The untold truth about the man who plays Chewbacca

Back when the first Star Wars film hit theaters in May 1977, the world had never seen anything like it. In one fell swoop, George Lucas forever redefined the cinematic landscape, merging science fiction and fantasy into one unforgettable saga, while ensuring that from that day on, every kid on the planet would beg to own at least one toy lightsaber. Star Wars introduced many classic characters to audiences, but one of the most beloved of all is Han Solo's loyal, furry best friend, Chewbacca.  

Everyone loves Chewie, and it's not hard to see why. However, perhaps the secret ingredient that's made Chewbacca such a great character all this time is the warmth, humbleness, and bravery of the actor who has played him since the beginning, Peter Mayhew. Peter's story might not involve any spaceships, but it's still one for the books.

His acting career began due to his big feet

The fact that Chewbacca towers over Han Solo is no trick of the camera, no hidden stool, and no special effect. Harrison Ford is a tall guy himself, standing a little over 6 feet, but in the movies, it always seems like Chewie is a full foot taller. That's because the real Chewie, Peter Mayhew, stands at a towering 7'3", according to IGN. Which means that, yes, he has some pretty big feet.

Now, back in the 1970s, this tall guy wasn't trying to climb the entertainment ladder, or anything crazy like that. Peter Mayhew was born in the Barnes district of southwest London, as reported by the BBC, and he spent his early adulthood working as a hospital orderly — caring for patients, changing bedpans, and keeping the place clean. Then one day, a local newspaper published an article about men with extraordinarily large feet, and featured Mayhew. Getting into the paper was probably cool enough, but out of nowhere, Mayhew's big-footed news story managed to catch the eyes of Hollywood. At the time, some major producers were putting together a fantasy flick called Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and they needed someone really tall to play the minotaur. Mayhew was just the guy they were looking for, and just like that, he had his first role in a feature film.

But then, Mayhew's performance in Sinbad caught the eyes of another filmmaker, a man named George.

He was originally supposed to be Darth Vader

Star Wars history could have been way different. Though you'd figure that casting Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca must have been planned from the beginning, the surprising truth is that when Lucas first saw Mayhew, he wanted the actor for a completely different tall, imposing figure.

Yes, Peter Mayhew originally auditioned for Darth Vader, according to IGN. Mayhew certainly stood at an intimidating height, but in the end, Lucas decided to give the role of Vader to a 6'5" bodybuilder named David Prowse, with the director figuring that Prowse's muscular build and harder body language was more appropriate for the bad guy. This worked out for the best, because Mayhew's true destiny lay in another character from the script: Han Solo's animalistic best friend, the valiant Wookiee hero we all know today.

Playing a furry alien character like Chewbacca presented some obvious challenges, so Mayhew studied up for the role by going to the zoo and watching animals like gorillas and bears, trying to get an idea of how to convey Chewbacca's distinctive personality through body language. According to Mayhew, the character truly came alive when he put on the costume, which he describes as feeling like "a second skin." Lucas agrees with Mayhew's assessment, once telling People that "when Peter put on that costume, he instantly became the embodiment of the character." Mayhew probably would've made an awesome Vader, but we're happy we got to have him as Chewbacca instead.

He didn't quit his day job

It's hard to imagine today, but back in 1977, most people thought Star Wars going to be a bomb. No one ever expected it to be such a phenomenal success. According to People, when Mayhew was first cast as Chewbacca, he was desperately struggling to afford a regular life. Mayhew's tough job at the hospital paid him so little that the 30-something was forced to move back in with his parents. So even though he was cast in Star Wars, Mayhew didn't put in his two weeks notice: he just took a 12-week leave of absence, then came back after filming wrapped.

