Sadly, we had to say goodbye to an icon recently as Star Wars actor Peter Mayhew passed away at the age of 74. Even those who didn't know his name have surely been touched by the work of Mayhew, as he's been the man primarily under the Wookiee suit in the franchise ever since the first entry was being shot by George Lucas in 1977. While we'll always think of Mayhew as the towering man who physically embodied the lovable character (and he most certainly was that), there is far more to the actor than just being tall and being capable of being physically imposing, when the situation calls for it.
Again, even for those who maybe don't love Star Wars in the way that I do, as a man who has obsessed over this stuff for longer than my memories date back, Chewbacca is a pop culture icon that transcends the movies themselves. He's lovable, fun, unique and the embodiment of wonder that was contained in the brilliance of George Lucas' vast creation. That was all Peter Mayhew. Perhaps The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson put it best.
"RIP Peter Mayhew. To create a beloved character with warmth and humor is a testament to any actor's spirit. To do it under a half ton of yak hair takes a true legend."
Chewbacca is such an iconic, lifeful character that, at times, it can be easy to forget that there really was a man under all of that fur injecting every ounce of life into the character. Imagine it's roughly 1976. A man hands a young, very tall actor a script for some crazy sci-fi flick and says something along the lines of, "you're going to play this guy's giant space dog." There is a version of that which goes right off the rails. Instead, we get what Peter Mayhew brought to the role, which is a timeless character that is rich, layered, complex, relatable and brimming with emotion. Yet, this is also a character who only speaks in growls that aren't subtitled. And, as Rian Johnson points out, every bit of emoting is being done under layers and layers of fur. That's truly something.
Think of having a text conversation with a friend. They bail on plans at the last second. There's almost certainly a Chewie gif to convey the emotion one would be feeling in that moment. Imagine another friend says they scored a date with that person at the office they've had a crush on. There's definitely a Chewie gif for that occasion as well. Almost any emotion one could come up with, there would be an appropriate way to respond, using only the beloved Wookiee who, again, never actually speaks in a language we understand. That is remarkable. That is Peter Mayhew.
I've never said Chewbacca is my favorite Star Wars character. I won't stand on pretense here in such a way. However, I've always counted him as the one that warms my heart the most. The Force Awakens is the prime example of that. There is, naturally, the most obvious example of, "Chewie, we're home," which made more grown men cry than perhaps anything in modern pop culture. But take the moment when Chewie first sees Leia. That moment is pure gold. Mayhew conveys so much doing so very little. It's effortlessly amazing. Like the best performances, most people probably don't even stop to think about how amazing it actually is, because the actor doing the acting simply is that character.
Prior to writing this, after hearing the news of Peter Mayhew's passing, I rewatched A New Hope. It's truly something to behold, even now, the wonderful actor that brought this icon to life. It's easy to forget that Mayhew had to forge much of what we now think of as iconic himself while filming that first entry. For many of us, Chewbacca simply is. We don't think of a time when he wasn't. While we may have lost the man underneath all of that fur, this is a creation that is going to outlive every single one of us. Few people who ever walk this Earth will be able to say they were responsible for creating something with so much vibrance. Something capable of bringing so much joy to oh so many people. Something so timeless.
I'm certain I won't be the only one penning something paying tribute to the actor we lost. I'm certain this isn't the most original take one can have on the matter. That said, as a genuine fan who is lucky enough to have a platform to speak his feelings, this is something I truly am proud to have the chance to highlight. Any fan, even of the most casual type, do yourself a favor and next time you watch A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi or any of the movies Peter Mayhew lent his talents to, think about the actor behind Chewbacca. RIP, good sir and may the Force be with you, always. We've included his family's official statement from Peter Mayhew's Twitter account below.
The family of Peter Mayhew, with deep love and sadness, regrets to share the news that Peter has passed away. He left us the evening of April 30, 2019 with his family by his side in his North Texas home. pic.twitter.com/YZ5VLyuK0u— Peter Mayhew (@TheWookieeRoars) May 2, 2019
RIP Peter Mayhew. To create a beloved character with warmth and humor is a testament to any actor’s spirit. To do it under a half ton of yak hair takes a true legend. ❤️❤️— Rian Johnson (@rianjohnson) May 3, 2019