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Peter Mayhew’s Legacy As Chewbacca Was on of Humanity
Star Wars lost a part of its soul this week. Peter Mayhew, the 7-foot-3-inch actor who portrayed Chewbacca, died on Thursday at the age of 74. He played the hairy, lovable, yet comically stubborn Wookiee in four of the 10 Star Wars films. In a galaxy as vast, exotic, and far, far away as Star Wars, George Lucas had his work cut out for him establishing something that felt human between all of his ambitiously fantastic laser swords, slug-aliens, and planet-skipping starfighters. But Mayhew’s stoic presence onscreen as the ever-vulnerable Chewie helped imbue the films with a warm and fuzzy texture that has become the life force of the franchise’s enduring vision for the past 42 years.
John Candy said it best in Spaceballs. Portraying the parody Chewbacca role in Mel Brooks’ wickedly insane Star Wars send-up, Candy says, “I’m a mog. Half man, half dog. I’m my own best friend.” Chewbacca, from his first appearance onscreen, is instantly familiar. Somewhere between a loyal canine and a shaggy-haired older brother, Chewbacca’s trademark guttural roar has become as recognizable a sound as Frank Sinatra’s voice or the opening chords of the “Star Spangled Banner.” This is in big part thanks to Mayhew, the man beneath the layers of curly brown hair who breathed a sense of unmistakable humanity into this otherwise ridiculous walking shag carpet.
Actress Carrie Fisher with Peter Mayhew in his Chewie costume.
CBS Photo ArchiveGetty Images
We don’t give much credit to actors like Mayhew. Stunt performers who spend the bulk of their screen time in full-body prosthetics and makeup are an essential ingredient to the magic of cinema. Since the earliest days of film, performers like Mayhew have dotted the periphery of big science-fiction productions, transporting viewers into worlds well beyond our Earthly comprehension. But it’s been clear since the introduction of CGI that, without a captivating person in the suit, the sense of magic and wonder is lost.
When Star Wars became drastically more digital in the 2000s prequel trilogy, fans complained that the films had lost their heart. Produced majorly on green screens with tons of completely computer-generated 3D characters, The Phantom Menace, feels like a night-and-day difference from the heartwarming, lumbering performance of Mayhew’s Chewbacca in the ’70s trilogy. When Star Wars came back with The Force Awakens in 2015, it was a joyous reunion of some of the franchise’s most beloved human characters—but with Mayhew back in the suit, the franchise’s soul had returned from hyperspace.
In the late 1990s, when Phantom Menace came out, CGI technology meant a computer was doing the work of an actor. But now, CGI creatures are performed by actors in advanced motion-capture suits, meaning actors can embody the characters almost the same way Mayhew lived in his physical suit on-screen. So the animals in films like Planet of the Apes and the upcoming Lion King have a hint of the same magic Mayhew imbued. Andy Serkis, for example, has built an empire by breathing humanity into creatures like King Kong, Lord of the Rings’ Gollum, and Baloo from the Jungle Book. The recent billion dollar-earning Marvel spectacle, Avengers: Endgame, features a wide cast of furry Chewbacca-esque figures, and though they’re not physically embodied by actors in hairy suits, the people behind the advanced motion capture technology have Mayhew to thank for setting the precedent on how relatable an outer-space raccoon can really be.
Though Mayhew introduced the character back in the late ’70s, Chewie has appeared in countless Star Wars films, comics, games, and animated series over the years. He’s become something of a symbolic carrier of the series’ freak flag, and in the recent Disney-helmed Star Wars films, Chewie is more present than ever. When the role was reprised by Finnish newcomer Joonas Suotamo in The Force Awakens, it was Mayhew who helped supervise him.
With Carrie Fisher died in 2016, and the characters of Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker all became one with the Force in the past two films of the new trilogy, Chewbacca became the only remaining member of the A New Hope’s original brigade. The loss of Mayhew, like Fisher, gives the character of Chewie a special new wrinkle in this final chapter. As we say goodbye to him, and the rest of the Skywalker saga in the upcoming The Rise of Skywalker, these characters will persist as icons of cinema, and represent the humble beginnings of a franchise that has captivated generations of fans for almost half a century.
Dom Nero is a writer and video editor based out of Astoria, NY.