Peter Mayhew, who became known to fans worldwide as the lovable Wookiee Chewbacca in the Star Wars galaxy of films, has died. He was 74.
The actor died Tuesday in his North Texas home with family by his side. His official Twitter account shared the news Thursday. Mayhew had undergone spinal surgery in July in an effort to improve his mobility.
The London native played Chewbacca in Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983), Revenge of the Sith (2005) and The Force Awakens (2015).
Mayhew had done some minor acting — he played a minotaur in the Ray Harryhausen fantasy Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) — and was working as a hospital orderly when he tried out for the part of Chewbacca. He got the role based on his physique, as writer-director George Lucas was in desperate need of someone who would be able to play taller than Darth Vader. (At the peak of his height, Mayhew stood 7-foot-3.)
After wrapping the first Star Wars, he went back to work as an orderly and did not leave the job for good until after Return of the Jedi, after which he made a living off of Chewbacca, becoming a favorite on the fan convention circuit.
While Mayhew did not provide the voice of the 200-year-old Wookiee (that was created by sound designer Ben Burtt), many credit the body language and the expressiveness of the eyes the actor brought to the role in making Chewbacca a fan favorite. It was a part that Mayhew would take on his whole life and well beyond the movies. He reprised the role for appearances on the Donny and Marie Show and The Muppet Show and, more recently, Glee.
“Peter was larger than life in so many ways…a gentle giant playing a gentle giant. Rest in peace,” Disney CEO Bob Iger wrote on Twitter Thursday.
Finnish-born basketball player-turned-actor Joonas Suotamo took over for Mayhew in some installments, including Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and the upcoming Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Mayhew worked as a consultant on The Last Jedi (2017) to pass the baton to Suotamo, and at that film’s premiere in 2017 spent time chatting with his young protege, as well as Star Wars star Mark Hamill.
“Chewbacca is one of the most iconic characters in the history of film, and Peter’s development and portrayal of this beloved Wookiee has spread so much joy around the globe,” Suotamo wrote after the casting was announced. “Peter’s guidance and kindness have been invaluable gifts which warmed my spirit and prepared me for this journey. I aspire to make Peter proud and bring Star Wars fans the Chewie they know and love.”
A private memorial will take place June 29, while in December in Los Angeles there will be a gathering for fans at EmpireConLA. Mayhew is survived by his wife, Angie, and three children.
Chewbaca actor Peter Mayhew Dead at 74.