Star Wars’ Chewbacca
An English hospital worker who inadvertently found himself catapulted into films, Peter Mayhew was the towering gentle giant responsible for bringing Chewbacca to life. Mayhew, who stands 7’3″, was born in Barnes, England. The son of a policeman, he spent a short time in the field of engineering before discovering that he felt more fulfilled by hospital service. In the mid-1970’s, he was working as a hospital orderly at London’s King’s College Hospital when he was featured in a newspaper article about men with large feet. By chance, his photograph was noticed by the producers of Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), starring Patrick Wayne and Jane Seymour. Sinbad’s producers subsequently cast Mayhew in the role of the minotaur.
When writer/director George Lucas began searching for a tall actor who could accurately portray Chewbacca, he initially turned to David Prowse. The bodybuilder opted for the part of the sinister Darth Vader, leaving Lucas free to seek out Mayhew for the role of the Wookiee.
The decision to cast Mayhew as Chewbacca proved wise. The giant actor threw himself into the role with great determination. Shortly before filming began on Star Wars, Mayhew visited a zoo where he studied the movement of bears, monkeys, gorillas and other animals with traits reminiscent of a Wookiee. Once inside the costume, Mayhew created one of the trilogy’s most memorable and popular characters. Although Chewie’s vocalizations were later dubbed into the film in post-production, to cue his fellow actors Mayhew simulated the character’s dialogue from within the mask. On set, he was known to growl, grunt and shriek.
After Star Wars, it was clear that Mayhew clearly embodied the role of the Wookiee, and he was asked to reprise the role for the second installment, The Empire Strikes Back. Again, he proved irreplaceable. During filming, he took ill and was out for a day. When director Irvin Kershner substituted another extremely tall actor in Mayhew’s place. This proved to be a mistake: because Mayhew had created Chewie’s walk and mannerisms, the substitute was unable to accurately portray the Wookiee. Kershner was forced to discard all of the footage and re-shoot once Mayhew regained his health.
Between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, Mayhew worked at Mayday Hospital in suburban London. He resumed this position after Empire, only leaving the hospital again to join his colleagues on the set of Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, the film which he remembers most fondly. It was during ROTJ that Mayhew used his stunt double for the first and only time. It was the scene when the desert skiff is hit by a blaster and tips over with Han and Lando hanging on for dear life as Chewie pulls then to safety. Once Jedi wrapped, with the exception of a phony taping of Larry King Live, Mayhew did not don the Wookiee costume again until 1997, when he appeared on the annual MTV Movie Awards to accept the Lifetime Achievement award to honor Chewbacca. He subsequently doned a Wookie suit again for his appearance in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005).
Peter just completed work on the horror movie Killer Ink, which will have its World Premiere at StarFest. He will be on hand for our Meet & Greet on Friday and be signing autographs and participating in our Photo with the Stars Program all weekend. His Q&A session is currently scheduled for 3:00pm on Sunday, April 17, 2011.