Peter Mayhew died at the end of last month on April 30, 2019. His 75th birthday would’ve been on May 19, the same day The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith came out. I never met the man but all the reports I’ve heard are that he was a very nice man and a hit at conventions. His foundation continues to help people and what is that if not an act of love? He poured his personality into making Chewbacca a lovable, believable character. I am still baffled and confused that there wasn’t the outpouring that there was at Carrie Fisher’s funeral. Sure there were memorials in Star Wars The Old Republic but nothing nearly as huge. Actors behind masks make just as big an impact. It takes a lot to act in a costume where the character doesn’t speak ‘Basic’ (or English). Everything depends on that body language.
I was too young when I first ‘met’ Chewbacca to analyze his singular situation. Big furry and animalistic, he also helps fly a sophisticated spaceship. He gives every impression that he’ll rip the arms off the droids for beating him in Dejarik (IE holochess as some think of it as). But he is in mortal terror of the dianoga in the trash compactor! Brave but timid. Intelligent but a beast. And who wouldn’t want a friend as loyal as Chewbacca on their side?
Some of my fav moments in the movies are Chewie going nuts in defense of his allies. Fiercely loyal he showed that barring the occasional dianoga, he would let nothing stop him. And watching him go into battle alongside the ewoks was brilliant. They were, as the novelization said, like little country cousins.
The expanded universe also has its heroic Chewbacca moments, and it’s Peter Mayhew’s wookiee I imagine on reading. Most of Chewbacca’s stories come alongside Han’s, as is to be expected. My first encounter was Han Solo’s Revenge. Han and he deal handily with the slavers, but separated from Han, Chewbacca must deal with a damaged Millenium Falcon, a not quite crash landing. He has a family of his own as well, a wife Mallotobuck who he proposed to in the tradional wookiee manner. They have one son. He valiantly defends Leia while Han is frozen while they hunt for Boba Fett. He also helps her in the Thrawn trilogy deal with noghri assassins, and in other stories he takes Leia’s kids to the holo zoo, as well as freeing his fellow wookiees from slavery. In the end, Chewbacca sacrificed himself to save Han’s youngest son. If a wookiee like Chewbacca is gonna go out, it can only be as he lived, protecting his extended family and going out in a blaze of glory. There was a Chewbacca tribute by Dark Horse comics released for the ‘memorial’ of him in the storyline, where the characters remembered him and past events. This included meeting Han Solo, saving Jaina Solo, and saving a group of wookiee younglings from slavery.
One other thing we know is that Chewbacca with Peter Mayhew playing him literally invented wookiees. While the Holiday Special is much maligned, Chewie’s family are the first other wookiees we ever saw. A wife and a son who clearly adored him (in spite of his absentee due to a life debt status). There was a wookiee storybook ,wookiee plush toys and when the Expanded Universe was truly established we got more. We got Lowbacca, his nephew, in the Young Jedi Knights who wielded a bronze/yellow bladed lightsaber. He was close friends with the Solo kids. Zaalbaar in the Knights of the Old Republic introduced us to Chewie’s home planet and found out the ‘Bacca’ was a great warrior and leader in wookiee history. It surely was meant as an honor to Chewbacca. In Star Wars the Old Republic, a wookiee named Bowdaar runs around with the smuggler class character. And at long last we saw Chewbacca, once more with Peter Mayhew in the suit, help Yoda escape Clone troopers in Revenge of the Sith. See all those wookiees around him? It all started with him!
While Peter Mayhew may not have gotten the same tribute online as Carrie Fisher, his role had an impact on many generations. He even trained his successor in the Disney movies when he could no longer handle the role. While I for one don’t watch them, the fact that he did that is a sign to me of a great hearted man. If he couldn’t do it himself he could at least help make sure it was done right. He was well loved. Even the International Space station held tribute. The convention he was to attend in May set up his booth in a memorial for him. There were Star Wars tributes in the Old Republic, lacking Kashyyyk in the game, fans gathered on the spur of the moment on Nar Shaddaa and Alderaan on the Star Forge server. The Expanded Alliance Guild had a party on Nar Shaddaa where people were coming and going for hours. Swtorista had one on Rishi that was streamed on Twitch. Both parties included players using a wookiee disguise terminal and getting group shots. The podcast Rebel Force Radio pulled out all their previous interviews with him and did a special tribute to him as well.
In addition to being in the movies he was a frequenter of the convention circuit, he also showed up as Chewbacca on the Muppet show, and the infamous Holiday Special. He showed up on MTV to finally received the medal Chewbacca had been denied in A New Hope, with Carrie Fisher doing the honors. When the new movies came out, its understandable that he was happy to be in them, but he wasn’t up to doing it all anymore. So he generously trained his successor. While a lot of us are unhappy they rebooted instead of honoring the Expanded Universe. It’s understandable he was glad his character lived (and its understandable fans wanted to see him too.)
In honor of his birthday, the Peter Mayhew foundation has done a challenge coin with 100% of donations going to his charity. It’s selling very fast! The big lovable man who played Chewbacca will be very much missed by all who knew him, and deserves to be honored for his role even by those of us who never met him.