin it, Peter Mayhew will always be Chewbacca. As we said, it's not just about showing up to set and putting on the furry costume and mask. The movements, the mannerisms, and the general personality of the most famous Wookiee in the universe will always be to the credit of the man who first played him. Mayhew will certainly be missed in this galaxy and those far, far away.

Mayhew is survived by his wife, Angie, and three children. More details will be made public about memorials and offering condolences, but in lieu of gifts, the family asks that you donate to Peter's non-profit foundation, which works toward the amelioration of pain, suffering, and disease.


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