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15 Heartwarming Facts About Peter Mayhew's Chewbacca

Yesterday Star Wars fans got terrible news. Peter Mayhew, who's best known for playing Chewbacca in the Star Wars films, has died at 74. Peter William Mayhew was born May 19, 1944, and died on April 30,  2019. He played Chewbacca in every live-action appearance from the 1977 original to 2015's The Force Awakens before he retired from the role.

The actor's been around for decades but there are some things even die-hard fans don't know. Here are 16 touching and interesting facts about Peter Mayhew.

1.​ Peter Mayhew's Height

Mayhew was born on 19 May 1944 in London and was raised in Barnes, Surrey. His father was a policeman and, at age eight he was diagnosed with a genetic tissue disorder known as Marfan's Syndrome. Marfan syndrome can affect the skeleton, eyes, and heart and blood vessels. It leads to a very thin body with long arms, legs, fingers, and toes and flexible joints.

The condition is fairly common and affects 1 in 5,000 Americans. Peter Mayhew's peak height was 7 feet 3 inches (2.21 m). He later said because he got older he'd “shrunk” to 7 foot 2 inches (2.18 m).
Despite his disabilities, it never got him down and he later started the Peter Mayhew Foundation "devoted to the alleviation of disease, pain, suffering, and the financial toll brought on by life's traumatic events".

​2.​ Mayhews Acting Started Because of his Big Feet

Mayhew had extremely large feet. Later in life, he said he wore a size 17 H shoes and they weren't easy to come by! He appeared in a newspaper article about men with large feet. That got him his first acting job.

In 1976 he producers of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger saw him in the article tracked him down and cast him in the role of the robotic minotaur. While most of the shots of the creature were done by stop motion animation Mayhew got an uncredited role for a handful of live-action scenes.

​3.​ Darth Vader Almost Played Chewbacca 

David Prowse played Darth Vader in the original trilogy. But originally he had the opportunity to play Chewbacca or Darth Vader. Lucas originally envisioned Chewbacca as being muscular and wanted the bodybuilder to play him.

"George Lucas saw me in A Clockwork Orange and rang me up one day," Prowse told Starlog Magazine #136. "He said, I would like to offer you one of two parts in this movie I'm doing called Star Wars. I asked him what the parts were. George said, 'One is a character called Chewbacca, he's like a hairy gorilla who fights on the side of good.' I didn't fancy that, so I asked, 'Who's the other one?' He said, 'He's the big villain of the film — ' I said, 'Don't say any more, I'll take the villain!'"

​4.​ Mayhew Got the Job By Standing Up

When Mayhew was working as an orderly in the radiology department of King's College Hospital, London. George Lucas was looking for a tall actor to play Chewbacca and, after Prowse turned him down, began looking for another actor. Mayhew learned of the casting call for Star Wars which was filming in London at the time and decided to audition.

"I sat down on one of the sofas, waiting for George. Door opened, and George walked in with Gary behind him," he said. "So, naturally, what did I do? I'm raised in England. Soon as someone comes in through the door, I stand up. George goes 'Hmm [looked up].' Virtually turned to Gary (Marshall, the film's producer) and said 'I think we've found him.'"

​5.​ Chewbacca's Name is Russian

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” But in "The Making of Star Wars (Enhanced Edition)" by J. W. Rinzler, Lucas is quoted as saying that the name came about while he was playing around with combinations of Wookiee-sounding words: “I came up with a whole bunch of Wookiee words, just changing words around, and I liked Chewbacca the best.”

In the world of Star Wars the name is based on two words in the  Wookiee language; Chew (meaning "honored, noble, trusted") and Bacca (meaning "ally, brother/sister, friend).

​6.​ Wookie is Based on an Improv line

While working on George Lucas' first film THX 1148 voice actor Terry McGovern was doing voiceover tracks. McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions and the name stuck with Lucas.

When Lucas asked him why he said the line McGovern said that he had a friend named Ralph Wookie and he thought he'd get a kick hearing his name on the movie.

​7.​ Chewbacca Was Based On Lucas' Dog

Creator George Lucas had a pet that inspired the copilot. George Lucas had a big, hairy Alaskan malamute named Indiana. "I had an Alaskan Malamute when I was writing the film,” Lucas said. “A very sweet dog, she would always sit next to me when I was writing. And when I'd drive around, she'd sit in the front seat. A Malamute is a very large dog—like a hundred and thirty pounds and bigger than a human being and very long-haired. Having her with me all the time inspired me to give Han Solo a sidekick who was like a big, furry dog. Not quite like a dog, but intelligent."

​8.​ Chewbacca's Voice is Mainly From Bears

The first job for sound designer Ben Burt's was for Chewbacca. The script hadn't even been finished. At first, Burt mainly used the sounds of a Black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California. He later combined sounds from a cinnamon bear named Pooh and a walrus named Petulia as well as lion and badger vocalizations.

​9.​ Chewbacca's Language 

The name of the language Chewbacca speaks is known in the Star Wars universe as "Shyriiwook". It's reportedly hard to learn and is rough on the throat because of all the growls. It had over one-hundred-and-fifty words for wood and lots of words for bloodshed. While making the Star Wars Anthology film Solo: A Star Wars Story they wrote all Chewbacca's line in English. Screenwriters Lawrence and Jon Kasdan wrote Chewbacca's dialogue so Han Solo actor Alden Ehrenreich could understand what Chewbacca was saying.

