A tribute to Peter Mayhew, who brought Chewbacca to life

Earlier this week, the family of Peter Mayhew announced that the actor passed away on April 30 at his home, surrounded by his family, at the age of 74.

Mayhew was best-known for his role portraying Chewbacca in the Star Wars films.  He was cast by George Lucas in 1977 primarily for his height, but it was his performance that truly brought the character to life and made him a beloved, iconic figure.  It really is quite impressive what Mayhew was able to accomplish: he portrayed a “big walking carpet” who never once speaks an intelligible word, yet through his various mannerisms not only brought him to life but made him a fan favorite.  Imagine George Lucas pitching this idea of the character to executives on the first Star Wars film and how crazy and uncertain it must have sounded – it worked primarily because of Peter Mayhew.

He portrayed the character of Chewbacca in the original Star Wars trilogy (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi), and then returned to reprise the role in Revenge of the Sith.  When Lucasfilm began developing a sequel trilogy, Mayhew was among the many iconic actors to be brought back (along with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, etc.).  Due to health reasons, Mayhew wasn’t able to portray Chewie in every scene of The Force Awakens, so he shared the role with Joonas Suotamo.  Following TFA, Mayhew retired from the role, but he continued to serve as a “Chewbacca Consultant” on The Last Jedi and Solo: A Star Wars Story as Suotamo took over the role.

Suotamo has managed to perfectly capture Chewie’s mannerisms, but he is quick to credit Peter Mayhew’s influence.  Not only did Mayhew bring Chewie to life and develop these movements and mannerisms and actions, but he also served as a mentor to Suotamo in an attempt to ensure that Chewbacca would continue to be the same Wookiee we know and love.

But even beyond the role of Chewbacca, Mayhew served as a bright light for good.  He truly embraced his part in the Star Wars universe and used that for good.  Countless fans in recent days have shared of their interactions with Mayhew and how overwhelmingly positive they were.  He was a classy guy who welcomed Star Wars fans and his place in the story, and he loved Chewbacca – a character who will continue to live on as a testament to Mayhew’s legacy in making this character as beloved as he is.

I don’t at all think it is a stretch to say that Chewbacca wouldn’t have worked without Peter Mayhew.  Of course there are others to credit too, but this is a character who doesn’t speak words we understand, we can’t see Mayhew’s face, etc. – and yet Mayhew nonetheless figured out how to convey Chewie’s emotions so that we as the audience know exactly what he is thinking and feeling.  And furthermore, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s one thing to get the audience to buy it – that is, to make the audience believe that it works – but it’s another thing to make the audience actually genuinely like, root for, and love this character.  Mayhew managed to do that, making Chewbacca one of the most iconic characters in the Star Wars universe.  Peter Mayhew truly is a Star Wars legend, just like the character he brought to life.

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