Peter Mayhew remembered: How he said goodbye to playing Chewbacca
The 7-foot-3 actor who portrayed the steadfast Wookiee has died at the age of 74, and although he had retired from the role due to knee troubles and worsening health, he did reprise Chewie one last time for The Force Awakens.
Although Mayhew was largely using a wheelchair at the time, director J.J. Abrams brought him back for many scenes aboard the Millennium Falcon and retained Mayhew as a “Chewbacca consultant” to Joonas Suotamo, the now-32-year-old who would go on to play the role full time.
In this 2015 interview with EW, assisted by his wife Angie, the British-born actor and Texas transplant spoke of the joy of playing the walking carpet for the final time.
He also recalled the harrowing first day of shooting with his co-pilot Harrison Ford, and delighted seeing Star Wars embraced and carried on by a new generation of actors and fans.
Chewbacca’s warmth clearly did not come from his fur alone.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Peter, how are you?
PETER MAYHEW: I’m sitting in the sunshine in Texas. It’s wonderful!
I was the one who moderated The Force Awakens panel at Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim. It was such a pleasure to sit beside you the night before and have dinner and watch the trailer and hear all your stories. And it’s just nice to talk to you again.
Peter: That’s wonderful. You know, that will always stick in my mind as the highlight of that particular meeting. It was great. And the reaction was so unbelievable!
It really was.
Peter: All the people, that was great …
Angie Mayhew: [Joining the line] Hi, it’s Angie!
Did we get a chance to meet in April? I don’t think so; I think you had your assistant with you, Peter.
Angie: He was with Peter in April, because we were awaiting the birth of our granddaughter.
Oh my gosh, congratulations!
Angie: Yeah, we have a seven-month-old running around that’s just precious.
Is it your first?
Angie: Absolutely our first.
Peter: And spoiled! She’s gorgeous.
That’s wonderful. Well, what an incredible year for you both.
Peter: It has been a hell of a year, it really has. And with everything that’s going to go on in the next couple of months [with The Force Awakens], it’s going to be really phenomenal. We were talking, making plans and things, looking forward to the red carpets. It will be great.
Where do we find Chewbacca as we pick up with him 30 years later?
Peter: I’m happy to be back here with Episode VII, with Han and all the old guys as well as the newer stars, the new characters.
I guess it’s fair to say that that relationship between Han and Chewie is like a brotherhood, right? It’s something that will never go away — no matter the years?
Peter: As Han — I mean, Harrison— was quoted: It’s an old married couple. [Laughs.] Yes, Chewie is older; he is also a character that is going to last and has lasted for 40 years, almost. When you think about it, Star Wars was in ’77, and we have stayed with each other in a long, great relationship. People don’t have many relationships like that. It’s kind of like Laurel and Hardy!
One of the things that fans have noticed is Chewie looks great. Everybody else has aged 30 years, but Chewie doesn’t seem to have a gray hair.
Peter: No, and the reason for that is that he eats carrots and various other vegetables through living in the trees and flying around in Falcons and doing other things. [Laughs.] He has a wonderful diet! He just enjoys life.
How much were you able to play Chewbacca in The Force Awakens? I know you had surgery on your knees there. Did you find it was tough to let go of the costume for some of the action sequences?
Peter: A lot of the stuff was, obviously, you have, when you’ve got knee problems like I’ve got, you have to use a body double. So, a lot of my stuff was by a large person [Suotamo.]
What were you able to tell him about capturing the soul of Chewbacca?
Peter: He learned very, very quickly. When we talked about it, he had seen Chewie as a hero for him, and he was almost as big as I am. He’s about 6’ 9”, 6’ 10”. And by the time he got the costume on, there is not that much difference between us. The stuff that he did was stuff that I physically could not do. But we got all the pieces, all the close-ups, and all the cockpit stuff done with Daisy [Ridley] and John [Boyega] and everything else. That was me.
What was it like for the veterans of Star Wars having these newcomers on the set?
Peter: It was pretty good. Obviously, the older ones, Harrison and Mark and Carrie, were there. Mark is a wonderful, wonderful guy. Looked after everybody, and he played the character pretty well… John and Daisy are great. You’ll see such a difference going on with him. He has got a fabulous sense of humor.
Angie: I felt like he was family instantly.
Peter: He was one of those people that he would be able to take a situation and add things to it, looking after me and looking after Harrison. All the others are pretty good together, and we all seemed to mix together.
What’s it like now that the Star Wars story has been handed off to new filmmakers and George Lucas is not involved? What do you feel like is the biggest difference now?
Peter: I think the difference is that J.J. was a fan of Star Wars, even from the beginning. He had the great sense of humor as well as being an artist rather than a technical man, which George was.
Can you tell me about the first day you were on set with Harrison? I presume it was after he came back from his accident because he told me that happened on day two of his shooting.
Angie: It was the day of his accident, actually.
Peter: Yeah. We were on set…
Angie: Harrison came to the dressing room, and he came in and he gave you a great big hug.
What was that like?
Peter: We’re in the trailer, and I hear a knock on the door. ‘Hey! Walking carpet, where are you?!’ It was Harrison. As loudly as you could possibly guess. And he just grabbed me, we had a big hug, ‘How you doing, blah-blah-blah’. And he was wonderful. It was lovely to see him back.
Angie: The assistant director was standing outside the trailer watching what was going on with tears in his eyes. It was so sweet. And Peter was getting ready to film the scene, and [Suotamo] was rehearsing with Harrison when that accident happened.
Peter: Amazing. It will live in my mind…
Angie: Word came round the set what had happened, and it threw everything into a mess.
Peter: A hell of a mess.
So Harrison heals up, he takes a few months. Tell me about the feeling of performing that first scene with him. Was it in the cockpit of the Falcon?
Peter: Yeah, it was. It was in the sick bay, actually. Where I am trying to be restrained by John. [Laughs.]
How did the crew react to seeing Han and Chewie together again?
Peter: They were doing what a geek would do. Let’s leave it at that.
You’re the keeper of this character. What can you tell us about Chewie’s life over the years?
Peter: He’s got a family, so… [Laughs.] Somewhere on Kashyyyk. They look after him whenever he goes home. He doesn’t go home that often, but they feed him pretty well. It’s a lot of good food and a happy family.