As the sidekick and co-pilot on Han Solo’s starship the Millennium Falcon, Chewbacca is one of the most beloved characters in “Star Wars.” Loyal and lovable, ferocious but gentle, he’s a powerful warrior as well as an expert mechanic. He’s like a giant teddy bear who could rip your arms off, but would most likely give you a hug instead.
Chewbacca has been a part of the original trilogy and made appearances in both the prequel and new trilogy, and every moment has been awesome. It’s hard to imagine “Star Wars” without Chewbacca, but the movies don’t give a lot of details about him, so let’s fix that. Here are 15 facts about our favorite Wookiee that may surprise you.
15. THE FIRST WOOKIE
As every “Star Wars” fan knows, Chewbacca is an alien known as a Wookiee, but you may not know that George Lucas didn’t invent the word “Wookiee” for his space saga. The name “Wookiee” first appeared in his sci-fi movie released in 1971, “THX-1138.” “THX-1138” was about an Orwellian future city where humans were forced to suppress emotions and were controlled by android police officers.
While making 1977’s “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope,” Lucas had to add some dialogue in post-production and hired a DJ named Terry McGovern. McGovern was recording dialogue for a car chase, and was the one who made up the throwaway line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee on the expressway.” Lucas had no idea what the line meant, so McGovern explained he was just making a joke about a guy he knew named “Wookey.” Lucas kept the line, and ended up using the name in “Star Wars.”
14. CHEWBACCA WAS A DOG
There wasn’t really anything like Chewbacca before his first appearance in 1977’s “A New Hope” as a furry and loyal sidekick to Han Solo. With his shaggy hair, canine muzzle and fierce loyalty, it might not be that big a surprise to know that Lucas’ inspiration for Chewbacca was a dog.
Lucas has said in interviews that the idea for Chewbacca came from his own dog, a huge Alaskan Malamute named Indiana. Indiana used to sit next to Lucas during writing sessions and would ride in the passenger seat when Lucas drove around. Indiana was so big that Lucas thought the dog looked like a hairy co-pilot sitting next to him, which made Lucas think of a hairy and intelligent partner for Han Solo. Oh, and yes, Indiana really was also the inspiration for the name “Indiana Jones,” which Sean Connery mentioned in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Chewbacca really is Han’s best friend.
13. THE “GAME OF THRONES” CONNECTION
When it comes to the design of Chewbacca, all the credit should go to the acclaimed visual designer Ralph McQuarrie, whose artwork inspired the look of “Star Wars.” Lucas gave him the job of coming up with the designs for almost everything, including the robot C-3PO, the stormtroopers, Darth Vader and Chewbacca. In the script and in conversations with McQuarrie, Lucas described Chewbacca as being a huge ape-like creature with long fangs, more like a lemur. McQuarrie took that and ran with it, but later Lucas gave McQuarrie an illustration to build off of that changed Chewbacca.
The illustration by artist John Schoenherr appeared In the July 1975 issue of “Analog Magazine” for the novelette “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man” by George R.R. Martin. Yes, the same Martin who later created “Game of Thrones.” The illustration is strikingly similar to the final illustration McQuarrie created for Chewbacca, except for the rows of breasts on the original. Even Chewbacca’s signature bowcaster is there.
12. CHEWBACCA’S AGE
Now let’s talk about some things you wouldn’t have gotten from watching the movies, like Chewbacca’s real age. Some fans were surprised to see Chewbacca’s cameo appearance with Yoda in the 2005 prequel “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” during the battle on Kashyyyk, which took place 19 years before the original trilogy. In fact, Wookies are famously long-lived, aging much more slowly than humans do.
When we first saw Chewbacca in “A New Hope,” he was already 200 years old. As we saw in “Episode III,” he was a military commander during the Clone Wars, which meant he lived through the Old Republic, the rise of the Galactic Empire, and helped bring the New Republic into existence. His appearance in 2015’s “Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens” showed he’s still kicking 30 years later. That’s a long time, and Chewbacca could probably tell some great stories. Too bad we can’t understand him.
11. CHEWBACCA’S STORY
We know from watching the movies that Chewbacca and Han Solo are best buddies, and work together on the Millennium Falcon, but we haven’t gotten much information about how they met and why they stick together. In the upcoming Han Solo spin-off movie, we’ll probably find out more about their relationship, but fans of the Expanded Universe already know a lot about it.