Yep, Mayhew went from the Millennium Falcon right back to the hospital. Nonetheless, it wasn't too long before Star Wars changed his life, as told by Mark Clark in his book Star Wars FAQ. After the film exploded across the world, U.K. Jedi fans started hounding Mayhew for autographs. Though he continued working at the hospital, the changes in his life allowed him to afford his own place again. By the time Return of the Jedi arrived, Mayhew was finally ready to leave his hospital job. He made Star Wars into his full-time career, becoming a regular guest at sci-fi and comic book conventions. Meanwhile, after he moved to Texas, Mayhew used his spare time to make furniture, according to People. Who wouldn't want a dining room table designed by Chewbacca himself?

Why is he so tall?

Peter Mayhew's staggering height is certainly one his most defining features, and his size has (obviously) had a huge impact on his life. On one hand, being so tall has some great benefits: according to People, he says he was "never bullied in school," and his big feet were also the factor that landed him on George Lucas's doorstep. But unfortunately, the condition that causes Mayhew's height has also been a lifelong struggle.

For the record, Mayhew's enormous size isn't the product of gigantism. As written by Mark Clark, Mayhew was born with a genetic condition called Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder. Marfan's syndrome can often cause a person to have extremely long arms and legs, long fingers, eye problems, and scoliosis, but according to the Marfan Foundation, the true dangers of this genetic disorder are often its impact on the heart and blood vessels, as it can cause life-threatening conditions like aortic expansion, which reduces the heart's ability to pump blood into the rest of the body. It's a complex condition.

Though Mayhew was diagnosed and treated for Marfan syndrome when he was still a teenager, having Marfan can cause many health ailments throughout a person's life, which Mayhew has bravely fought through as the years go on. Mayhew has talked openly about his experiences, particularly in his autobiographical graphic novel, Growing Up Giant.

On the set, Mayhew spoke in his regular voice

These days, the mark of a true Star Wars fan is your ability to accurately reproduce the furry one's famous Wookiee growl, which in Star Wars canon is referred to as Shyriiwook. We won't try to type out Chewie's distinctive sound — would such a feat even be possible? — but c'mon, we all know the sound by heart. Most us have probably tried to replicate it in the shower with little success.

Surprisingly enough, it turns out that Chewbacca's famous sound was originally not the product of human vocal chords, but rather a clever composition by Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt, according to The Atlantic. To create Chewie's voice, Burtt combined recordings of bears, seals, badgers, lions, and even a walrus. Burtt's goal was to create a sound that looked believable coming from Chewie's unarticulated lips. His efforts paid off, but this raises a question. If Peter Mayhew wasn't making Chewie sounds on set, what kinds of sounds was he making?

Well, crazily enough, he actually just talked to the other actors in his regular voice. While on the set, the English actor verbally said whatever Chewie was thinking, allowing other actors to react appropriately. His vocals were then replaced by Chewbacca sounds during post-production. Mayhew posted the above behind-the-scenes clip on his Twitter, showing a classic scene with the audio of Mayhew's regular voice in it. Surreal.

He was in a wheelchair for two years

Even back in 1983, when Return of the Jedi was being filmed, Mayhew had health difficulties that required him to take a break from filming, according to the Guardian. This didn't last long, though, because when Mayhew's stand-in couldn't properly capture the role of Chewbacca, Mayhew had to come back in and re-film all of the understudy's scenes.

However, according to People, Mayhew's physical condition hit him hardest in 2011. Though his health challenges were not widely reported at the time, he found himself unable to walk and began using a wheelchair to get around. In 2013, his family announced to the world via Twitter that he had just undergone double-knee replacement surgery, with the hope that the procedure would give him the ability to walk again.

Well, mission successful! According to the Telegraph, Mayhew was back in action by 2014. When the big announcement came that J.J. Abrams was going helming Star Wars: Episode VII, it wasn't too long before it was also announced that Mayhew would be coming back to once again don the furry costume he made famous.

He was crowned 'emperor'

Anyone who's ever been to New Orleans knows the city is a hotbed for art, creativity, and unique subcultures. It's also home to a Mardi Gras parade organization called the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, named after a certain popular character. On their website, this parade krewe states their grand mission in life is to "save the galaxy by bringing the magical revelry of Mardi Gras to the poor, disenfranchised, socially awkward, and generally weird masses." The Chewbacchus are all about the joys of science fiction, and Star Wars in particular.

