Advertisement

Peter Mayhew, the towering Chewbacca in the ‘Star Wars’ films, dies at 74

Peter Mayhew, the towering Chewbacca in the ‘Star Wars’ films, dies at 74
Peter Mayhew arrives at the world premiere of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in Los Angeles in 2015. (Jordan Strauss / Invision/Associated Press)

Peter Mayhew, who brought the Wookiee warrior Chewbacca to life in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, has died at age 74.

The British actor’s family announced his death on social media, saying that he had died Tuesday at his home in North Texas. No cause was given.

Advertisement

“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,” Mayhew’s family wrote in a statement. “But, to him, the Star Wars family meant so much more to him than a role in a film.”

Standing at 7 feet 3, Mayhew was originally cast as the fierce, furry sidekick and copilot to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo owing entirely to his imposing physicality. Desperate to find someone in England who would be taller than Darth Vader, played by 6-foot-6 bodybuilder David Prowse, George Lucas found Mayhew, who had been working as a hospital orderly when he was discovered a year earlier and cast in the role of the Minotaur in Ray Harryhausen’s fantasy film “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.”

Mayhew did not supply Chewbacca’s distinctive growl, which was created by “Star Wars” sound designer Ben Burtt by combining field recordings of bears, lions, badgers and other animals. But he brought the character to life physically, whether battling Stormtroopers alongside Solo or playing chess against R2-D2 on the Millennium Falcon, drawing some inspiration for how the Wookiee should move by studying monkeys. Chewbacca’s signature head tilt, Mayhew once said, grew out of the actor’s need to constantly duck to fit under doorways.

Though Chewbacca initially appeared on just a handful of pages in the original “Star Wars” script, Lucas expanded the part once shooting began, and Mayhew went on to play the role throughout the original “Star Wars” trilogy, in 1977’s “A New Hope,” 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back” and 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” For decades afterward, he became a beloved staple on the “Star Wars” fan convention circuit.

Mayhew reprised the role in the 2005 prequel “Revenge of the Sith” and, despite dealing with health issues that at one point left him using a wheelchair, donned the Chewbacca suit and mask a final time for the 2015 sequel “The Force Awakens” before handing off the character to Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo. In a testament to the character’s generation-spanning appeal, in 2016 a Facebook video of a Texas mom laughing hysterically while wearing a Chewbacca mask became a viral internet sensation, attracting more than 160 million views.

Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, left, and Harrison Ford as Han Solo in the original 1977 "Star Wars: Episode IV."
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, left, and Harrison Ford as Han Solo in the original 1977 "Star Wars: Episode IV." (Associated Press)

“He was the gentlest of giants,” Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker, wrote of Mayhew on Twitter. “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.”

“Peter Mayhew was a kind and gentle man, possessed of great dignity and noble character,” Ford said in a statement. “These aspects of his own personality, plus his wit and grace, he brought to Chewbacca. We were partners in film and friends in life for over 30 years and I loved him. He invested his soul in the character and brought great pleasure to the Star Wars audience.”

Mayhew is survived by his wife, Angie, and three children.

Advertisement
Advertisement