HEAT VISION

George Lucas Remembers 'Star Wars' Chewbacca: Peter Mayhew "Was a Gentle Giant"

The franchise's creator pays tribute to the 7-foot-3 former hospital orderly, who died Thursday at 74 after playing the Wookiee for decades: "No matter how hard he tried, he wasn't ferocious."
Peter Mayhew (Inset: George Lucas)   |   Getty Images
The franchise's creator pays tribute to the 7-foot-3 former hospital orderly, who died Thursday at 74 after playing the Wookiee for decades: "No matter how hard he tried, he wasn't ferocious."

I needed somebody very, very tall to be the Wookiee. 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."

We call it mime casting because it's really about people controlling their bodies. 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 7-foot-3 and I wanted 7-foot-5 — 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. 

Peter was a wonderful, wonderful man. 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.

A previous version of this story misspelled Wookiee. 

This story appears in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • George Lucas, as told to Benjamin Svetkey
LATEST NEWS