Peter Mayhew, the original actor who played Chewbacca, has died. The news was confirmed by Mayhew’s family, who announced it with a statement on Twitter, saying that he died on April 30 “with his family by his side.” A cause of death was not given, though he had undergone multiple surgeries in the last few years and had recently retired from playing Chewbacca for health reasons. Mayhew was 74.
In the statement announcing his death, Mayhew’s family says that Star Wars “meant so much more to him than a role in a film, providing him with “friends and family that he would love for decades to come.” Mayhew’s very first real acting role was as Chewbacca in the original Star Wars in 1977, and he went on to play the character in the whole original trilogy, Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge Of The Sith, and most recently in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He also worked as a consultant on The Last Jedi, though by that point (and for the spin-off film Solo: A Star Wars Story) he had already formally handed the role over to his Force Awakens body double Joonas Suotamo. Mayhew also made appearances as Chewbacca in the Clone Wars animated series and the Star Wars: Battlefront video game.
Before Star Wars, Mayhew played a minotaur in Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger and was working at a hospital when he answered a casting call for what became Star Wars. As the story goes, he got the job simply because of his physique (Mayhew was just over seven-feet tall), with George Lucas needing an actor taller than Darth Vader actor David Prowse. Mayhew didn’t provide Chewbacca’s voice in the original movie, as he was just the man in the suit, but as the man in the suit he brought an unforgettable level of emotion and expressive to the iconic Wookiee. After all, the whole shtick with the character is that Chewbacca seems like a mindless beast from the outside but is actually a bit of a sweetie, and that simply wouldn’t work without the right performer underneath all that hair.
As Mayhew became more famous from the Star Wars movies in his life and traveled the world for conventions and public appearances, his family says that he began to realize “the impact he could have,” and he started to become heavily involved with Star Wars fan group The 501st Legion as well as charities like Wounded Warriors and Make-A-Wish. Because of this, he established the Peter Mayhew Foundation, an organization essentially meant for helping wherever people needed help, providing food, supplies, and support to children and families in various crisis situations. He also wrote two books for children, one about embracing what makes you different (Growing Up Giant) and one about bullying (My Favorite Giant).
Mayhew is survived by his wife and three children.