Peter Mayhew died
The career of Mayhew was to be a symbol of how after Star Wars, franchise movies – with their extendable, adaptable, rebootable characters – were to take over from the traditionally conceived above-the-title star system in the world of tentpole cinema. Now it is the blockbusting sci-fi or superhero movie which is the star; movies have always been a team effort and Chewbacca himself is a composite creation not just by Mayhew but from Lucas (of course), from sound designer Ben Burtt who confected the groaning, roaring voice from animal recordings and from costume designer Stuart Freeborn.
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But Star Wars fans never agreed that just anyone could have played Chewbacca; real followers could distinguish between Mayhew’s performance and that of Joonas Suotamo, who took over when Mayhew retired. Now the world of motion-capture has created a new challenge for actors whose performance will need to be subsumed into a character that they do not personally resemble in real life. Mayhew was a pioneer in all this.
Chewbacca himself had a name which was itself a sly joke from a world even earlier than 1977, when smoking and chewing tobacco were more commonplace, although the first Star Wars (now known as Episode IV – A New Hope) appeared at a moment when onscreen smoking was on the way out. Chewbacca was somehow cuddly and terrifying at the same time; he was gentle and yet he could tear your arms out if he wanted. Han Solo respected Chewbacca and Chewbacca respected Solo, and the Wookiee is one of the few people with the navigational and technological expertise to pilot the Millennium Falcon.
The man inside Star Wars’ Wookiee suit may not have been instantly recognisable, but his skills helped lay the groundwork for current blockbuster movies