At seven feet four inches tall, it goes without saying that Peter Mayhew is a big man. Fortunately, he has a heart just as big. Not only is Peter one of the nicest Star Wars celebrities I have met but he’s always ready and willing to share his fondest memories with the fans over and over again. Peter first worked as a hospital attendant at the King’s College Hospital in London when film producer Charles Schneer cast him in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One year later, he became Chewbacca and entered the world of popular culture. Though he has not done much acting since the Star Wars films, he keeps very busy at conventions and is always ready to don the hairy walking carpet once again if asked, no matter the occasion. Peter is very proud of his role and his contribution to Star Wars. I recently interviewed Peter and we talked about life as Chewie, what he thinks of Chewie’s big finale in the Expanded Universe, the Holiday Special, and much more. (Original posting: January 16, 2001)
Before acting, you were an orderly at London’s King’s College Hospital. Was acting something you always wanted to do or were you thrown into it?
I very much enjoyed being an orderly. There was a real sense of community working at a London hospital. I did anything that needed doing of course, but my favorite thing was taking the elderly patients down to have x-rays and therapy done. The little blue haired ladies were always my favorite and I was big enough to give them confidence that I wouldn’t drop them or damage them when they were weak. I can’t say I was thrown into acting, but I was offered a chance to do it and still take a leave of absence from my job. I wanted very much to have a go at doing it and so I didn’t hesitate much when the offer came.
You were in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger which was also released in 1977 along with Star Wars. How did you get that job?
Yes, that is correct, we filmed in the summer of 1975. I got the job through a newspaper article about guys with big feet. The producer happened to see the article and contacted me about playing the part of the minotaur. I was a wide eyed kid getting to work with people like Ray Harryhausen, a young Jane Seymour, Patrick Wayne, Pat Trouten, and other greats.
Dave Prowse was offered the choice of roles between Chewbacca and Vader. If he would have chosen Chewie, you may have potentially been asked to be Vader! Have you ever thought of that?
Vader was too short for me, Chewie was the only character on the storyboard that I could have played and I really never thought of anything else. I’ve got to be a very lucky guy to have landed a part in a group of movies that are so endeared to us and that have such a following throughout the world. It’s all been good. How could it be anything else?
If you weren’t offered the Sinbad role and Chewbacca, what do you think you’d be doing today?
Difficult to see, what road my life might have taken. When the opportunities presented themselves, I took them and don’t regret it at all.
Why have you drifted from acting since the Star Wars films? Were you offered other roles?
The main role that I might have had where I would have been acting without a costume came during the filming of Empire, and I was, of course, committed to that role instead. I tried briefly to get work, and did do a few bit parts, but acting for a person of my stature and body shape was hard to find. I have since done many TV and radio interviews which involved my Star Wars character and am comfortable with whatever contributions I have been asked to make.
Where were you when you first saw Star Wars?
I was at the cast and crew show at Odeon Leicestershire Square in London on a Sunday morning when I first saw Star Wars. The opening scene gave me goose bumps with the music and starships and the sheer size of it all. I was impressed. I wanted Chewie to be there at the very beginning, but was very proud to see him in the cantina. I had been hired after the main group were already in Tunisia shooting. The first scene with Alec, Harrison, and Mark gave me a great feeling watching it from the other side of the camera. Almost everyone there enjoyed seeing the completed movie and thought it would be a winner. I heard the most talk about John Williams and his fabulous music. It is still as wonderful today as it was on first hearing.
Have you heard that in the Star Wars Expanded Universe novel Vector Prime, Lucasfilm has officially killed off the character of Chewbacca?
My wife and I were in England preparing to move to Texas when we received a phone call from Steve Sansweet, collector and ambassador for Lucas. He told me of the pending release of the book and that it would not affect any of the movies. Chewie has been my alter-ego for many years, so of course I’m sad to see him go. I think he was the only choice of a main character, since the droids could be reactivated and Han and Leia and Luke are untouchable as far as the storyline is concerned.
