Peter Mayhew: A Member of the Family

Sunday afternoon in Marriott A601-602, friends, loved ones, and fans of Peter Mayhew gathered to share their memories and love for the man who created one of American film’s iconic characters: Chewbacca the Wookiee from Star Wars. Bryan Young, Albin Johnson, Cheralyn Lambeth, and Ryan Ziegler guided the hour. This was not a Q&A. Rather, the session was an opportunity for people who knew, appreciated, and loved the man to come together to find solace in the company of one another.

As each panelist introduced themselves, a recurring theme immediately appeared: Mayhew was always in the moment when working with the fans. He was kind and loved them, and no matter what his struggles may have been, he had the ability to turn “it” on, focus on those fans, and give them not only his full attention but his energy as well. Young noted that the first time he met Mayhew, he was amazed by the warmth radiating from the man, and noticed that Mayhew’s attention was directly on him. In subsequent interviews with Mayhew, Young noticed the very same focus and energy. Ziegler added that Mayhew kept everything his fans sent him. He actually had a building at his home containing his massive collection, which included everything from drawings produced by 4-year-old children to letters from J.J. Abrams.

The discussion then turned to Peter’s relationship with Dragon Con. When Young met with the Star Wars track director to prepare for this panel, the word “family” continued to come up. Ziegler highlighted the concept through his comparison between San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) and Dragon Con. SDCC was “corporate.” Artists get in, they sign things, meet people, interact with fans where they can, then get out. Dragon Con, on the other hand, is just family. At SDCC you get down to your table as fast as you can, while at Dragon Con you come down to get coffee two hours early and hang out to play chess with the Jawa. Mayhew enjoyed not just his days at Dragon Con but his evenings as well. As Johnson declared, you may be holding a pint while Peter was holding a pitcher, but the warmth and the comfort of family and friends was always there.

Every Star Wars actor has a unique personality. Carrie Fisher exploded into a room with energy, personality (and glitter) while, noted Ziegler, Mayhew was actually a bit of an introvert. He wasn’t by nature an outgoing person, but every time a child or an elderly fan came up to him, he would take the time to talk to them, even with a three-hour long line.

Mayhew physically made Chewbacca. To watch him move was to watch his character. According to Ziegler, every non-verbal signal Mayhew sent was Chewbacca’s. It was so much the case that toward the end of his career a lot of work had to be done to prepare both his stand-ins and his successor. Mayhew stood a full 7 feet 2 inches tall, with very large hands. Casts of his hands had to be taken so that custom gloves could be produced for his stand-ins to wear. While on the set for the entirety of Episode 7, he worked hard teaching the next generation. Every movement in the original series had to be re-created in the new trilogy, and it took a tremendous amount of work.

Mayhew was dedicated to his role as Chewbacca. In 2013 he found out that a casting call in the UK had appeared for an extremely tall actor with blue eyes and long arms. He called Disney and found out that they were concerned about his ability to handle the role physically, and thought it best to seek out another actor. In response to his query, they told him that in order to keep the role he needed to meet a series of physical tests. That conversation occurred just two days after Mayhew had gone through double knee replacement surgery. With only four months to prepare for his test, Mayhew went to the gym 3 hours a day, seven days a week. When the day came, he hit every mark Disney had set and got to keep his role.

Angie Cigainero, his wife of twenty years, then joined the panel to share some of her memories. In one poignant reflection, she commented on the depth of Mayhew’s intelligence and thought. During a visit to a Wounded Warrior hospital she took a moment to step out of the room and when she returned all the patients in the room were sitting around him (like children) listening as he regaled them with Star Wars stories. Ever the storyteller, to understand the depth of his thinking, and his unique genius, one had to listen to his entire story.

Mayhew was a big man with an even bigger heart. From the R2-KT organization and the ongoing work of the Mayhew Foundation, which continues to support and assist families through a variety of charitable organizations, to his providing prizes for all the contestants in a Dragon Con costume contest because he simply couldn’t pick a winner, it was his compassion, warmth and heart that defined the man. Star Wars track director Brandy summed it all up with simple elegance when she declared: “We will miss him forever.”

In what is quite possibly a Dragon Con first, the session concluded with a Wookie “salute” and a bagpipe tribute from “pipe-trooper” Joe Ogulin. As the song of the pipes echoed through the room, those in attendance stood in silent homage to Mayhew, a member of the family.

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