The term ‘gentle giant’ is used a lot, but it must certainly apply to actor Peter Mayhew, who passed away this week at the age of 74 from a heart attack. Mayhew was, of course, the man behind Chewbacca, the hairy, reliable co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon in the Star Wars franchise.
The actor, who at full height stood 7ft 3 inches was born in May 1944 and grew naturally if significantly taller than the norm in his youth. His first breakthrough was being cast as the minotaur in 1976’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (the production had first heard of him in an article about men with large feet!). He was cast as Chewbacca in George Lucas’ Star Wars after the original choice, David Prowse, was cast as Darth Vader. Lucas told the story that Mayhew was actually discovered working as an orderly in Kings College Hospital’s radiology department and his audition for the role was essentially ‘standing up’.
He subsequently appeared as Chewbacca in every Star Wars movie up to The Force Awakens and in several marketing-related projects. Though born in the UK, he became a naturalised American citizen in 2005, living in Texas.His height and stature did lead to problems with mobility as he grew older and in January 2015, the pain in his knees became so bad that he underwent double knee replacement surgery. In 2018 he also has some spinal surgery to help as well. Due to those health issues, from Star Wars: The Last Jedi onwards (and in some The Force Awakens scenes) the role of Chewbacca was played by Joonas Suotamo, though Peter was listed as ‘Chewbacca Consultant’.
Though wookiees might tear people’s arms out of their sockets if they lost, Mayhew was much more approachable…
I only met Mayhew once. He was attending an event in London and I was at the same hotel. Co-ordinating transport to and from the venue was complex and I was asked if I would mind accompanying Peter and Kenny Baker and his wife in one of the cabs from the hotel to the event. I was obviously more than happy to and it was quite a surreal experience – the massive Mayhew and the shorter Baker obviously good friends despite their differences in physical stature. Both Star wars actors were full of good humour and always ready to greet the fans who turned up for the events with a genuine smile.