Few costumed performers have more fully inhabited their creations than Peter Mayhew. Cast by George Lucas after actor David Prowse turned down the role of a furry sidekick in order to play a black-masked villain, Mayhew was chosen to play Han Solo’s co-pilot provided he could “stand up”. Nothing much more was thought to be required from the role of Chewbacca, the furry creating itself was wonder enough. But the former orderly at the radiology department of London’s King’s College Hospital managed to provide something that on paper was deeply lacking in the alien character – humanity.
With the addition of Ben Burtt’s sonic vocabulary (mostly voiced from bears), it was Mayhew that brought the character and costume to life. In A New Hope Chewie has an immediate insouciance that tremendous – look at the body language as he proudly puts his arms behind his head, revelling at his ability to delimb opponents in the holochess game. Or his concerned yet competent movements inside the falcon during battle, cutting to what should be nothing more than a walking carpet and instead finding that ineffable spirit of camaraderie.
Nowhere is the role of Chewie more effective than in Empire Strikes Back, from the plaintive resting of a head after a primal growl when the shield doors are closed, the sympathy shown after his Captain is tortured, to the manic rage when Han is put in Carbonite, only to later strangle Lando with those giant paws. In Return of the Jedi his heroism rings true, even if it’s under more madcap circumstances looming over his Ewok cousins. The final battle was always going to be a bunch of Wookies, but at least for the “holy trilogy” Chewie, and thus Mayhew, was our only one.
Mayhew would play Chewbacca for decades, on everything from TV specials to the prequel and postquel films. He coached actor Joonas Suotamo on the Wookie’s movements in order to maintain a consistency of portrayal – Joonas is great, and certainly more spirited and athletic than we’ve seen the character be, but simply donning the costume doesn’t immediately allow one to become such an iconic character. With Darth’s clunky armour the differences are slight, but you could read Mayhew through the role, see what he contributed physically and emotionally into an icon generations have loved.
Mayhew’s health has been poor for sometime, his frailness evident in the fan events he continued to attend for decades. His loss may not be a surprise, but it’s no less profound, that rare costumed creature actor that through his on innate gifts, and the sheer magnitude of the success of the saga, has helped immortalize him.
Peter passed away a few days ago, his family announcing it today just before a traditional celebration on May 4th of the legacy of these films. For as long as people watch movies there will be a special place for Star Wars. The one performer who physically towered above all, a giant in a cast of wash-ups and newcomers and semi-forgotten British legends that changed the galaxy forever, was Peter Mayhew. More than a man in a mask, his role served as the kind of heart of this ragtag ensemble of character, the comforting shaggy dog you’d want sitting beside you on your road trip through the stars.