The sad news has broken that actor Peter Mayhew, who portrayed Chewbacca in the STAR WARS franchise until handing over the role to Joonas Suotamo for THE LAST JEDI, died on April 30th at the age of 74.
Chewbacca has always been a strange sort of character, even by the fantastical standards of STAR WARS. A ‘walking carpet’ (to use Princess Leia’s turn of phrase) who seems permanently stuck with the same facial expression and who is only capable of producing a peculiar series of howls, yelps, and roars, he’s never been the most rounded personality in film – let alone the series.
And yet somehow, although Chewbacca may not have a deep personality, he’s certainly characterful. Even though he can’t speak, audiences have a clear idea of who he is – and as a result, defying the odds, he has gone on to become a fan favorite.
There’s an important lesson for writers to learn here about how to shape a character without resorting to the clichés of tragic backstories or awkward exposition. So how is it that the walking carpet won people’s hearts?
The answer lies in his interactions with other characters – which although simple, are also extremely endearing. He lacks much agency of his own, instead always following Han Solo around – but he’s always there, always constant, always loyal.
His reaction to being reunited with his closest friend in RETURN OF THE JEDI – hugging Han and fondly stroking his hair – shows just how much he cares. So too does his farewell hug to Luke in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and his determination to repair C-3PO after the droid has been attacked.
It’s also telling how the other characters treat Chewbacca. Aside from Leia’s insult after she’s first met him, he’s consistently treated with respect and fondness by everyone. Their views towards him help to shape ours. Writers should take note of this; a character doesn’t need to say a lot (or anything at all!) if other characters are saying good things about them.
The other important lesson for writers is to trust their actors to bring the characters to life. A talented actor can bring a huge amount of personality to a character without needing to say a single word, and that was what Peter Mayhew did. After all, it’s no easy task to portray a character with so much heart from behind such a thick layer of fur.
We never saw his face in any of the STAR WARS films he was in – but the impact Peter Mayhew had on the series will always be felt.