Peter Mayhew, Chewbacca in ‘Star Wars’ Films, Dies at 74

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The actor was working as a hospital orderly when George Lucas cast him in the original 1977 movie.

Peter Mayhew, who became known to fans worldwide as the lovable Wookiee Chewbacca in the Star Wars galaxy of films, has died. He was 74.

The actor died Tuesday in his North Texas home with his family by his side. His official Twitter account shared the news Thursday. Mayhew had undergone spinal surgery in July in an effort to improve his mobility.

The London native played Chewbacca in Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983), Revenge of the Sith (2005) and The Force Awakens (2015). 

Mayhew had done some minor acting — he played a minotaur in the Ray Harryhausen fantasy Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) — and was working as a hospital orderly when he tried out for the part of Chewbacca. He got the role based on his physique, as writer-director George Lucas was in desperate need of someone who would be able to play taller than Darth Vader. (In his prime, Mayhew stood 7-foot-3.)

After wrapping the first Star Wars, he went back to work as an orderly and did not leave the job for good until the release of Return of the Jedi, after which he made a living off of Chewbacca, becoming a favorite on the fan convention circuit.

While Mayhew did not provide the voice of the 200-year-old Wookiee (that was created by sound designer Ben Burtt), many credit the body language and expressiveness of the eyes the actor brought to the role in making Chewbacca a beloved character. It was a part that Mayhew would take on his whole life and well beyond the movies, reprising the role for appearances on Donny & Marieand The Muppet Show and, more recently, Glee.

Finnish-born basketball player turned actor Joonas Suotamo took over for Mayhew in some installments, including Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and the upcoming Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Mayhew worked as a consultant on The Last Jedi (2017) to pass the baton to Suotamo, and at that film’s premiere in 2017, he spent time chatting with his young protege and with Star Wars veteran Mark Hamill.

The Star Wars family is remembering the actor.

“Peter was a wonderful man. He was the closest any human being could be to a Wookiee: big heart, gentle nature…and I learned to always let him win. He was a good friend and I’m saddened by his passing,” Lucas said in a statement.

“He was the gentlest of giants. A big man with an even bigger heart who never failed to make me smile & a loyal friend who I loved dearly. I’m grateful for the memories we shared & I’m a better man for just having known him. Thanks Pete,” Hamill tweeted Thursday.

Harrison Ford, who played the Han Solo to Mayhew’s Chewbacca, expressed his condolences in a statement sent to Hollywood Insight.

“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,” read Ford’s statement. “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.” 

J.J. Abrams, who directed Mayhew in The Force Awakens, shared a message on Twitter: “Peter was the loveliest man … kind and patient, supportive and encouraging. A sweetheart to work with and already deeply missed.”

“Peter was larger than life in so many ways … a gentle giant playing a gentle giant. Rest in peace,” Disney CEO Bob Iger wrote on Twitter.

Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy shared her own remembrance: “We are deeply saddened today by the news of Peter Mayhew’s passing. Since 1976, Peter’s iconic portrayal of the loyal, lovable Chewbacca has been absolutely integral to the character’s success, and to the Star Wars saga itself. When I first met Peter during The Force Awakens, I was immediately impressed by his kind and gentle nature. Peter was brilliantly able to express his personality through his skillful use of gesture, posture, and eyes. We all love Chewie, and have Peter to thank for that enduring memory.”A private memorial will take place June 29, and there will be a gathering for fans at EmpireConLA in December. Mayhew is survived by his wife, Angie, and three children. 

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