The Star Wars Community Mourns The Passing Of Peter Mayhew
by Erik Amaya
If there’s one word which typifies people’s memories of actor Peter Mayhew, it’s “gentle.”
The British actor who originated the role of Chewbacca the Wookie in 1977’s Star Wars passed away on Tuesday at age 74. His family revealed his passing on Thursday with fans and fellow Star Wars actors both reeling from the shock and remembering the man.
Aw hell, Chewbacca. #RIPPeterMayhew https://t.co/3pqjFpYgyp
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) May 2, 2019
Though he handed off the role to Joonas Suotamo with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the actor will always bring that gentleness to the large alien inspired by writer/director George Lucas’s Alaskan Malmut. Despite Chewie’s size and obvious strength — Han claimed he could rip the arms off anyone who managed to best him at Tajak — the Wookie’s actual charm and, yes, gentleness, made him a fan favorite almost instantly. Though his voice was provided by Star Wars sound designer Ben Burt, Mayhew gave him the physicality necessary to make the whole thing work.
Additionally, he spoke Chewie’s grunts and growls in English, allowing actors like Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher to play off him in a more naturalistic way. The best example of this is in the original Star Wars when Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) leaves the others behind in the security room above the hangar deck. In the finished film, Han responds to Chewie’s Shyriiwook vocalizations with the line “You said it, Chewy!” In an outtake from the scene, Mayhew can be heard cuing Ford’s response with an understated, “the old man’s mad!” The performance demonstrates so much of what Mayhew brought to what can be seen as a silent part.
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
In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, Ford referred to Mayhew as a gentle man “possessed of great dignity and noble character.” The actor continued, “He invested his soul in the character and brought great pleasure to the Star Wars audience. Chewbacca was an important part of the success of the films we made together. He knew how important the fans of the franchise were to its continued success and he was devoted to them.”
Indeed, Mayhew spent decades on the convention circuit as it allowed him to live a fairly comfortable life away from his previous career as a hospital orderly. It also allowed him to interact with the fans on an almost weekly basis.
RIP Peter Mayhew. To create a beloved character with warmth and humor is a testament to any actor’s spirit. To do it under a half ton of yak hair takes a true legend. ❤️❤️
— Rian Johnson (@rianjohnson) May 3, 2019
I recall a San Diego Comic-Con, maybe eight or nine years ago now, when a friend and I were waiting for a table at one of the restaurants in the downtown area. I was riffing on some nerd thing and kept hearing a gentle chuckle every time I hit a punchline. I finally turned around to see Mayhew amused by whatever I was talking about. Before I had a chance to introduce myself, a group from the 501st Legion arrived to escort him inside. As it turns out, they were having a dinner in his honor. I’ve never forgotten his laugh or the gracious way he greeted the fans.
Mayhew is survived by his wife, Angie, and three children.