Peter Mayhew, known to audiences worldwide for playing Chewbacca in the original Star Wars trilogy, died at his home in North Texas, his family said Thursday evening. He was 74 years old.
The towering actor “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,” Mayhew’s family wrote in a statement. “But, to him, the Star Wars family meant so much more to him than a role in a film.”
A representative for Mayhew said the actor died after a heart attack.
Chewie is a beloved character in the Star Wars universe, easily recognizable by his massive stature, guttural wail and partnership with Han Solo, the intergalactic pilot played by Harrison Ford. Mayhew, a native of London, reprised the role in 2005′s “Revenge of the Sith” and 2015′s “The Force Awakens,” expanding his reach to multiple generations of Star Wars fans. He also consulted on 2017′s “The Last Jedi,” the most recent installment of the Skywalker franchise, to show successor Joonas Suotamo the ropes.
Star Wars creator George Lucas is said to have discovered Mayhew while the latter worked as an orderly in the King’s College Hospital’s radiology department. Standing 7-foot-3, Mayhew was reportedly told that to be cast as the Wookiee, all he had to do was stand up. The actor didn’t take on too many roles outside of the Star Wars universe and, as his family noted in the statement, spent much of his later years pursuing philanthropic work, including his own charitable foundation.
“As [Mayhew] grew older he continued to ‘soldier on’ as he put it and was completely in his element around his fans and supporters,” the statement continues. “He grew great strength from the energy of his family, friends and the fans he knew and loved.”
As the news of his death spread late Thursday, former co-stars eulogized Mayhew and expressed condolences. Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker, shared photos of the two together and called Mayhew “the gentlest of giants — A big man with an even bigger heart who never failed to make me smile & a loyal friend I loved dearly.”
In a statement to the Hollywood Reporter, Ford described Mayhew as a man of “great dignity and noble character” whose command of Chewbacca was instrumental to the franchise’s success.
“These aspects of his own personality, plus his wit and grace, he brought to Chewbacca. We were partners in film and friends in life for over 30 years and I loved him,” Ford wrote. “I and millions of others will never forget Peter and what he gave us all,” he added.
In a statement to USA Today, Lucas said Mayhew was “the closest any human being could be to a Wookiee: big heart, gentle nature . . . and I learned to always let him win. He was a good friend and I’m saddened by his passing.”
Rian Johnson, director of the 2017 film “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” also expressed his condolences on Twitter, noting how impressive it was that Mayhew was able to bring life to the character despite being “under “half a ton of yak hair.”
Actress Billie Lourd, whose late mother Carrie Fisher starred as Princess Leia, shared an old family photo that included Mayhew in his Chewbacca costume.
Fans of the movies posted numerous photos of Leia and Chewbacca (and Fisher and Mayhew) together.
Suotamo late Thursday detailed how influential Mayhew was as he undertook the role of Chewbacca himself.
“Studying the character he helped create was always a daunting task, but one that was made easier by his tutelage and kindness as we sought to bring . . . Chewbacca to life for a new generation,” he wrote. “He was an absolutely one-of-kind gentleman and a legend of unrivaled class and I will miss him.”
Mayhew is survived by his wife, Angie, and three children.