The first time that Peter Mayhew met George Lucas for an audition, Peter rose from his chair in courtesy. And rose. And rose.
Peter Mayhew was 7 feet, 3 inches tall. Lucas stared upward at the towering Englishman, turned to producer Gary Kurtz and said “I think we’ve found him.”
“Him” turned out to be Chewbacca, the mighty Wookiee partner of Han Solo in the Star Wars films. An ape-like wall of muscle and hair, the beloved alien co-pilot was a huge part – literally – of establishing that this was indeed a galaxy far, far away.
Chewie continues to roar, on the screen and in our memories. But his original actor has made the jump to hyperspace. Earlier this week, Mayhew – whose height had been a side effect of Marfan syndrome – died from a heart attack.
And for a moment, many of us felt a disturbance in the Force.
It’s funny, really. This wasn’t an actor who died too soon like Carrie Fisher (though 74 still seems too young these days). He hadn’t accumulated a huge body of work like Alec Guinness. In an odd sense, the other Star Wars loss that Mayhew had the most in common with was Kenny Baker, the original player of the droid R2-D2, who passed away in 2016.
R2-D2 was a tiny barrel of a robot; Chewbacca a lumbering ape-like figure. But in both cases, their actors had to bring them to life without a word of dialogue. No English. No subtitles. Just beeps and whirrs from the one, roars from the other, and whatever intention and personality their actions could convey.
I’ve played a lot of roles in community theatre, and watched still more. One of the most fundamental, and difficult, skills is to carry a scene where you don’t speak or speak very little. An actor’s voice is a powerful thing – no, a human’s voice is a powerful thing – and when you take it away, you find out how well-conceived the character truly is. Does the actor know what they want to do? Does it show on their face and in their body? What do they do to make that clear?
Do it badly, and you’re a cipher, a blank spot on the stage. Do it well and you become part of the audience’s heart. It’s one of the oldest adages: show, don’t tell.
And it applies to a lot more than the stage or the screen.
We spend a lot of time surrounded by words. (And as a writer, I say bless you for it.) But we also live in a world where many of those words are disconnected from action, used to hide motivation rather than show it. And whether you call it spin or hypocrisy, the effect is the same one that any cut-rate actor might expect – an unconvinced audience, skeptical, jaded, and rapidly growing tired of the story.
If you took the words away, or dubbed them over with Chewie-like roars, what story would you see?
It’s one thing to profess love for a country, for a neighbor, for a faith. Do the actions bear that out? Do they defend, lift up, heal, build? Or is one story playing in the script and another in their life, like someone reciting Winnie The Pooh while playing out a Tarantino movie?
The audience can tell. And we cherish the true ones.
Mayhew, by all accounts, was one of them, a gentle giant on and off the screen with a heart as big as his frame. His intentions were always clear. It’s how we came to love his character, and how some came to love him as well.
Now his running time is done. But what he’s left behind still stands tall.
That deserves a roar of approval.