Peter Mayhew (1944 - 2019)
Peter Mayhew was working as an Orderly in the radiology department of King's College Hospital, London in 1976 when he was “discovered” by George Lucas. Lucas was looking to find someone suitably tall to play the Wookie Chewbacca in Star Wars. Legend has it that Mayhew simply stood up from his seat to great Lucas and immediately clinched the part. The rest they say is history. Peter Mayhew went on to play the role in another five movies, and despite not gaining the immediate fame of regular actors, became a firm favourite among fans at conventions. He was also held in very high regard by his professional acting peers. As for the role of Chewbacca, he made it his own and approached the character seriously and with genuine love. Despite a lack of conventional dialogue, Mayhew imbued Chewbacca with a personality and a distinctive sense of style. No mean achievement for a man who never intended for any of this to happen.
There’s something inherently appealing about the character of Chewbacca; the loyal and imposing companion of Han Solo. There are elements of older classical archetypes in the role which is why the Wookie has proven so appealing to fans. Who hasn’t at some point in their life wished for an imposing, resolute companion, who sticks with you through the good times and the bad? Someone who tolerates your shortcomings and will give you a kick up the backside when you stray, yet still remains ever true. Chewbacca was all those things and judging from the tributes that have appeared in the last 24 hours, so was Peter Mayhew himself. He was always well received on the convention circuit and spoke passionately about his role and relevance of his character. He was also in recent years, very supportive of passing the baton onto the younger generation. Actor Joonas Suotamo has stated that Mayhew acted like a “one-of-a-kind gentleman” and whose “tutelage and kindness” made taking over the iconic role much easier.
Not many professional actors would be keen to take a major role in a film that not only hid their face but subsequently replaced their dialogue with growls and roars. However, that was not a problem for Peter Mayhew. He would happily deliver his lines in his own dulcet tones for others to respond to, irrespective that he knew they’d later be removed. Such behind the scenes footage is both incongruous and humorous to watch. Yet it also shows Peter’s dedication to the role and ethos that if a jobs worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. The picture above is far from canonical and is simply a photoshopped creation intended to raise a wry smile. Yet it also represents the timeless appeal of characters such as Chewbacca and again reinforces the trope of the faithful companion, friend and confidant. As for Peter Mayhew, it is pleasant to know that despite being subsumed into one of the biggest franchises ever, far from letting the experience spoil his life, he managed to achieve the complete opposite. He saw fame and his characters’ cult status as a positive thing and an opportunity to do good.