A tribute to Peter Mayhew, 1944-2019

Peter Mayhew, the actor known best for playing Chewbacca in all three Star Wars trilogies, passed away Tuesday, April 30, 2019, according to a message distributed by his family yesterday.

I was lucky to have gotten involved in the past 20 years with the convention circuit.  It allowed me to meet some interesting people, including the gentle and soft-spoken actor.  I saw him at five conventions over this time, and he was always that friendly gentleman you’d expect the man behind the furry suit to be.  My first encounter was shaking his hand at the opening of an early Planet Comicon show.  Unless you’re also 7 foot 3 inches tall, your hand was immediately lost in his King Kong-sized hand.  When I met him he was either late or early to the show and had no helper so I offered to help him set up his table.  His conversation getting ready for a line of fans eager to meet him was generous and warm.

I next saw him in that lull between the prequels and the current trilogy at San Diego Comic-Con in 2011, when nothing much was going on in the Star Wars universe and for all intents and purposes the movies were done for good.  Folks wrongly accuse San Diego Comic-Con of being too busy to have meaningful experiences with others, but I always have found the opposite true.  I spun around in one of the wide floor walkways to see Mr. Mayhew alone, leaning back in his chair, nobody around at all, just watching the attendees walk around, walking past him and not even realizing they’d passed by one of film’s greatest icons.  It seemed sad that he didn’t have the longest lines of all, but I also felt lucky to get that much more time to chat and get his autograph.  He wasn’t bothered by not being swarmed, just an older gent enjoying a day of people walking about.  But the limelight would return only three years later after George Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney and J.J. Abrams tapped Mr. Mayhew to return to the role literally billions have loved him for over the past 42 years.  And there he was again, back in the thick of it at the table read for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, only five years ago.  Over the past five years his health gradually left it more difficult for Mr. Mayhew to do appearances, but I would see him three more times, each time still showing up for fans with a smile, happy to take a photograph or sign whatever nostalgic keepsakes fans brought to share with him.

My favorite memory of Mr. Mayhew was asking him about his experience working with Jim Henson on The Muppet Show in the famous Star Wars episode that aired February 21, 1980.  He had been answering questions from the crowd at a Planet Comicon panel, questions he’d clearly answered hundreds of times before.  But he lit up when I mentioned the Muppets.  Watching the show as a nine-year-old, I found the episode to be the perfect, rare event (like the Holiday Special), with Mark Hamill being featured with R2-D2, C-3PO, and our favorite Wookiee, not just another guy in the suit but the real deal, Peter Mayhew, along with Kermit and friends.  When TV shows aired in 1980 you had your eyes glued to the screen, because the idea you’d ever be able to watch the episode again was still a pipe dream.  Mr. Mayhew said he hadn’t been asked about that episode before and it had been years since he even thought about it, but details all snapped back for him.  He remarked about the joy of working with Jim Henson and said he was amazed that the Muppets above the floor were real characters that could interact with him and Hamill as if they were as real, as if by magic, and yet he stepped back and looked down to see a dozen people underneath, intertwined and synchronized to make it all appear so seamless to the audience.  You can imagine what that giant, usually soft-spoken fellow looked like when he was excited about something.  And anyone who ever met him could attest to the twinkle in his eyes that was part of who he was, those same eyes that revealed plenty of the real Mr. Mayhew behind the Wookiee suit that made it onto film and became part of his famous character.

I was lucky to meet and chat with Mr. Mayhew’s successor as Chewbacca this past March, Joonas Suotamo, another good soul of similar stature, but years younger, ready for his own career inside the fur suit.  Suotamo is a gracious and fun-loving fellow who showed in Solo: A Star Wars Story he was the right person to be passed the torch.  Suotamo offered a lovely tribute to Mr. Mayhew via his social media Thursday.

The passing of beloved celebrities that helped provide the most memorable characters of storytelling in our lives, like Mr. Mayhew and Carrie Fisher, reminds us what a good idea it is that this third Star Wars trilogy happened the way it did, when it did.  It provided the opportunity to give these people a proper send-off, and watch them pass their characters along to the next generation of creators.  Those who have seen the Marvel films have similarly seen this passing of the torch this past weekend, this wonderful tool of cinema and fiction that allows our favorite serialized stories–be it James Bond or Doctor Who or Star Trek or Star Wars or whatever–and the characters in them, to continue to exist, seemingly forever.

Do you remember your first image of Mr. Mayhew coming to life as Chewbacca?  For everyone there is probably that single image that stays with them, maybe it’s Chewie and Han firing at Stormtroopers on the ramp of the Millennium Falcon, maybe it’s his first appearance chatting with old Ben Kenobi in Mos Eisley negotiating transport, maybe it’s Chewie playing that holo-chess Dejarik game with R2-D2, or yelling at Han in a snow bank on Hoth as they pursue a probe droid, or telling Han to stop bothering him while making repairs atop the Falcon, rescuing a damaged C-3PO, dodging asteroids, battling the Empire with a gang of Ewoks, or battling the Empire with Yoda.  Or appearing again with Han and co-piloting the Falcon again with Rey.  Whatever that image, his Chewbacca made the characters of Star Wars stand apart from other science fiction; in many ways Chewbacca, Mr. Mayhew’s big, lovable, seven-foot dog everyone wanted to hug, was the Mr. Spock of Star Wars–the instant image that conjures our love, excitement, and nostalgia for the franchise.

Actors who go unseen behind masks tend to get overlooked over time, but no one will forget Mr. Mayhew, who was there for us all at the right time, and we all can count ourselves lucky he was able to return for a curtain call.  He will be missed by legions of fans across the globe.

C.J. Bunce

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