Peter Mayhew is probably most well known as the actor who played Chewbacca the Wookie in Star Wars from 1977 right through to the Force Awakens in 2015. Whilst not originally an actor by trade it was his height (caused by Marfan syndrome) of 7 feet, 3 inches which nabbed him the job. George Lucas needed a tall actor to play the character, after 6 foot, 6 inch David Prowse ended up playing Darth Vader instead.
Chewie of course is one of the most iconic characters from the Star Wars universe and as such by default it makes Mayhew one of the most iconic actors from the franchise, however for so many more reasons he became such a huge fan favourite from the franchise for many years to come.
Why was he a fan favourite? Not Chewie, but Peter?
I think the reason why he was so incredibly popular was because he was just a nice guy and in general he was just Peter Mayhew. Perhaps it helps that in terms of work in the entertainment industry he just played Chewie along with a handful of other parts (some times himself), because it kept him very well grounded, to the point where he always had time for his fans and seemed to enjoy that side of the industry. There are plenty of actors who don’t like the meet and greet side too much, and I can imagine that it can get overwhelming, but up until he passed away I don’t think I can remember going to a comic con where he wasn’t a fixture.
In the last couple you could see that it was a bit of a struggle and he usually didn’t do a full day any more because of his health from what I gather, but he was always there… He was everything you’d want from a celebrity!
Over time, as the movies became more popular he realised the potential which he could have with the role, beyond the movies, and the number of people he could help. This was all beautifully summed up when he passed away by his family who acompanied the news of his passing with a letter to the world, and it touched on even more things which he was able to acomplish with his fame than I realised. I knew that he worked with Make-A-Wish but also 501st Legion and Wounded Warriors, alongside releasing 2 books about bullying and that it’s ok to be different. To this day the Peter Mayhew Foundation which he both helped to fund and was personally involved in continues to do his amazing work.
Personally I always liked that he looked like a bit of a rocker… I don’t think he would have been out of place alongside the Ramones! I bet he seemed more out of place as a orderly in a hospital which was his job around the time he started to play Chewbacca, having been employed at both King’s College Hospital in London and Mayday University Hospital, Croydon.
Even though he was born in the UK and grew up here, through filming Star Wars and everything which went with the role he spent a lot of time in the States and married an American lady, so it wasn’t a surprise that he ended up becoming a naturalized American citizen. I think that a couple of statements he made around this time, really showed off 2 things. Firstly that he had a true passion for the character of Chewbacca and secondly that he was a hell of a funny man.
In an Associated press piece published in 2005 it was written that, “When he takes his oath to become an American, Mayhew said he’ll recite what he can remember and “it will be a Chewie growl for the other parts.”” Whilst it has also been claimed on his Wikipedia entry (so I don’t actually have the source for this interview which was with the Fort Worth Star Telegram) he joked that he did not get a medal at this ceremony either, a reference to the closing scene in Star Wars during which Luke Skywalker and Han Solo get medals, but Chewbacca does not.
Peter Mayhew really was an absolute superstar in the purest sense of the word… Down to earth, kind, fun… The guy next door who dresses as a giant space teddy and not only makes people happy but changes their lives for the better… That kind of guy.
Peter Mayhew – the original Wookie – rest in peace!