The Culture

Peter Mayhew, ‘Star Wars’ Actor and Naturalized Texan, Dies at Age 74

Actor Peter Mayhew attends the world premiere of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in 2015.

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Disney via Getty Images

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.

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.

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.

Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca in 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back."

Terry Chostner/Lucasfilm Ltd./20th Century Fox via Photofest

Mayhew became an American citizen in 2005. After the ceremony, he told reporters, “It was a natural thing being married to a Texan. I wanted to become an American because Texas is an integral part of America, its lifestyle.” After the ceremony, he signed autographs for immigration officials and his fellow newly-minted Americans.

In 2009, Mayhew befriended a young fan from San Antonio named Kathlyn Chassey who had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when she was 3 months old. Seven years later, when Chassey was given ten days to live unless she received a lung transplant, Mayhew was relentless in making calls to hospitals, eventually finding a doctor at UCLA who was able to perform the procedure. He helped arrange hospital visits from other celebrities in the science fiction/fantasy world during her recovery. When she was released, a group, costumed as Star Wars characters, escorted her home from the hospital.

Mayhew, in other words, seemed like the genuine article—a gentle giant who saw the unexpected fame he acquired as a resource that could ease the suffering of others, and who dedicated himself to that goal. Living in Boyd, he was able to enjoy a quiet life—neighbors interviewed by NBC 5 told reporters about their friends meeting him at the convenience store or supermarket—while using his impressive stature to good ends.

Gigantism can have debilitating effects on the body, and Mayhew lived with those—later in life, he underwent a double knee replacement and spinal surgery, and was a wheelchair user for years. He was able to suit up one last time as the character that made him famous in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, splitting the role with Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo, who has taken over the part in subsequent films. (Mayhew stayed on as “Chewbacca consultant” for 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi.) His Star Wars family responded to the news with heartfelt tributes. Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas announced a sunset “lightsaber vigil” at Austin’s Republic Square Park on Saturday night.

He may have been a quiet man, but we’ll always remember his roar.

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Tags: Film, Boyd, Chewbacca, Movies, Peter Mayhew, Star Wars

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