Even though he was hidden under massive amounts of yak hair, Peter Mayhew nonetheless carved out a niche of recognition for himself for portraying the vertically imposing but lovable Chewbacca, the Wookkie friend, co-pilot and sidekick of Captain Han Solo in all three original "Star Wars" films, as well as appearances in both the final prequel, "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith" (2005), and the franchise reboot "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (2015). Born May 19, 1944 in Barnes, England, Mayhew never had aspirations for acting. Parts were scarce for a man who, at 7'3," towered over all others. But while working as a hospital orderly at King's College Hospital in London, he was spotted by producer Charles H. Schneer, who cast him in the Ray Harryhausen fantasy epic, "Sinbad & The Eye of the Tiger" (1977). He later learned of a casting call for another fantasy film in the making, "Star Wars," which was shooting in London. Upon meeting the film's young writer-director, George Lucas, Mayhew got the job on the spot the moment he stood up to shake Lucas' hand. There were actually two parts requiring height for which he was eligible: the 200-year-old Wookkie (Lucas got the idea of a gentle, hairy, non-English-speaking co-pilot when he saw his dog Indiana, an Alaskan Malamute, sitting in the passenger seat of a car) or the evil Sith Lord, Darth Vader. Mayhew chose the former because he wanted to play a hero; 6'5" British actor David Prowse took on the villain. Despite his menacing appearance, complete with crossbow and bandolier, the noble and often comic "Chewie" was a hit with the legions of children who swarmed to see the blockbuster again and again upon its initial 1977 release. Appearing more pet than monster with his appealing roars and growls, Chewbacca's voice came courtesy of sound designer Ben Burtt's combination of actual bear and lion sounds. With "Star Wars" beating "Jaws" (1975) to become the biggest moneymaker at that time, Mayhew was an odd kind of overnight star, sharing the bright spotlight with co-stars Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford.
Although he later returned to work in the hospital and received occasional non-"Star Wars" work, Mayhew's schedule began filling up thanks to his Wookkie alter ego. Even before appearing in the sequels, "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) (in which Chewie was given much more to do, emotionally) and "Return of the Jedi," (1983), he donned the costume for various public and television appearances, including the less-then stellar but Wookkie-centric "Star Wars Holiday Special" (CBS, 1978) and a 1980 guest spot on TV's syndicated "The Muppet Show."
In a remarkable feat for a performer whose face never appeared onscreen, Mayhew became a fixture at sci-fi and comic book conventions, where fans lined up by the hundreds for autographs and pictures. It helped that his face became known to fans, thanks to appearances without the mask in two specials: "The Making Of Star Wars," and "SPFX: The Empire Strikes Back," both of which aired on network television in conjunction with the original releases. Even twenty years later, Mayhew appeared in full Wookkie regalia on "The MTV Movie Awards" in 1997 so Chewbacca could receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from Mayhew's co-star Carrie Fisher.
Despite being covered from head to toe with hair and with limited range of movement or expression, Mayhew made the part his own - whether it was the signature cock of the head, or his expressive blue eyes - the only part of the real Mayhew that showed up on film. After Mayhew fell ill on the set of "Empire, footage of another tall actor in the costume was reportedly scrapped and reshot w/ a recuperated Mayhew. Indeed, his performance was so unique that fellow actors and crew members insisted that they noticed when a stuntman or stand-in would fill in. "'We could always tell it wasn't you,'" Mayhew recalled them saying. In October, 2005, Mayhew realized yet another dream by finally becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, along with 441 other people from 77 countries.