Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca: a charming and good-natured movie pioneer | Peter Bradshaw

The man inside Star Wars’ Wookiee suit may not have been instantly recognisable, but his skills helped lay the groundwork for current blockbuster movies

Like Anthony Daniels in the gold shell of C3PO, or Dave Prowse in the cloak and mask of Darth Vader, Peter Mayhew, who played the lovable but formidable Star Wars Wookiee Chewbacca, did not achieve the face recognition that actors usually yearn for, and an acting career was not in any case what Mayhew particularly wanted before George Lucas chose him for Star Wars. But it was Mayhew’s destiny to become known and adored by a passionate connoisseur fanbase, his charm and good nature made him loved by his colleagues and his actual presence did make itself felt in hundreds of fan conventions over the decades. These fan conventions themselves evolved as a new phenomenon, a kind of auxiliary theatrical platform for franchise movies alongside cinema, TV and the web.

The career of Mayhew was to be a symbol of how after Star Wars, franchise movies – with their extendable, adaptable, rebootable characters – were to take over from the traditionally conceived above-the-title star system in the world of tentpole cinema. Now it is the blockbusting sci-fi or superhero movie which is the star; movies have always been a team effort and Chewbacca himself is a composite creation not just by Mayhew but from Lucas (of course), from sound designer Ben Burtt who confected the groaning, roaring voice from animal recordings and from costume designer Stuart Freeborn.

But Star Wars fans never agreed that just anyone could have played Chewbacca; real followers could distinguish between Mayhew’s performance and that of Joonas Suotamo, who took over when Mayhew retired. Now the world of motion-capture has created a new challenge for actors whose performance will need to be subsumed into a character that they do not personally resemble in real life. Mayhew was a pioneer in all this.

Chewbacca himself had a name which was itself a sly joke from a world even earlier than 1977, when smoking and chewing tobacco were more commonplace, although the first Star Wars (now known as Episode IV – A New Hope) appeared at a moment when onscreen smoking was on the way out. Chewbacca was somehow cuddly and terrifying at the same time; he was gentle and yet he could tear your arms out if he wanted. Han Solo respected Chewbacca and Chewbacca respected Solo, and the Wookiee is one of the few people with the navigational and technological expertise to pilot the Millennium Falcon.

When I first saw Star Wars in 1977, as a teenager I sort of found myself wanting to be Chewbacca’s friend. The passing of Peter Mayhew is a sad day.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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