Peter Mayhew, who played the iconic Chewbacca in five Star Wars films between 1977 and 2015, died in his Texas home on April 30, his family announced on Friday. Mayhew, 74, succumbed to a heart attack, a family spokesperson told ABC News. The actor is survived by his wife and three children.
Chewbacca is a tall, hairy, swashbuckling smuggler who was adept at combating enemies with his laser crossbow and piloting his spaceship through the galaxies with best friend Han Solo (Harrison Ford), by his side. Chewbacca cannot speak English and makes a distinctive growl instead – this voice was not Mayhew’s but the creation of sound designer Ben Burtt. Chewbacca is a Wookiee, a fictional group of humanoids from the planet Kashyyyk. He has often been called one of the greatest sidekicks in film history.
What helped the seven-foot-three-inches tall actor bag Chewbacca’s role was his height. Mayhew’s height was the result of an overactive pituitary gland, he explained in 2014. “I had treatment when I was about 15 that slowed it down, they stopped it,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald, adding that without that procedure he would have grown to be eight-foot tall and “life would have been terrible”.
His height also landed him his debut role, as the robotic minotaur Minoton in Sam Wanamaker’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), where he went uncredited.
Mayhew’s second and life-altering screen credit was in George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977). The actor played the roles in the original trilogy, the 2005 film Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and the 2015 film Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
In The Force Awakens, Mayhew shared the role with his body double Joonas Suotamo and stuntman Ian Whyte, because he had been wheelchair-bound with knee problems. Mayhew also appeared as Chewbacca in a few other Star Wars television spin-offs.
His credits outside the Star Wars universe include the horror films Terror (1978) and Killer Ink (2016) and the BBC children’s television show Dark Towers (1981).
Tributes poured in for Mayhew. “Peter Mayhew was a kind and gentle man, possessed of great dignity and noble character,” Ford said in a media statement. “We were partners in film and friends in life for over 30 years and I loved him.”
Other Star Wars colleagues shared their memories of working with Mayhew.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) writer Jonathan Kasdan, son of Star Wars writer Lawrence Kasdan, noted on Twitter: “Mayhew did an extraordinary thing, conveyed empathy, humour and an incomparable soulfulness, all from inside that furry suit. My dad often said, ‘Chewie is the moral centre of Star Wars.’
Several Hollywood personalities and fans also posted tributes.