Why Chewbacca Means So Much to Fans

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015) -Peter Mayhew (as Chewbacca) - Photofest-H 2019
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Photofest
Late actor Peter Mayhew made sure that audiences could never forget the person behind all that fur.

The galaxy far, far away feels colder today. On Thursday, the world learned that Peter Mayhew, most famously known for the role of Chewbacca, had died at age 74 several days earlier. Friends, family and co-stars including Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford have expressed their love and admiration for the actor in the hours after the news broke. For Star Wars fans, the 7-foot-3 Mayhew was a larger-than-life figure in more ways than one.

As Chewie, the English actor gave life to Star Wars’ (1977) most prominent alien character with a performance that was so much more than a costume. He further put his mark on the role, adding depth and expressiveness to the character in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983), Revenge of the Sith (2005) and The Force Awakens (2015). Although he retired from the role after The Force Awakens, passing the torch onto Joonas Suotamo, with whom he shared the role in Abrams’ film, Mayhew was never far removed from Star Wars, serving as the “Chewbacca Consultant” for The Last Jedi (2017) and Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018). Mayhew once said that all he had to do to win George Lucas over for the role was stand up, but the legacy he leaves behind as one of cinema’s most beloved supporting characters can be attributed to more than his impressive stature.

The affinity felt for Chewie is universal for Star Wars fans. When Lucasfilm made the decision to remove the Star Wars Expanded Universe series of novels and video games from continuity when developing the sequel trilogy, a key part of that decision is believed to stem from the fact that Chewbacca had died in R.A. Salvatore’s novel The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime (1999). New Star Wars films without Chewbacca just wouldn’t feel like Star Wars, because the character is so much of the series’ heart. It’s impossible to take for granted that there’s an emotive quality to Chewbacca, an undeniable sense of personality that transcends the costume and Wookie vocalizations engineered by sound designer Ben Burtt. There’s a reason why so many fans around the world have gravitated to the character, named their pets after him and taken filmmakers to task over the lack of a medal or hug for the “walking carpet.” As much as we’d like to imagine that if we lived in the Star Wars Universe we’d be a Jedi like Luke or Rey, a diplomat like Leia or a cocky pilot like Han, the truth is that we’d most likely be like Chewbacca: dependable, empathetic and just along for the ride. That’s an honorable position to be in.

Chewbacca, largely through the expression of Mayhew’s eyes and body language, became our emotional lens. Regardless of language barriers, age or familiarity with Lucas’ sci-fi saga, Chewbacca showed us what to feel across these films, with larger-than-life gestures harkening back to film’s silent era, and a subtle expressiveness that gave him the same range as Star Wars’ human characters. Mayhew made sure that we could never forget the person behind all that fur. Kids in particular gravitated towards this idea, and the sincerity conveyed by a character who didn’t use words, at least not words as we know them. When he spoke about the people who line up to meet him at conventions with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2015, Mayhew said, "All of the families who are there have had a teddy bear or a security blanket, and Chewie [is that, he] looks after everybody."

Mayhew, by all accounts, embraced his role within the fan community as a frequent guest at conventions and Star Wars Celebrations. But it was more than Star Wars that connected the actor to fans across the world. Through the Peter Mayhew Foundation and two books written for children about embracing your differences and anti-bullying, Growing Up Giant and My Favorite Giant, Mayhew expressed his love of people and human connections. The galaxy far, far way, may feel a little colder today, but there’s comfort in the idea that the universe has added another star, one for Peter Mayhew, whose life brought us all a little closer.