Peter Mayhew, the towering English-born actor best known for playing the furry hero Chewbacca in the Star Wars movies, died April 30 at his home in North Texas. He was 74. His family announced the news Thursday via Mayhew’s social media accounts.
“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,” the family said in a statement. “But, to him, the Star Wars family meant so much more than a role in a film.”
Mayhew portrayed Chewbacca — Han Solo’s loyal Wookiee co-pilot on the Millennium Falcon — in each of the major phases of the Star Wars franchise, from the original trilogy to the prequel Revenge of the Sith to the next-gen sequel The Force Awakens. (He handed over the role to Joonas Suotamo for The Last Jedi, serving as a “Chewbacca consultant.”)
Though he became known to moviegoers the world over, Mayhew didn’t set out to be an actor. The son of a policeman, he was working as an orderly at a London hospital when he was featured in a newspaper story about men with large feet. His 7-foot-3 frame caught the eye of the producers of the 1977 film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and he scored his first big-screen role as a mechanical bronze minotaur.
Soon after, Star Wars creator George Lucas was searching for a tall actor to play Chewbacca and initially offered the role to David Prowse, who opted to portray Darth Vader instead. Mayhew would later joke that all he had to do to win the Chewbacca part was stand up.
“In George’s office, he had a sofa,” Mayhew recalled at a fan convention in 2013. “So I sat down on the sofa waiting for him to come in through the door. He and [producer] Gary Kurtz walked in. I did the natural thing, I stood up. Basically, that was the interview. He turned to Gary and said, ‘I think we’ve found him.’”
Lucas would later tell PEOPLE, “After talking with him, I knew I’d found Chewbacca. He was perfect. When Peter put on that costume, he instantly became the embodiment of the character.”
Mayhew threw himself into the role, studying the movements of bears, primates, and other animals at the zoo for inspiration. He donned a costume made of yak hair and mohair, and though Chewbacca’s voice was dubbed in during postproduction — a mix of animal recordings including lions, bears, and badgers — Mayhew provided grunts and growls while working with his castmates on set.
Mayhew occasionally appeared in other film and TV projects over the years, but the character affectionately known as Chewie remained his bread and butter. The bowcaster-wielding Wookiee became a fan favorite, and Mayhew was a fixture on the convention circuit. At Disney’s D23 Expo in 2015, Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams spoke about his popularity.
“You can’t deny Chewbacca,” Abrams told Entertainment Tonight. “Whoever would visit the set or be there, even some extras, before the day was over they would go over and embrace Chewbacca. It was an ongoing thing, and one of the casualties was patches of hair on the suit.”
Mayhew met his wife, Angie Luker, a toy dealer, at a convention in 1997. They wed two years later, settling in Texas, and Mayhew became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. in 2005. Together the Mayhews wrote a graphic-novel memoir, Growing Up Giant, and an anti-bullying book, My Favorite Giant.
Reflecting on the movie that made him famous during a 2003 interview with the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, New York, Mayhew said he and his Star Wars colleagues never anticipated such massive success.
“We knew it was good,” he said. “Nobody realized the potential. It’s rather nice. It means that wherever we go in the world, we’ve always got fans there to say hi and be friendly. It’s a great feeling.”
Mayhew is survived by his wife and three children.