Peter Mayhew was a gentle giant who took Chewbacca and made him into one of the most iconic Star Wars characters in history. Chewie is one of the original stars of the franchise with Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Anthony Daniels. Now, George Lucas is paying tribute to the actor who brought one of his most menacing characters to life in a way he hadn't thought of, stripping away the ferociousness... Unless you're on Chewie's bad side. Lucas had this to say.
"I needed somebody very, very tall to be the Wookiee. But we were having a hard time finding anybody in England, where I did most of my films. I said, 'This is crazy. Where are all the basketball players?' But then, after months of trying, the casting director said, 'I found one!' He was a hospital attendant in this small English town. So I met with him. And as soon as Peter stood up, I said, 'You've got the job.'"
Peter Mayhew has told the story of how he got the Star Wars gig many times, but it's nice to hear George Lucas tell the exact same one. Even though Mayhew was in a giant suit with a mask on, his family could always tell that it was him from the way his knees moved and the way he held the iconic bowcaster. The actor wasn't voicing the character, so he had to bring the Wookiee to life in other ways. George Lucas explains.
"We call it mime casting because it's really about people controlling their bodies. You're not really looking for the voice - you put that in later; it's a little like dubbing a French movie. You're looking for the stature and the way they move. Darth Vader had to strut. 3PO had to be malleable, because the suit constricted his movements. And Chewie needed to lumber, which Peter did perfectly. He wasn't quite tall enough - he was seven-foot-three and I wanted seven-foot-five -but we put high-heeled shoes on him. He even learned to do the Wookie roar but we took it out and used real animal sounds to give it authenticity."
It's hard to believe Peter Mayhew wasn't technically as tall as what George Lucas was originally looking for. But, he took the role and made it his own with some additions from the Star Wars crew. Even in his later years after a double knee surgery, Mayhew was going to be there for the new trilogy and had the strength to train newcomer Joonas Suotamo in the ways of the Wookiee because that's just the kind of person he was. Lucas had this to say in closing about his old friend.
"Peter was a wonderful, wonderful man. He kept his job in the hospital through the first three movies. But he fell in love with the character. And then as Star Wars grew in fame, and he started doing more festivals and public appearances, he realized he could actually make a living just off the personal appearances. He was very gentle, very sweet, very easy to get along with. He was more like a Wookiee than I originally imagined a Wookiee to be. Originally, I envisioned Chewie as some big ferocious beast, but Peter's Chewie wasn't really ferocious. No matter how hard he tried, he wasn't ferocious. He would be your best friend until he got angry, then stand back. He was a gentle giant. He was like my dogs. They're great, they're fluffy, they're wonderful - until you get near their food."
Peter Mayhew wasn't going to tear your arms off as Chewbacca unless you threatened his friends and family. Thankfully, we were able to see Mayhew as the iconic Chewbacca throughout the years. He even worked as a consultant with Joonas Suotamo on The Last Jedi, which was released in 2017. The Hollywood Reporter was the first to publish George Lucas' tribute to the late great Peter Mayhew.