In 1997’s “The Hutt Gambit,” author A.C. Crispin imagined how Han and Chewbacca became partners. In Crispin’s story, Chewbacca was captured by the Empire, and was about to be killed. Fortunately for him, Han Solo was a lieutenant in the Imperial Navy who got the order to skin Chewbacca. Solo defied the order and freed Chewbacca, leading the Wookiee to swear a life-debt to him. The movies might include some variation of that story or might be something different. We’ll have to wait and see.
10. VADER WAS ALMOST CHEWBACCA
What if Chewbacca was shorter? It’s hard to imagine the towering Chewbacca any other way, but a shorter Chewbacca is almost what happened. Chewbacca has always been played by the imposing 7’3″ actor who played Chewbacca in all the “Star Wars” movies, Peter Mayhew, but that wasn’t the initial plan. Originally, George Lucas wanted the 6’6″ British actor David Prowse to play Chewbacca. Prowse was a championship bodybuilder who was known in the United Kingdom for playing character roles like Frankenstein’s monster and Hotblack Desiato’s bodyguard in the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” BBC miniseries.
When Lucas brought Prowse in, he offered two roles; Darth Vader and Chewbacca. According to interviews, when Prowse saw the concept art, he turned down the role of Chewbacca because he thought playing the villain Darth Vader would be more interesting. Prowse went on to play the body of Darth Vader in the original trilogy, and he made the black armor his own.
9. THE MAN INSIDE
Now let’s get the actual man inside the Chewbacca costume, Peter Mayhew. That furry outfit doesn’t move itself, you know. Before he got the role, Mayhew wasn’t really an actor at all. He was once a hospital orderly whose only previous movie role before “A New Hope” was in 1977’s “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.” Mayhew was spotted by a casting director to be the live-action double of the stop-motion animated Minotaur-like robot, the Minoton.
Mayhem has the connective tissue disease Marfan Syndrome which led to his gigantic height, and he’s said he got the job as Chewbacca just by getting up. When he went to the audition, he was sitting on a sofa waiting for George Lucas, and when Lucas walked in, Mayhew stood up. Lucas took one look up at him and said, “Hmm, I think we’ve found him.” The rest is a very large and hairy history.
8. CHEWBACCA’S PANTS
In case you hadn’t noticed, Chewbacca usually doesn’t wear anything but a bandolier and a smile. That’s right, he’s naked, but it wasn’t always intended to be that way. In fact, Chewbacca’s clothes (or lack thereof) turned into a major problem for 20th Century Fox. In his initial designs for Chewbacca, McQuarrie drew clothes on, including a flak jacket and shorts. Lucas always took them out, because he wanted his hero au naturel.
When “Star Wars” went into production, the studio freaked out over the eight-foot warrior, because Chewbacca was going to be nude, even though you really couldn’t see anything. Apparently, they kept sending notes and concept designs with the Wookiee wearing shorts and baggy pants. Lucas insisted on keeping Chewie a nudist, which is probably just as well. It’s hard to imagine the Wookiee running around wearing cargo shorts. That’s just not right. Let the big lug go natural.
7. CHEWBACCA’S VOICE
As any “Star Wars” viewer can tell, Chewbacca doesn’t speak English or any other language we know. His dialogue is just a series of grunts, growls and roars, but they manage to convey everything we need to know. Everyone in the movies seems to understand exactly what he’s saying, and we kind of do, too, which is a masterpiece of sound design. Chewbacca’s voice is actually way more complicated than you might think.
The sound designer for the original trilogy was Ben Burtt, who also created such classic sounds as the hum of the lightsaber and the screech of the TIE fighter. Chewbacca’s voice was actually one of the first sound effects Burtt created, and it’s a blend of sounds from seven different animals; badgers, walruses, lions, bears, rabbits, camels and tigers. The sounds were mixed and blended together to make the wide range of sounds for Chewbacca, almost like its own language.
6. MAYHEW IS IRREPLACEABLE
At first glance, people underestimate Mayhew’s performance as Chewbacca. He probably just seems like a big guy in a monkey costume lurching around, but in reality, Mayhew’s performance is so unique that he can’t be replaced, and not for lack of trying. There have been times where the studio tried to put someone else in the suit, and there’s a big difference.
Mayhew worked hard, studying monkeys, bears and gorillas at the zoo for ideas on movement, and it shows. One day while filming the original trilogy, Mayhew got sick, so they shot some footage with the stand in. All the footage with the stand in had to be scrapped, because he couldn’t match the body language of Mayhew. In “Force Awakens,” a stand-in took Mayhew’s place in some of the more heavy action sequences, but the rest of the cast has said they can immediately tell when there’s a stand-in for Chewbacca, because they don’t move the same.