What’s your favorite Star Wars film and why?
Probably The Empire Strikes Back. That was when we had all worked together and things really started to come together as a crew and as a story.
What’s your fondest memory from the set of a Star Wars film?
My fondest memory was filming the chess game. I think you can watch it and know why it is my favorite.
We know that the scene in Star Wars where you growled at the little droid and it wheeled away was improvised on the set. Were there any other scenes that were improvised?
That is the only real improvisation that I was personally involved in.
Do you ever see Harrison Ford at all?
Harrison and I worked well together. He is a wonderful person and a terrific actor; truly professional. Our paths have not crossed and we both led our own lives, but I am pleased to have worked alongside some truly great actors.
The sound effects of Chewie’s growl were added in during post-production. While shooting the films, did you actually growl something when you opened Chewie’s mouth?
Yes, it was necessary to make growling sounds in order to get the correct reactions from the other actors. I can’t imagine now what I must have sounded like.
It seems that Irvin Kershner took a real liking to the character of Chewbacca.
Kershner was a “hands on, show me” type of director. He was wonderful to work with. He would show us 50 percent of what he wanted and let the rest develop on set. We always played it by ear and reacted to the scene. I think it’s just my shining personality coming out…don’t you think?
Was that you in the suit at the MTV Movie Awards when Chewie finally got his medal?
It certainly was. That was a wonderful and memorable evening for me. After 15 years out of costume, Chewie came alive again the moment the mask went on. I can’t explain it, but it was great fun and I loved it. The MTV awards were the last time that I was in the suit. Lucas has to send someone with the suit anytime I wear it, so it stays at Skywalker Ranch in it’s proper storage.
How did you feel about The Phantom Menace?
I enjoyed it as you would enjoy the first chapter of a book. The characters were introduced but not developed yet. I know George will do a great job on the upcoming movies, he is a genius and pays wonderful attention to detail.
Has anyone from Lucasfilm ever talked to you about possibly having a role in the prequels?
Not yet. I would love to play the role of Chewie again though. It seems a natural to tie in as many characters as possible from Episode III to Episode IV.
Do you remember filming the Star Wars Holiday Special in 1978?
Of course I remember it, at the time, it was another trip to California for me. It was a show in which I was privileged to be associated with some great actors: Art Carney, Beatrice Arthur, Diahn Carroll… there may have been some concepts under development, but that’s another story. I never saw George Lucas if he was present. It was hard work but we all had a good time, at least I did.
Anthony Daniels told me that all the Wookiees kept stepping on the lightbulbs on the floor. Were you one of those?
Who me? Mr. Twinkletoes?!? My wife says I’m hard on “things” because the mini-blind handles come off in my hands when I try to adjust them.
Why do you think Star Wars is still so popular?
Star Wars is a very classic good versus evil tale. Everyone knows that, but I do think that it’s George Lucas and his attention to detail that makes everything so enduring. Episode I is watchable many times for just that reason.
Besides conventions, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Being able to meet with the Star Wars fans and interact with them at conventions is a great job. It is always wonderful when you see families come together and get to meet the next generation of fans. We are now working on our third generation and that is an incredible legacy. Frankly, I like staying home, outside the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex, and enjoying the sunshine, my family, and my new dog, Oscar the Rhodesian Ridgeback. We got him from a family in Houston about six months ago. It’s the first time I’ve had a dog and we have become great friends. I enjoy conventions very much. We have enjoyed the process of buying our home and arranging things the way we want it. We have been married about a year and half now and things are settling down into domestic bliss. At least that’s what she tells me. We are having fun together.
Will you ever return to the acting?
Yes, probably. It’s on my “things to do” list. 🙂
This interview has been slightly edited from its original form. Sadly, Peter passed away on April 30, 2019.
(Original posting: January 16, 2001)