When on-set Peter Mayhew would sometimes make noises but he also spoke English. “When you consider that you're a character that doesn't speak, but you've still got to react to the other actors, you've got to make a noise of some kind,” Mayhew said. In a few behind-the-scenes videos you can hear his dialogue translated. When Chewbacca and Han are talking about Obi-Wan Kenobi we just hear growls but on-set he said: “That old man is mad!” Han Solo responds, “Boy, you said it, Chewie. Where did you dig up that old fossil?”

In the scene from Empire Strikes Back where Han meets Chewie working on the Millenium Falcon we just hear him angrily yelling. Here's what they were really saying.
CHEWBACCA: “What? What? Where the h**l have you been? Where the h**l have you been?”
HAN: Alright, don't lose your temper! I'll come right back and give you a hand.
CHEWBACCA: Where are you going?
HAN: To make my report.
CHEWBACCA: Tell them we're leaving, then!

​10.​ Chewbacca Was Designed From a Girl

Ralph McQuarrie did concept art for the Star Wars movie. Lucas originally gave McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration. McQuarrie's first illustrations show a fierce creature with big eyes and huge fangs. 

Then Lucas showed McQuarrie another illustration by John Schoenherr from Analog Magazine 1975 showing “a big, apelike, furry beast with a row of female breasts down its chest. So I took the breasts off and added a bandolier and ammunition and weapons, and changed its face so it looked somewhat more like the final character, and I left it at that.”

​11.​ Peter Mayhew Studied Monkeys

If you thought Chewbacca looks like a gorilla you're not alone. Mayhew actually studies a monkey family to help with his movements.

​12.​ Mayhews Height Led to His Signature Move

While Chewbacca never says anything intelligible to the audience his body language told volumes. One of his most recognizable moves was a slight tilt to his head. Mayhew revealed that it came naturally while filming. He was constantly bowing his head to get around the low doorways on set.

When in costume his body language was so recognizable that the actors said they could tell if it was Mayhew under the mask just be seeing him walk. 

"He put his heart and soul into the role of Chewbacca and it showed in every frame of the films from his knock-kneed running, firing his bowcaster from the hip, his bright blue eyes, down to each subtle movement of his head and mouth," his family said. "But, to him, the Star Wars family meant so much more to him than a role in a film."

​13.​ Mayhew Was Warned He'd Be Shot

During the filming of Return of the Jedi, there we real danger for the actor. Mayhew was told not to leave the set in his Chewbacca costume. They were on location in the California redwoods, and they were afraid he'd be mistaken for Bigfoot and be shot. 

"We were shooting on a timber estate where they grow the trees,” he told Starlog Magazine #104. "It was known as Bigfoot Country. "So, I got strict instructions not to wander off in costume. Can you imagine it? I'm in full costume, going through the undergrowth, and some guy comes from the other side of where we were filming, with a shotgun — BANGl— 'I got Bigfoot!'"

​14.​ Chewbacca Stayed in Costume

Despite the challenges of the suit the director of Empire Strikes Back insisted he keep it on. Director Irvin Kershner only gave directions to the actors in droid costumes or under masks while they were in costume. The Making of The Empire Strikes Back by J.W. Rinzler says Kershener said, “I'd try to talk with Chewbacca only when the actor was fully costumed. Then I was staring at the Wookiee and not just an actor inside a Chewbacca suit. That helped tremendously.”

​15.​ Mayhew Retired (Almost)

During and after the movies Mayhew appeared as Chewbacca in shows like the Donny and Marie show in 1977, the 1978's Star Wars Holiday Special and The Muppet Show in 1980, plus several commercials. He also appeared in other projects unrelated to Star Wars like the 1981 children's series Dark Towers as the Tall Knight and horror movies like The Terror (1978).

But after the original trilogy wrapped he moved to Yorkshire, where he "lived quietly". Then the special editions of Star Wars were released and he was thrust back into the spotlight.

He got married to Angelique in 1999 and they had three children. Mayhew moved to Boyd, Texas, and owned was a business there. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 2005.

​16.​ Mayhew Wasn't in the Sequels by Himself

Peter Mayhew's health started to deteriorate and he was wheelchair bound most of the time. J.J. Abrams asked him to be in the sequels and he agreed based on the understanding that he couldn't play Chewbacca in every scene. Mayhew's got a double in several action scenes, and Ian Whyte performed stunts.

It was decided that he would train another actor to do most of the scenes for him. 6' foot 11 inch (2.11 m) Joonas Suotamo, 29, a Finnish basketball player and actor started training to become the "Walking Carpet". He watched the original movies and Mayhew worked with him to capture Chewbacca's movement and body language. Suotamo would stand in front of a mirror, imitating Mayhew's movements. Chewie's scenes were often shot twice, once with Mayhew in the suit and a second time with Suotamo to keep the character.

"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 in a statement on Instagram. "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."

After 2015 he retired from the role and served as a consultant on the films. Through it all, he was always smiling, joking and entertaining both on and off the camera. He was a wonderful man and will be missed.

According to WTKR, the family announced a memorial service for family and friends on June 29, and a separate memorial set up for fans in early December in Los Angeles.

Did you learn anything about Peter Mayhew? Did we miss any thing? Let us know in the comments below!

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