Peter Mayhew was born in London in 1944, but his life would change forever when he was cast as Han Solo's co-pilot and conscious in Star Wars.
"We were partners in film and friends in life for over 30 years and I loved him." - Harrison Ford
Mayhew stood 7'3" at his peak height and was working as an orderly in Kings College Hospital in London when his massive height led to a role in a Ray Harryhausen film, and eventually to a meeting with George Lucas for a part in his upcoming space-fantasy epic.
The legend goes that when Mayhew stood up to greet Lucas as he walked into the room Lucas turned to his producer and said, "I think we found him."
Chewbacca's unique sound is a credit to the creative sound mixing process and the artistry of Ben Burtt. But that can take nothing away from the man in the suit who not only gave Chewie his dominant physical presence but some sense of gentle friendliness beneath it. And if you doubt that true chemistry had to exist on set for him to help Harrison Ford create the breakout and equally iconic Han Solo, just watch them onscreen together when Mayhew actually delivered Chewie's lines.
This scene from Empire Strikes Back also helps indicate how the two of them played off one another.
Mayhew was an unsung hero, in many ways like David Prowse (Darth Vader) whose voice wasn't the final one on the film, but who delivered the lines on set, which has an obvious impact on the other performances and the finished product. Say nothing of physically inhabiting the role.
It would make sense to say that while to audiences Chewie and Vader are more known for their final sounds, to the filmmakers of Star Wars Chewie and Darth Vader were better identified as Mayhew and Prowse.
Which brings us to Harrison Ford's statement regarding Mayhew's passing:
"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. 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…. "
The success of the original Star Wars film was unprecedented and changed filmmaking and the movie industry forever. In many ways, Mayhew and Chewbecca are a perfect symbol of this unlikely story.
Picture, if you can, a time before sci-fi was much beyond Buck Rogers, 2001 A Space Odyssey, and three seasons of Star Trek from over 10 years ago. Movies like Network and All The Presidents Men, with a serious focus on contemporary topics, dominated the screens.
Now picture being on a set with Chewbacca.
You would never in a million light years imagine that those who dared to have a giant walking dog/bear creature helping to fly a space ship would change the face of entertainment forever. And yet... that's exactly what happened.
Chewbacca was an unsung hero in other ways. Afterall, he convinced Han to turn around and save Luke and the rebellion! He didn't even get a medal originally, but 20 years later he was granted a lifetime achievement award, and Carrie Fisher was on hand to finally present him with his medal.
With that, we say goodbye to Peter Mayhew and Chewbacca. May the force be with them