Peter Mayhew, who portrayed Chewbacca in all the character’s live-action scenes until 2015’s The Force Awakens, has died at his home in Texas. The British-born actor was 74 years old.
Mayhew was an aspiring actor working as a hospital orderly in 1976 when George Lucas tapped him to play the part. Mayhew’s primary qualification for the job was his height: he stood 7 feet 3 inches tall (220 cm). That was tall enough to tower over Darth Vader, played by the six-foot-six (200 cm) David Prowse. Mayhew didn’t utter Chewbacca’s famous grunts and growls—those were voiced by sound-effects legend Ben Burtt.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Mayhew went back to his hospital work after playing Chewie in Star Wars. He came back to play the character again in The Empire Strikes Back and then Return of the Jedi. By that point, his character had become famous enough that he could make his living on the convention circuit.
“For more than 30 years, Peter traveled all over the world spending time with his fans and friends,” the family wrote in a memorial statement. “Peter developed lifelong friendships with the other cast members and his fans while on the convention circuit.”
Mayhew’s character was famously stiffed at the end of the original film—Luke and Han were awarded medals by Princess Leia, but Chewie didn’t get one. In 1997, the princess finally corrected that oversight at the MTV Movie Awards. Mayhew appeared—in costume—so that Carrie “Leia” Fisher could drape a medal around his neck.
Mayhew appeared in the 2005 Star Wars prequel, Revenge of the Sith.
By the time the new trilogy got under way, Mayhew was in his 70s and suffering from health problems. Videos from around this time showed him walking slowly with the aid of a cane. As his family put it, “he fought his way back from being wheelchair-bound to stand tall and portray Chewbacca once more in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
After that 2015 film, he handed off the role to Finish actor Joonas Suotamo, who has played Chewie in recent Star Wars films and is expected to play him again in this year’s The Rise of Skywalker (although he only stands a paltry 6-foot-11).
Mayhew underwent spinal surgery last year to improve his mobility, an operation he declared a success.
“He was the gentlest of giants,” Mark Hamill—who played Luke Skywalker—tweeted on Thursday. “A big man with an even bigger heart who never failed to make me smile.”