See It Instead: Peter Mayhew Edition.
On this May the Fourth, we pay respects to the man who made Wookiees cool.
This May the Fourth, we mourn the loss of a Star Wars icon, and celebrate his body of work. Peter Mayhew made his mark as Han Solo’s right paw man, Chewbacca, playing the character for nearly 50 years. Last week, the literal film giant sadly passed away from a heart attack. While we’ve certainly been of divided opinions on the Star Wars franchise of late, it stings that one of the unsung actors who put his heart and soul into the franchise won’t get to see his character’s final film outing. That seems to be an unfortunate side effect of a series lasting 60 years.
While we obviously new and loved Mayhew for his role as Chewbacca (even in the less than fantastic Christmas special!), it was not his only character. Looking back at his work, the man contributed to many fantastic franchises…even, surprisingly, Dragon Ball! Here we gather three of his performances that we want to highlight in remembrance of his body of work.
The Serious Pick: The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
With the exception of The Last Jedi, Mayhew played his signature character, Chewbacca, in every theatrical appearance. He even was credited in the animated Clone Wars series, and played the character in places as disparate as The Muppet Show to television commercials. For all intents and purposes, Chewbacca was Mayhews’ character. When he got sick during The Empire Strikes Back, the role was recast but the footage was scrapped because nobody moved and acted in the role like Peter. Therefore, you’d think it would be hard to find his best moment as Chewie.
Not only is The Empire Strikes Back the best Star Wars film (full stop) it is also Chewie’s most emotionally resonant appearance. The devastating losses to the rebellion in the movie hit everyone, and perhaps Chewbacca most of all. As the odd couple of the galaxy far, far away, Han and Chewie were inseparable. When Han gets fridged, Mayhew really shows how tight there bond really is. Because of this resonance, later scenes in The Force Awakens have greater impact…and the surrogate swap in The Last Jedi ring more hollow. If you’d never seen any other Star Wars flick, you’d still keenly understand the friendship between a scruffy nerf herder and his yodeling best friend from just his performance here.
The Lighthearted Pick: Dark Towers (Series 1981).
Dark Towers was unconventional as a television series, to say the least. It lasted on ten episodes, but became a cultural touchstone. Part Universal Monster Movie’s camp, part monster of the week thriller, and part baroque melodrama, the series did whatever the heck it wanted. The story of a normal young woman who discovers a family equal parts Adams Family and Bram Stoker broke bounds left and right. One of the recurring characters to provide thrills and chills was The Tall Knight, played by Peter Mayhew.
Dark Towers sits in a weird cultural spot these days. Some people remember it as a lark, a slightly sophisticated take on The Munsters. Others remember it as an oddly educational romp through Victorian horror tropes. Other’s remember it as a childhood ruining monster fest…and those people usually cite The Tall Knight as the reason. Mayhew brought not just an intimidating physical presence to the role, but also an otherworldly physicality. The Tall Knight was both the tragic hero and the vengeful wraith that haunted the world of Dark Towers.
Sadly, the series never made the jump to DVD, so it remains a rare VHS. It did pop back onto the BBC in 2004, which seems the last time it surfaced. As it was ostensibly an educational show – featuring spelling, word play, and literature – it became a bit of an in-joke for teachers. I was able to re watch it a decade ago…one of the few perks of teaching middle school in the middle of nowhere New Hampshire!
The Unconventional Pick: Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
The same year Mayhew started what would be a generation-spanning career with Star Wars, he also picked up his first movie credit in another venerable franchise: Sinbad the Sailor.
Sinbad was a an Arabian Nights/swashbuckling series that went all the way back to 1935. Columbia made three impressive offerings from the 60’s to the 70’s, incorporating the incomparable stop motion effects of Ray Harryhausen, culminating in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Discovered on location, Mayhew was offered a role, and took to the screen as the uncredited person controlling Minoton, the Minotaur automata who becomes a pivotal part of Sinbad’s voyage.
The bulk of the accolades for this film rest on the laurels of Harryhausen’s fantastic stop motion. The monsters were inventive and memorable, in my opinion eclipsing the amazing work he did on Clash of the Titans. Mayhew was not given a ton of scenes, though Minoton did feature heavily into the subplot as he was basically a sleeper agent on the voyage. Mayhew did show his patent flair for making the odd and ungainly seem regal and sympathetic. I feel that Krull fully ripped off his character in 1983 in the form of the cyclops, a hulking monster who gains your empathy through self sacrifice. I love the Sinbad series, especially the three from Columbia…which may warrant further inspection.
Peter Mayhew was an actor who thoroughly committed to his roles, and had a level head about him at all times. As a person who stood out for his physical appearance, he regularly spoke about being both fearless about his own experience and grateful to educate others through is art. He will be sorely missed.