Sunday 18 August 2019

Obituary: Peter Mayhew

Unusually tall British actor who found fame as 'Chewie' in the Star Wars franchise

Peter Mayhew, with his Chewbacca head
Peter Mayhew, with his Chewbacca head

Peter Mayhew, the actor, who died last Tuesday aged 74, was working as a hospital porter when his unusual stature saw him chosen to play the hirsute "Wookie" Chewbacca in the resoundingly successful Star Wars films.

At 7ft 3in - the result of an overactive pituitary gland - Mayhew was the only person on the film set who towered over David Prowse, a 6ft 5in bodybuilder cast in the role of the evil overlord Darth Vader.

Originally, the film's director George Lucas had intended for Prowse to play Chewbacca, a creature from the planet Kashyyyk, but Mayhew's lanky physique and seriocomic grace made an immediate impression. As Mayhew told it, the only thing he had to do at the audition was stand up to shake the director's hand. Lucas turned to his colleagues and said: "I think we've found him."

Shooting for the first film, subtitled A New Hope, began in March 1976. Buried under thick fur and make-up, Mayhew was spared the discomfort of filming in Tunisia with the lead actors. Instead most of his working day was initially confined to EMI-Elstree studios in Borehamwood, though the studio lights posed their own difficulties. "It's like sitting in a kitchen when the oven door is open," he said. "You get used to it."

In subsequent instalments he would be glad of the costume, as a sequence set on an ice-bound planet in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) took him to Finse in Norway.

Though Mayhew supplied his own noises on set, the "dialogue" was later dubbed by American sound designer Ben Burtt, who combined a mixture of animal grunts and growls, including those of a badger, a lion and a walrus. Mayhew visited zoos to watch how gorillas moved, and the result was a distinctive, slightly unwieldy body language that endeared Chewbacca to audiences.

When the actor fell ill during filming for The Empire Strikes Back, a stunt double was called in. As Mayhew recalled with pride, the scenes shot in his absence "had to be redone because the difference in moving was that obvious".

A personal legacy from the films was Mayhew's friendship with the smallest of all his co-stars, Kenny Baker. At 3ft 8in tall, Baker had been chosen for the role of the droid, R2-D2. Like Mayhew, he remained hidden for much of the shoot - in his case inside a metal suit with a dome-shaped head.

The pair bonded over their mutual problems finding well-tailored clothes, and Mayhew paid tribute to Baker in his memoir My Favorite Giant (2013), in which he addressed the difficulties of being physically different from the norm. "We get some looks," he observed.

Not all the attention was unwelcome, however. When work dried up in between films, he and Baker supplemented their income with appearances at science-fiction conventions. Mayhew met his wife Angie (nee Luker) at a Star Wars event in Arizona.

The son of a policeman, Peter Mayhew was born in Barnes, south-west London, on May 19 1944. During that summer the Germans began attacking London with V-1 "Doodlebug" flying bombs, and until peace was declared, Peter and his elder brother were cared for by an aunt in Northamptonshire. By the time he was nine, Peter had surpassed all his family members in height, at 6ft 8in.

Aged 14 he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a disorder of the connective tissue. Treatment for an overactive pituitary gland helped to stall his growth. After leaving school he was a porter in Mayday Hospital (now Croydon University Hospital). It was there, in 1975, that a reporter for a local newspaper featured him in an article about men with unusually large feet. He also worked as an orderly at King's College Hospital in South London.

Before long he was approached by producers for Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, who cast him in an uncredited role as a Minotaur. Star Wars began shooting the following year.

Once filming had wrapped on Return of the Jedi (1983), Mayhew broke off his acting career to join a woodworking business in Yorkshire. From 1996 he made his living predominantly from science-fiction conventions, where fans received him with enthusiasm. "I love Chewie," he said. "He's the teddy bear, the best friend, the security blanket; everything that a youngster needs to feel secure. It's something I can always be proud of."

By the time he returned for Revenge of the Sith (2005), he had perfected his crowd-pleasing impression of Ben Burtt's "Chewbacca growl". Producers for Cartoon Network asked him to voice the Wookie for a computer-animated television series, The Clone Wars (2011).

By his late 1960s, Mayhew's height had contributed to various health problems. After he underwent a double knee replacement in 2013, the basketball player Joonas Suotamo stood in for him during the more arduous sequences of The Force Awakens. Suotamo subsequently took over the role full-time, leaving Mayhew with a credited role as "Chewbacca consultant".

After his marriage to Angie Luker in 1999, Peter Mayhew settled in Texas. He became an American citizen in 2005. Angie survives him, along with their three daughters.

© Telegraph

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