Just as one of the biggest unofficial celebrations of their community was to take place this weekend, on May the Fourth, the “Star Wars” fan community was struck by some tragic news concerning a member of the franchise cast that they have come to love over the decades. British actor Peter Mayhew, who naturally grew to 7 feet 3 inches in height during his lifetime without exhibiting traits of gigantism, probably never thought of becoming an iconic sci-fi character in the 1970s. But he was chosen by George Lucas to play Chewbacca the Wookiee in “Star Wars,” a role he would reprise in sequels, prequels and more, making him one of the “Star Wars” idols.
Sadly, as NBC News reports, Peter Mayhew passed away on Tuesday, April 30, at the age of 74. His death was only publicized by his family through a spokesperson on Thursday, May 2. Said spokesperson noted that Mayhew suffered a heart attack at his home in Boyd, northern Texas. The extraordinarily tall (at the time) Briton had been working as an intern during the Seventies at King’s College Hospital in London, and had only once been in film at the time playing a monstrous minotaur in “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” on 1976.
During production of “Star Wars,” George Lucas had found himself short on tall actors after David Prowse portrayed the Sith Lord Darth Vader (with James Earl Jones providing his voice). Upon scouting Mayhew, Lucas auditioned him for the role of the hairy alien Wookiee Chewbacca, telling him that all he needed to do was stand up. From there, Mayhew brought Chewbacca to life as the towering co-pilot and muscle to space smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford), a dynamic that lasted the three original trilogy films and one sequel trilogy installment, plus a lone act without Solo in one prequel film.
Since then Peter Mayhew has been a regular figure at numerous “Star Wars” conventions, even becoming an expert and consultant on the depiction of his character in many media forms of the franchise. As he got on in age however, Mayhew needed to share the role of Chewbacca during “The Force Awakens” with Finnish athlete and actor Joonas Suotamo, who later took over in full for him starting with “The Last Jedi.” Last year, Mayhew had needed to undergo surgery in his spine, problematic for tall people as they age.
Though born in the UK, Mayhew became a naturalized American citizen in 2005 and made his home in Texas. In between outings as Chewbacca on film or conventions and promotions, he became a business owner in the state. Mayhew also wrote several children’s books with an anti-bullying message, basing them on his own life experiences as a very tall person.
Images: The Verge, The Wrap