Peter Mayhew, The Gentle Giant Behind Star Wars’ Chewbacca Dies At 74

Credit: Gerardo Mora/Getty Images for Disney

Just days before Star Wars Day this Saturday, fans have come together to celebrate the life of one of our favourite members of the Star Wars family. It was announced on May 2 that the heart and soul of the lovable Wookiee Chewbecca, Peter Mayhew, had died earlier in the week.

Posting on the actor’s official website, Mayhew’s family shared with his fans that the actor had died on Tuesday, April 30 in his North Texas home surrounded by his family. Mayhew was 74.

While hidden behind Chewie’s hairy head to toe costume, Mayhew’s stature, grace, and expressive blue eyes brought the character to life, becoming one of the most beloved characters in the saga.

Standing at 2.18 metres, Mayhew was hard to miss. Though he had done some minor acting before being cast as Chewie – notably playing a minotaur in 1977’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger – it was his role as the 200 year old Wookiee that made him a household name – at least among fans – and his character instantly recognisable the world over, even for non-Star Wars fans.

The London native was famously working as a hospital orderly when he auditioned for the original Star Wars film – A New Hope. He went on to play the character in a further four films – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Return of the Jedi (1983), Revenge of the Sith (2005) and The Force Awakens (2015). He also worked with newcomer Joonas Suotamo on The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi (2017) entrusting Chewie in younger hands for the more recent instalments – Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and the upcoming The Rise of Skywalker (2019) – as his health declined. Mayhew had undergone spinal surgery last July to try and improve his mobility. A family spokesperson confirmed to ABC that Mayhew died of a heart attack.

It was only after Jedi that Mayhew left his job as an orderly, taking to the fan convention circuit and making guest appearances as Chewie on shows such as Donny & Marie, The Muppet Show and Glee.

Many in the Star Wars family have been taking to social media to remember the gentle giant.

Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) described him as “a big man with an even bigger heart who never failed to make me smile”.

Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian) tweeted: “Much more than Chewie to me…My heart hurts…I will miss you my dear friend…thanks for the great memories!”

Carrie Fisher’s daughter and star of the latest trilogy, Billie Lourd, posted a series of photos to instagram of her mother with Mayhew, including one with herself as a young girl.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

❤️

A post shared by Billie Lourd (@praisethelourd) on

J.J. Abrams, director of The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker, shared that he “was the loveliest man… a sweetheart to work with”.

Suotamo said “he was an absolutely one-of-a-kind gentleman and a legend of unrivalled class”.

The Last Jedi’s director Rian Johnson said, “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.”

Meanwhile Harrison Ford, to whom Mayhew’s Chewie played sidekick to his Han Solo, released a statement saying:

“Peter Mayhew was a kind and gentle man, possessed of great dignity and noble character. These aspects of his own personality, plus his wit and grace, he brought to Chewbacca,” read Ford’s statement. “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. 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. I and millions of others will never forget Peter and what he gave us all. My thoughts are with his dear wife Angie and his children. Rest easy, my dear friend.”

Star Wars creator George Lucas also released a statement saying, “Peter was a wonderful man. He was the closest any human being could be to a Wookiee: big heart, gentle nature…and I learned to always let him win. He was a good friend and I’m saddened by his passing.”

Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy also shared her memories of Mayhew, in a statement saying: “We are deeply saddened today by the news of Peter Mayhew’s passing. Since 1976, Peter’s iconic portrayal of the loyal, lovable Chewbacca has been absolutely integral to the character’s success, and to the Star Wars saga itself. When I first met Peter during The Force Awakens, I was immediately impressed by his kind and gentle nature. Peter was brilliantly able to express his personality through his skillful use of gesture, posture, and eyes. We all love Chewie, and have Peter to thank for that enduring memory.”

Mayhew will be farewelled in a private memorial on June 29. Fans will have the opportunity to celebrate his life at EmpireConLA, which will be held in December.

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

Follow me

Clare Sidoti

Clare Sidoti is 4 Your Excitement's Editor-at-Large. Clare has a BA (Theatre and Film Studies) from the University of New South Wales, Australia and an MA Theory and Practice of Human Rights from the University of Essex, UK. She currently works for an NGO that runs human rights training in the Asia Pacific region. You can find her on twitter with her eclectic musings on the arts, entertainment and human rights. Some of her favourite topics to cover include Darren Criss, Chris Colfer, Glee and Star Wars.
Clare Sidoti
Follow me
Advertisements