Peter Mayhew, an English hospital worker who inadvertently found himself catapulted into films, was the towering gentle giant responsible for bringing Chewbacca to life. Mayhew, who stands 7'3", was born in Barnes, England. The son of a policeman, he spent a short time in the field of engineering before discovering that he felt more fulfilled by hospital service. In the mid-1970s, he was working as a hospital orderly at London's King's College Hospital when he was featured in a newspaper article about men with large feet. By chance, his photograph was noticed by the producers of Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), starring Patrick Wayne and Jane Seymour. Sinbad's producers subsequently cast Mayhew in the role of the Minotaur
When writer/director George Lucas began searching for a tall actor who could accurately portray Chewbacca, he initially turned to David Prowse. The bodybuilder opted for the part of the sinister Darth Vader, leaving Lucas free to seek out Mayhew for the role of the Wookiee.
The decision to cast Mayhew as Chewbacca proved wise. The giant actor threw himself into the role with great determination. Shortly before filming began on Star Wars, Mayhew visited a zoo where he studied the movement of bears, monkeys, gorillas and other animals with traits reminiscent of a Wookiee. Once inside the costume, Mayhew created one of the trilogy's most memorable and popular characters. Although Chewie's vocalizations were later dubbed into the film in post-production, to cue his fellow actors Mayhew simulated the character's dialogue from within the mask. On set, he was known to growl, grunt and shriek.
After Star Wars, it was clear that Mayhew clearly embodied the role of the Wookiee, and he was asked to reprise the role for the second installment, The Empire Strikes Back. Again, he proved irreplaceable. During filming, he took ill and was out for a day, When director Irvin Kershner substituted another extremely tall actor in Mayhew's place. This proved to be a mistake: because Mayhew had created Chewie's walk and mannerisms, the substitute was unable to accurately portray the Wookiee. Kershner was forced to discard all of the footage and re-shoot once Mayhew regained his health.
Between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, Mayhew worked at Mayday Hospital in suburban London. He resumed this position after Empire, only leaving the hospital again to join his colleagues on the set of Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, the film which he remembers most fondly. It was during ROTJ that Mayhew used his stunt double for the first and only time. It was the scene when the desert skiff is hit by a blaster and tips over with Han and Lando hanging on for dear life as Chewie pulls them to safety. Once Jedi wrapped, with the exception of a phony taping of Larry King Live, Mayhew did not don the Wookiee costume again until 1997, when he appeared on the annual MTV Movie Awards to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award to honor Chewbacca.
Since ROTJ, Mayhew has started a company (or maybe two), using the money he made from the films. Some sources say that he started a timber company; others say a bed frame company. Who knows, maybe both! But either way, he closed them down a few years back to start the tour circuit. He is often seen at Star Wars conventions and is a member of the "Men Behind the Masks", a group which also includes David Prowse, Kenny Baker, and Jeremy Bulloch. Mayhew also makes appearances at Children's Home and Hospitals, and often brings them toys.
Mayhew currently lives in Texas when he's not touring. Mayhew is a Star Wars purist (Yea!), which means that he only believes what George Lucas writes in actual Star Wars, and everything else is someone else's take on the story. Mayhew enjoys the Star Wars toys and other merchandise, especially the art.
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