Peter Mayhew, the actor behind the iconic alien Chewbacca in the Star Wars franchise, died earlier this week, according to a statement from his family posted to Twitter. He was 74 years old.
Mayhew died on April 30th at his home in Texas. His family writes that “the Star Wars family meant so much more to him than a role in a film,” and that “for more than 30 years Peter traveled all over the world spending time with his fans and friends.”
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
At 7 feet, 2 inches tall, he was the ideal actor to play the tall, furry sidekick to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977. According to J.W. Rinzler in his book The Making of Star Wars, Mayhew got into acting almost accidentally: producers for Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger spotted a picture of him in an article about men with big feet, and cast him in the film. “One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also creating the Wookiee costume, and he suggested me to the producers of Star Wars. So four or five months later after playing a Minoton, I was playing a Wookiee.” He ended up creating one of the most iconic characters in the Star Wars franchise: the impatient, comical sidekick who often saved the day.
But while most actors leave their roles behind, Mayhew remained the figure behind Chewie. He went on to continue to play the character in The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Revenge of the Sith, The Force Awakens, and the Star Wars Holiday Special. He also made numerous appearances as Chewbacca in commercials and for hospital visits and regularly attended science fiction conventions to sign autographs — most recently appearing at Star Wars Celebration last month. He also set up a charity foundation, The Peter Mayhew Foundation, dedicated to the “alleviation of disease, pain, suffering, and the financial toll brought on by life’s traumatic events.”
Mayhew retired from his role as Chewbacca in 2017 following a surgical procedure, handing the role off to actor Joonas Suotamo, who portrayed the character in later films, but Mayhew helped keep Chewbacca alive until the very end: he’s credited as “Chewbacca consultant” for The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and likely the forthcoming Rise of Skywalker as well.
Here are some early remembrances from Suotamo, and from his castmates Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Billy Dee Williams, and director George Lucas.
R.I.P pic.twitter.com/FWRgaOS0Tf— Joonas Suotamo (@JoonasSuotamo) May 2, 2019
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 #RIPPeterMayhew #Heartbroken @TheWookieeRoars pic.twitter.com/8xbq9HEWF2— Mark Hamill (@HamillHimself) May 2, 2019
Harrison Ford on the death of his friend, Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew: pic.twitter.com/DvVZYICwZ9— Ryan Parker (@TheRyanParker) May 3, 2019
Much more than Chewie to me…My heart hurts…I will miss you my dear friend…thanks for the great memories! #RIPPeterMayhew #StarWars pic.twitter.com/0DfCo59zpG— Billy Dee Williams (@realbdw) May 3, 2019
George Lucas on the passing of Peter Mayhew. @abc pic.twitter.com/P05qaVks5o— Clayton Sandell (@Clayton_Sandell) May 3, 2019
The @WaltDisneyCo mourns the loss of our beloved #chewbacca portrayer, #PeterMayhew. Peter was larger than life in so many ways…a gentle giant playing a gentle giant. Rest in peace.— Robert Iger (@RobertIger) May 2, 2019