FILMS… Revisiting the Galaxy’s Gentle Giant, Peter Mayhew

 

Recalling Peter Mayhew in two movies released in Summer 1977…

 

Remembering the actor behind two creatures who roared, as a Minoton and Chewbacca.

 


Chewbacca Speaks English, Curt Hanks

 

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the biggest of Star Wars fans. But on hearing my sister had bought us tickets for London’s Spring Comic Con this year, I’d toyed with the idea of meeting Peter Mayhew. Mayhew was due to make an appearance with this Comic Con, a once in a lifetime chance to meet the man behind Chewbacca the Wookiee. This actor often called the gentle giant due to his personality and his height of 7 foot 3 inches.

Up until then, my only Star Wars claim to fame to date was that Mark Hamill had liked a few of my Star Wars related comments on Social Media. In the end, I’d plonked for meeting David Warner, but that’s another story (which can be read about HERE).

It was undoubtedly a shock to hear that Mayhew had recently passed away. This felt quite surreal after being in the same room as him, and having seen him from a short distance exactly two months before. I remembered my sister’s film fanatic fan cursing about forgetting to bring his Terror (1978) DVD with him. As he’d hoped to get this autographed by Mayhew.  The friend then regaling enthusiastically about this film where he reports Mayhew has a great unsung wee role in his horror comedy.

On reading through Mayhew’s Imdb page I’ve only seen a few of his film appearances. With the first of these as the Minotaur creature in the kid’s adventure film, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). This one of those Sinbad (the sailor) movies I remember watching as a kid probably at Christmas or a Bank Holiday.

This film telling how Sinbad (Patrick Wayne) wants to marry Princess Farah (Jane Seymour). The loved up pair need the reigning monarch, her brother, Prince Kassim (Damien Thomas) to approve their wedding. However the evil sorceress – who is also Kassim’s stepmother – Zenobia (Margaret Whiting) has turned Kassim into a baboon. Sinbad has to get the spell reversed, so the big day can happen. Cue adventures with cool Ray Harryhausen stop motion creatures of all kinds…..

This film had Mayhew in his first – sadly uncredited –  role as Minoton the Minotaur.  Imdb explains the Minoton as “a portmanteau of “minotaur” and “automaton””. Mayhew was the “live suit actor stand in” for Harryhausen’s creation. The Minoton appearing to have a small but pivotal role in this Sinbad adventure. This bronze mechanical minotaur created by this evil sorceress. The American Film Institute report that in some scenes to save money, Mayhew played his Minoton role personally wearing a fibreglass costume.

This film full of surprises, primarily that Patrick Wayne played Sinbad. Franco Nero, Michael Douglas and Timothy Dalton also considered for this role.  In addition, this film directed by actor, Sam Wanamaker (star of Baby Boom (1987) and also in a compelling on-screen performance in Voyage of the Damned (1976)).

With no surprise, for the other of these two films, where I’m sure you know the plot.  Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope ( 1977) was Mayhew’s first gig as the World’s most famous wookiee in those Star Wars films. Playing the hero,  Chewbacca – Chewie for short – was Hans Solo (Harrison Ford)’s loyal, brave and strong creature companion. It’s told that Mayhew successfully auditioned for his biggest role, after he stood up to greet George Lucas at the Star Wars casting call.

Mayhew even towered over the man behind the villain of the film, Darth Vader – and the Green Cross Code man – David Prowse. Both actors reportedly were given the choice of who they wanted to play in the movie. With Mayhew choosing to play a hero, Prowse the villain. In 1997, Mayhew won a Lifetime Achievement Award for his character at the MTV Movie Awards.

Mayhew in researching his Star Wars role reportedly studied monkeys, gorillas and bears at London Zoo. He combined their attributes, and mimicked them when portraying this role. I’ve always loved his character’s bromance with Solo throughout the original trilogy and in their all too brief reconciliation in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). It’s kinda fitting that this pair reunited in what would be Ford’s last appearance as Solo. Mayhew sharing his role in this film with his Chewbacca successor.

In this film, I sobbed seeing Ford and Mayhew together again in the Millennium Falcon. I’m sure some of you may have cried at this moment too. He also played Chewbacca in many more Star Wars appearances and in more random shows. These including Donny and Marie (1977)The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) , The Muppet Show (1980) and in commercials.

It was lovely to hear of him in a more recent job as a Chewbacca Consultant. Here he assisted Finnish basketball player and actor, Joonas Suotamo in recreating Chewbacca. With Mayhew’s film parts also including ones I’ve still to discover such as The Tall Knight in Dark Towers (1981) and The Mechanic in Terror.  Mayhew’s cinematic CV sums up perfectly that he had probably some of the best job descriptions for movies. Ever.

Minotaur of “Sinbad” / Stop motion animation, Online Dance Tutorial Group

 

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