5. CHEWBACCA IS A GENIUS
Many people would cross off Chewbacca as a “walking carpet,” like Princess Leia described him, but he’s much more than that. Chewbacca has been Han Solo’s partner for years aboard the Millennium Falcon, and Solo keeps him around for a reason. It’s not just that the Wookiee is strong and intimidating. Chewbacca has also proved himself to be a valuable addition to the team with his engineering and piloting skills.
The Falcon is a heap of junk that’s been kept together with spit and duct tape for decades, and Chewbacca is a big reason why it’s still flying. He’s done countless repairs and jury rigs to make the ship work, and is also an expert pilot. In 1980’s “Star Wars Episode V: Empire Strikes Back,” Chewbacca reassembled C-3PO from a pile of scrap metal. He could have done a better job putting the head on, but (knowing Chewbacca’s sense of humor) that might have been done on purpose, because it was pretty funny.
4. CHEWBACCA’S FAMILY
We’ve never seen any of Chewbacca’s family in the movies, but if you’re one of the lucky (or unlucky, depending on your point of view) ones who saw 1978’s “Star Wars Holiday Special,” then you know Chewie has a wife and kids. Sort of. There’s so much wrong with that ill-fated show that it’s hard to know what to believe, but the family is surprisingly locked-in.
If you’ve never seen it, then you should know that the “Holiday Special” focused on Chewbacca’s life on his home planet, Kashyyyk. Most of it is flat-out terrible, but none more so than the introduction of Chewbacca’s “family”: his father Itchy, his wife Malla, and his son Lumpy. Given the ludicrous nature of this backstory, you’d think it would be ditched along with the rest of the Expanded Universe, but it might not. Despite the fact that Lucas publicly disavowed the “Holiday Special” and actually had very little to do with it, the special was made canon by Lucasfilm. Maybe Disney will let it die.
3. CHEWBACCA DIED
While many fans were disappointed by Disney’s decision to reject all the material from the Expanded Universe (which was every book, comic, game and anything else outside of the original six films and the “Clone Wars” and “Rebels” cartoon series), there’s one thing almost none of the fans will miss, and that’s the death of Chewbacca. That’s right, in the Expanded Universe, Chewbacca was dead. He was killed in the 1999 novel, “The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime.”
The reason is that the editors wanted people to take the books more seriously, so they decided to kill off a major character. They sent Lucas a list of characters they wanted to kill and asked him to choose one. Lucas responded by sending a list of characters they couldn’t kill. Chewbacca wasn’t on that list. Author R. A. Salvatore was ordered to kill Chewbacca against his wishes, and apparently has received death threats over it. It was good to see him back in “The Force Awakens.”
2. CHEWBACCA’S COSTUME
When it came time to bring back Chewbacca in “The Force Awakens,” the studio decided to recreate the original costume instead of using one of the old ones, which turned out to be no easy task. The first Chewbacca costumes were assembled by make-up artist Stuart Freeborn out of knitted mohair (goat and rabbit hair) and yak hair. Freeborn faced a challenge of making Chewie look menacing, but also friendly and loveable, and knocked it out of the park.
After the original trilogy ended, the costume was rebuilt from the ground up for Chewbacca’s cameo in “Sith” using modern materials and a cooling system, but it turned out to be easier said than done. During preproduction of “The Force Awakens,” Creature Effects Supervisor Neal Scanlan had to scrap his first effort and go back to the original costume, because it turned out to be more difficult to copy than he thought.
1. CHEWBACCA’S MEDAL
Now let’s talk about one thing that bothers hardcore “Star Wars” fans more than it should, and that’s Chewbacca’s medal (or really the lack of one). At the end of “A New Hope,” after destroying the Death Star and saving the Galaxy, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca and Han Solo are given an awards ceremony. We see Princess Leia hang medals around the necks of Luke and Han, but there’s no sign of a medal for Chewbacca. Surely, the fans cry, Chewbacca deserved a medal, too?
Well, in 1997, MTV decided to fix that grave injustice by giving the Wookiee a medal. At the MTV Awards that year, Carrie Fisher presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to none other than Chewbacca. Not to Mayhew (although he did wear the costume for the ceremony), but to the character himself. Carrie Fisher had to stand on some steps to reach his head, but she did it. They finally let the Wookiee win.
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