Peter Mayhew RIP. Farewell, Mighty Chewbacca.
The actor, who played everyone’s favourite mighty wookie/co-pilot in the Star Wars movies, has died, aged 74. He is mourned by fans, worldwide. But he died, at peace, it seems, surrounded by a loving family, at his home in Texas. And the tributes paid have been warm, generous, moving and thought provoking: a ‘new hope’, of sorts, which is very fitting for a veteran of a film series all about finding the best in everyone.
When I think of Peter Mayhew, the actor? It’s about what you do in the small moments. Yes, Chewie, the wookie bear/dog type co-pilot, is a big character and Peter himself was 7’3. But it’s those close ups that count. Where the Wookie says things without in fact saying anything. A comedic shake of head / shrug of shoulders. That’s perfect comic timing and was vital in helping to define the character of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) because Han is always bigging himself up and Chewie could undo that with one look, thereby making the audience doubt the hero and laugh.
Equally, Mayhew added a bit of hubris to Chewie himself, thereby making us recognise why Han and the Wookie had bonded: both chancers! Our big furry friend was fond of overplaying minor post battle injuries and roaring to get his own way in games etc. You could simply not have conveyed all that, unless a very gifted actor and storyteller, with insight to humanity and our common need for approbation.
Irvin Kershner knew Mayhew was just THAT good. On the set of The Empire Strikes Back, he was faced with a possibility of replacing the Wookie actor after an injury put Peter on the bench for a few weeks. But the stand-in just could not move or ACT as distinctively as the man who created the role onscreen (no slight on the double, btw; just a reflection of how good Mayhew was!). So ‘Kersh’ re-shot the Chewie bits. And George Lucas obviously agreed with him, having cast Peter in the first place and then bringing him back for the prequel trilogy closer, Revenge of the Sith.
In fact, Mayhew was so GOOD at defining movement / poise/ comedy for his signature character that, even as time advanced and his body could no longer put in all the stuntwork etc, the Star Wars team hired him to coach his own successor, Jonnas Suotamo. Consequently, our current Chewie actor, whilst a slightly differing shape and gait to his predecessor, manages to ‘get’ the comedic and emotional heart of this supporting yet still critical character in the movies. Great work: both of you!
Some of Peter’s insight to the human condition and its tragedy and comedy, probably came from his time working as a Hospital orderly. It was there that he saw life and indeed death, in all its forms. You cannot beat that kind of raw field work in honing an acting craft. He did have roles beyond Star Wars, notably the Ray Harryhausen picture, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger; so this was an actor very much at home in special effects settings. He understood the physical nature of film-making and its essentially visual nature.
Mayhew wrote books and was a regular guest on the convention circuit; always keen to mete fans and tell stories. He was also a charitable activist. His co-stars liked him and stayed in touch and it was great to see Chewie and Han reunited for The Force Awakens. That ‘Chewie, we’re home’ moment is magic and defined the trailer back in 2015. Tributes have therefore come in from all sides of the casts who worked with him.
Mark Hamill exemplifies the better human heart of Twitter. Billy Dee Williams: pure class, as always. And Harrison Ford (though he is NOT a tweeter/facebooker etc) made a most articulate and heartfelt statement that summarises the man, the partnership, the fun, the legacy. To those who subscribe to the parody of Ford as some sort of taciturn grumpy sort? READ THAT TRIBUTE. Chewie always brought out the best in Han, it seems.
So, yes, sad that a key Star Wars player has left the stage. But what a life, legacy and lesson to us all. Never judge others or yourself on your perceived limitation, be it size or anything else. Know your limits, sure. But test those and work to your best with whatever you have, with all your heart. Very apt for a philosophical brand like Star Wars.
‘Miss them not. Mourn them not. For they are with the Force’. ‘The Force will be with you, always’. ‘CHEWIE, GET DOWN HERE!’
Rest (and Roar!) in Peace and Thanks for the Cinematic Memories which will last, forever.