These folks are some of the biggest Star Wars fans out there, for sure. But then in 2013, the krewe rocketed their game to the next level. That year, according to the Times-Picayune, Peter Mayhew and his wife, Angie, came to New Orleans and rode alongside the Krewe of Chewbacchus in the parade, sitting atop a Millennium Falcon-shaped float. During this event, the Intergalactic sci-fi squad bestowed upon Mayhew the honor of being their "Emperor for Life."

Chewbacca might not be an amazing emperor, but we'd take him over that Palpatine guy any day of the week.

He was hospitalized for pneumonia in 2015

Though the double-knee surgery was definitely a success, Peter Mayhew has had to overcome a few other tough health challenges since then. Luckily, he has a hugely supportive family and millions of fans around the world rooting him on. Despite never saying a word of English, the Chewbacca character connected with many viewers, and a lot of that is because Peter Mayhew embodies the same qualities of courage, loyalty, and warmth that made the furry guy so popular in the first place.

In 2015, Mayhew unexpectedly came down with a severe case of pneumonia that led to him being hospitalized, as reported by ABC News. Don't worry, he made it through the whole thing okay — but for a time, no one knew what to think. This newest bout with sickness came to the attention of fans when, due to his pneumonia, Mayhew was forced to cancel an anticipated appearance at a comic book shop. As soon as the news broke, people all over the internet reached out to the family to show their concern. After Peter's condition stabilized, his wife connected with everyone through Reddit to let all his fans know he was doing all right. By the end of the year, Mayhew returned to film, and The Force Awakens premiered that December. 

He wrote a personal letter to a grieving fan

As you've probably gathered by now, the real Chewbacca takes care of his fans. Between riding with the Chewbacchus parade, going to frequent conventions, and giving fun little behind-the-scenes glimpses to his social media followers, Peter Mayhew is a pretty amazing guy who truly reaches out and connects with the many millions of people who grew up watching him play a classic film character. However, one instance that really stands out among the rest is the time when Mayhew took time out of his busy schedule to write to a young fan who'd lost a loved one.  

In 2015, as the entire world waited with bated breath to see what The Force Awakens was going to be like, a couple of 7-year-old fans named Sam and Liam promised to see the new Star Wars film together, as soon as it came out in theaters. Sadly, young Sam died in a tragic accident before the movie came out, as posted by Sam's older sister on Reddit, leaving Liam deeply saddened. According to Time, as soon as Peter Mayhew heard about Liam's grief, he made a point to write the young fan a personal letter, to give some comfort to the boy in his time of loss.

He's passed on the mantle to a new Chewie

Okay, so Peter Mayhew is Chewbacca, there's no question about that. But as Mayhew approaches his mid-seventies, and as the Star Wars saga lives on, the time has come for him to hand the role down to a new actor, and that process has officially now begun.

According to Entertainment Weekly, the new Chewbacca is a young Finnish basketball played named Joonas Suotamo, who stands at 6'10". Suotamo started learning the ropes during the filming of The Force Awakens: though Mayhew still was the primary actor playing Chewie, the younger Suotamo filled the costume during any of the heavy action sequences. During an accident on the set, Suotamo at one point helped lift the door of the Millennium Falcon off Harrison Ford's (real-life) broken leg, so basically, he got his Star Wars career starting by helping out his buddy. Hey, that sounds like Chewie to us.

Starting with the prequel movie Solo: A Star Wars Story, which depicts Han's younger days, Suotamo is now wearing the fur full-time. To his credit, when Suotamo first donned the mantle, he made a point to honor the past, by writing a loving tribute — and offering a "Wookiee fist bump" — to the man who made Chewbacca into the beloved character he is today.

So Suotamo is the new Chewbacca, but in the meantime, fans can enjoy Peter Mayhew's final performance as Chewie in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.