Star Wars fans around the galaxy united last week to mourn the passing of Peter Mayhew, the actor responsible for bringing Chewbacca to life in the original Star Wars trilogy, in addition to appearing in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The actor was 74 years old, with his family revealing that it was a heart attack that resulted in his passing. Many of his co-stars and close collaborators shared fond memories of the performer, including Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Billy Dee Williams. George Lucas recently shared an extended statement to express his admiration for the performer.
"I needed somebody very, very tall to be the Wookiee," Lucas' statement on The Hollywood Reporter reads. "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.'"
Mayhew wasn't the only performer whose stature was a priority, with a number of other actors also hired based on their body type. Lucas noted that, despite his impressive stature, the production found a way to make him even taller.
"We call it mime casting because it's really about people controlling their bodies," Lucas noted. "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 Wookiee roar but we took it out and used real animal sounds to give it authenticity."
Star Wars almost immediately became a worldwide sensation, though, despite his newfound fame, Mayhew still kept the job he had when he was discovered by Lucas.
"Peter was a wonderful, wonderful man," the filmmaker explained. "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."
Our thoughts go out to Mayhew's family and friends during this difficult time.
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