Chewbacca is the mechanic and the skilled co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon. As a vital member of the Original Trilogy crew, he became more than just a friend of Han Solo. He was a member of their found family and a hero and leader in the Rebellion.
Peter Mayhew was the man behind Chewbacca, who was just as kind as the Wookiee he played. His work was inspirational to many, leaving him well remembered by fans. Here are 15 behind-the-scenes facts about Mayhew and Chewbacca.
1. A Star Is Born
Peter Mayhew was born on May 19, 1944, in Barnes, Surrey, England. As a child, he was diagnosed with gigantism and later with Marfan syndrome, giving him health problems his entire life. These two together made him grow to a height of 7 feet and 3 inches.
While writing Star Wars, George Lucas owned an Alaskan Malamute dog named Indiana. The dog was massive, weighing more than some people, and Indiana was Lucas’s loyal companion throughout the writing process. Lucas took inspiration from the pooch to give Han Solo a sidekick. Indiana would also be the namesake for Indiana Jones.
David Prowse was initially considered to play Chewbacca, but he wanted to portray a villain. He would be cast as the body actor of Darth Vader in A New Hope, meaning that George Lucas still needed to cast someone to play his Wookiee.
Mayhew’s first acting job was as Minoton the Minotaur in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. He was accidentally discovered when one of the producers saw a photo of him in the newspaper.
5. Meeting George
Fate would have it that a crewman who had worked on Sinbad happened to have a job with Stuart Freeborn, one of the make-up artists and fabricators for A New Hope. The crewman told Freeborn about Mayhew, who suggested Lucas consider the actor for a screen test.
Mayhew talked about his audition and meeting Lucas in the documentary Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy, saying, “Door opened, and George walked in with Gary behind him. So, naturally, what did I do? I'm raised in England. Soon as someone comes in through the door, I stand up. George goes ‘Hmm…' Virtually turned to Gary, and said ‘I think we've found him.'”
6. The Orderly
Prior to being cast in any acting role, Mayhew was an orderly in the department of radiology at the now Croydon University Hospital. He would continue to work his hospital job between filming the Original Trilogy.
7. Creating a Wookiee
Lucas gave concept artist Ralph McQuarrie a picture of a lemur as a starting point when designing Chewbacca. But when Lucas went to Stuart Freeborn for the costume, he told the make-up artist to start with a cat or a dog. Freeborn also pulled inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
8. The Lasat
Various concept drawings of Chewbacca were created during this phase of production. One unused piece from Ralph McQuarrie would, in turn, be used to make Zeb and the Lasat species in Star Wars Rebels. The show even jokes about this in the first episode by calling Zeb “a hairless Wookiee.”
9. George R.R. Martin
The final inspiration for Chewbacca and his bowcaster weapon came thanks to Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin. Artist John Schoenherr illustrated one of Martin’s novelettes, which McQuarrie took inspiration from. Between McQuarrie and Freeborn’s work, Chewbacca's look was finally decided.
10. Reusing Chewbacca
Mayhew wore the same Chewbacca costume for the Original Trilogy. It was made from yak hair and mohair, and a touched-up version would be reused for Senator Yarua in The Phantom Menace. A new suit would be created for Chewbacca while filming Revenge of the Sith, which would have a cooling system built in.
11. A Wookiee's Roar
Chewbacca’s iconic voice has challenged fans to recreate the guttural growls. The brilliant mind of Ben Burtt created the noise. It was a mix of various animals, including badgers, walruses, lions, sea lions, bears, camels, and sick animals.
12. Giving Back
Mayhew used his fame to help give back to people in need. Along with his wife Angie, he created the Peter Mayhew Foundation. The website states they are a “nonprofit organization devoted to the alleviation of disease, pain, suffering, and the financial toll brought on by life's traumatic events. By providing its available resources directly to deserving children and adults in need, we assist numerous charitable organizations in order to promote and boost their effectiveness and provide support where needed.”
13. Passing the Torch
For the later part of his life, Mayhew used a wheelchair much of the time, especially after double knee replacement surgery in 2013. He wanted to be part of the Sequel Trilogy, so the role of Chewbacca was split with Joonas Suotamo during The Force Awakens.
14. The Consultant
Suotamo would officially take over the role of Chewbacca for The Last Jedi, a part he has continued with other projects like Solo: A Star Wars Story. Mayhew still worked on Episode VIII, listed in the credits as “Chewbacca consultant.”
15. Goodbye to a Legend
On April 30, 2019, Peter Mayhew passed away from a heart attack. He was remembered fondly by fans and cast members for his work. Mayhew adored being part of Star Wars, once saying, “[Star Wars] has been the best thing that ever happened to me. In the past 25 years, I've been able to travel all over the world and get paid for it. I never had to pay for a thing. I can go out in public without being recognized. If I want to be recognized in public, it will happen. Star Wars was great to me; I'm set for life.”