Peter Mayhew had been around the world as the actor who played Chewbacca in the Star Wars films, but he picked a ranch out in Boyd—about 30 miles outside of Fort Worth—as his retirement spot. In 1999, he married Texas native Angie Luker, and the seven feet two inch Englishman joined her in Wise County. When he died on April 30 at the age of 74, it was in the North Texas home the two shared, according to a statement that Mayhew’s family put out on Twitter on Thursday night.
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
Diagnosed with gigantism at the age of 8, he studied engineering, but he found himself drawn to public service and worked as a hospital orderly in his native England. He was in his thirties when a newspaper photograph displaying his height crossed the path of the producers of the 1977 Columbia Pictures film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, who were seeking someone very tall for the role of the half-man, half-bull Minoton in the production.
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Mayhew went on to audition for Star Wars. As an independent production from a young filmmaker, there was no particular reason to believe that the film would bring him any more fame than had the Sinbad picture. The audition process was famously loose—Mayhew and fellow tall man David Prowse were both considered for the roles of Chewbacca and Darth Vader. Legend has it that Prowse asked to play the villain under the assumption that his face and voice would be used. Mayhew, meanwhile, studied bears and gorillas at the zoo in order to develop movements for the Wookiee.
Star Wars, of course, became a phenomenon. Mayhew’s acting career was largely confined to George Lucas’s series, but Chewbacca gave him new opportunities to be of service, making hospital visits and convention appearances. He saw his celebrity as “something that can bring life back to someone who is down and out,” as the website for the Peter Mayhew Foundation put it. He partnered with Star Wars fan organizations to use that fame to offer “that sparkle of joy, shock, happiness” to those who needed a Wookiee in their lives. He befriended sick fans with hospital visits and Skype calls—in 2015, after one such fan died, the Mayhews hosted his widow at their home over the holidays—and raised money to defray travel expenses for participants in the Make-A-Wish Foundation.