In the 1983 documentary From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga, Peter Mayhew recounted his initial audition to play Chewbacca in the first Star Wars film. He was sitting in the room and waiting for George Lucas to enter, and when Lucas did, Mayhew said that he did what he always did when someone entered a room. He stood up.
When he stood, he revealed his full height — seven feet, three inches. Mayhew said that Lucas had just one thing to say after that moment: "I think we found him."
Lucas didn't just find the perfect actor to embody the character of Chewbacca the Wookiee — the Star Wars saga itself found the man who would become an emblem for the bright, shining beacon of hope that the saga's stories are famous for. His death this week, at age 74, and the grief that has followed it all these years later, is a testament to that.
It's easy to overlook Mayhew's contributions as an actor in the three films of the classic trilogy. He doesn't have the hero's journey of Luke Skywalker, the snappy quips of Han Solo, or the grounded leadership of Leia Organa. Though Leia (early on) dismisses Chewie as a "walking carpet," Mayhew made the character into something so much more. Many remember the period before the first Star Wars film came out, where it seemed nothing more than a very, very weird space movie that was doomed to fail. Visitors to set recall seeing someone in a giant dog outfit, and had no idea at all that they were seeing a truly iconic character before he became iconic.
Sure, Peter Mayhew was covered head to toe in Chewbacca's considerable furry costume, complete with a full mask. In the hands of a lesser actor (or person), sure, Chewie would have ended up as nothing more than a walking carpet, a character that just blended into the background panoply of Star Wars oddities. This never happened with Chewie. Mayhew imbued the character with a vast array of gestures and behavioral ticks, many that are easily overlooked. In acting through the mask, through the costume, and doing what only a great actor can do, Mayhew made Chewbacca real... and it is seamless.
When we watch the films, we're not seeing Mayhew in a big furry costume. We're seeing Chewbacca, noble Wookiee warrior of Kashyyyk. We accept it fully. Chewie is real — so real at times, that it can be easy to forget that there was a real man behind the fur.
This doesn't just happen because the costume is great, or the stories surrounding the character are excellent. This happens because the man in the costume is talented, smart, and fully committed. Such was the case with Peter Mayhew.
Mayhew's devotion to Chewie, as well as Star Wars as a whole, never faltered. He was a fixture at conventions, even after his health began to wane. When the actor needed a cane, he would often show up with one that looked like a lightsaber. He is legendary for being fantastically kind to fans of all ages, and this kindness was a message that he always seemed to be imparting. The Star Wars fandom, for lack of a better way to say it, is not always kind. Mayhew never stopped being a firm example of this virtue, one that is also easily overlooked.
When the time came for Chewie to make the jump into animation for two episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars (the last two episodes of Season 3), it would have been easy for Mayhew to just let the animators do what they do, and to move along. He didn't. Dave Filoni and company wisely sought out Mayhew's expertise, and he was all too happy to give it. The result was an animated Chewbacca that felt exactly like the character we had come to know in live-action. The sounds of Chewie didn't come from Mayhew (not all of them, anyway) but the body language, turns of the head, and general stance certainly did.
The same is true when it came time for Mayhew to pass the mantle of the character off to another actor. Mayhew performed what scenes he could in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but his health conditions prevented him from doing everything. His performance was shared in that film by Joonas Suotamo, who has played the Wookiee fully in every film since that one. Suotamo wears the fur and the mask, but he's successful in the role because his physical performance is right out of the Mayhew playbook.
Suotamo adds in a little something new every now and then (certainly in Solo: A Star Wars Story), but it always feels in line with what Mayhew did before him. Mayhew was the one who made the character iconic in the first place, and Suotamo has made it clear that his job is to honor the character, as well as Mayhew's work. The result is that Chewbacca lives on in the films, and he lives on just as we remember him. Suotamo's selfless devotion to the craft is the same as Mayhew's was.
Peter Mayhew was a man who inspired me to stand up when people enter a room. This isn't because I'm hoping to get a job, or to impress anyone — this is because I aspire to show the same level of human respect that Mayhew showed everyone. Mayhew would have stood for any random Star Wars fan just as he stood for Lucas. I fail at remembering this — I fail at it quite often, and many times I forget to stand. When I think about Peter Mayhew, I don't necessarily think about Chewbacca or about how I wish I constantly had him next to me every time that I drive... I think about standing up when people enter a room. It has nothing to do with Star Wars, it just comes down to decency and courtesy. Once again, these are things that are completely undervalued in our society today. Mayhew taught us otherwise.
Without Mayhew, there would be no bumper stickers that say, "Chewie is my co-pilot." A furry suit is only as good as the heart that beats inside of it, and Mayhew was that beating heart. Thanks to his extraordinary example, others will be able to continue the legend that he began.
Not everybody will be able to stand as tall as Peter Mayhew stood, either physically or spiritually. That said, It's something that we all can aspire to... metaphorically, at least. His devotion to his craft and to Chewbacca himself are things that will be long remembered, but his warm spirit and kind heart will live forever.