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Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca in Star Wars, dies at 74

Fans will be able to attend a memorial for the actor in Los Angeles in December.

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Actor Peter Mayhew shared his famed role of Chewbacca with Joonas Suotamo in 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He's seen here attending that film's premiere.
Michael Kovac

For an actor whose voice and face are unknown to most, Peter Mayhew, whose death was announced Thursday, managed to touch the hearts of millions. 

The 7-foot, 2-inch (2.1 meters) actor played Chewbacca in the three original Star Wars films and 2005's Revenge of the Sith, later sharing the role with Joonas Suotamo in 2015's The Force Awakens. Since then, he has consulted with Suotamo on the role, and also consulted with animators and artists who worked to add Chewbacca to the animated series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

Mayhew was 74 years old.

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Mayhew's family announced in a tweet that the actor died on April 30 in his North Texas home with his family at his side.

A funeral service for family and friends will be held in June, but fans will be able to attend a public memorial in Los Angeles in December, the tweet said.

"[Mayhew] put his heart and soul into the role of Chewbacca, and it showed in every frame of the films, from his knock-kneed running, firing his bowcaster from the hip, his bright blue eyes, down to each subtle movement of his head and mouth," the family statement said. "But to him, the Star Wars family meant so much more to him than a role in a film."

Co-star Harrison Ford, who famously flew the Millennium Falcon with Mayhew by his side, issued a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.

"We were partners in film and friends in life for over 30 years and I loved him," Ford said. "Rest easy, my dear friend."

Mark Hamill, who plays Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars saga, remembered Mayhew fondly with a tweet.

"He was the gentlest of giants," Hamill wrote, calling Mayhew "a big man with an even bigger heart who never failed to make me smile, and a loyal friend who I loved dearly."

Joonas Suotamo, who was trained by Mayhew to take over the Chewbacca role, also shared his sorrow.

"[Mayhew] was an absolutely one-of-a-kind gentleman and a legend of unrivaled class," Suotamo wrote in a tweet. "Rest assured that his legacy will live on and the spirit that he gave the character when he first donned the suit will never be forgotten."

Mayhew regularly met fans at Star Wars conventions, and worked with charities including the Make-a-Wish Foundation and the Wounded Warrior Project. He also established the Peter Mayhew Foundation, which his family describes as "supporting everything from individuals and families in crisis situations to [providing] food and supplies for children of Venezuela during their recent road to freedom."

He didn't simply provide funds, his family said, but "became personally involved with each individual, family and cause he supported."

Mayhew wrote two books for children, the anti-bullying book My Favorite Giant and the graphic novel Growing Up Giant. He struggled with various health issues, and had both knees replaced in 2013. 

London-born Mayhew was working as a hospital orderly when he tried out for the role of Chewbacca. On his foundation's website, he related that a photo of him in a local newspaper showing his extreme height caught the eye of filmmaker George Lucas.

"George walked into the room, Peter stood up to shake his hand like a proper Englishmen and the rest is history," Mayhew's site relates.

Mayhew had an active presence online. Back in 2016, he earned raves for responding with good humor to a fan sharing a photo of two vehicles with Star Wars vanity license plates. And when his co-star Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia, died in late 2016, Mayhew told fans it was OK to grieve Fisher's loss, whether or not they had met her in person.

On Thursday, it was time to take Mayhew's advice again, as many fans who'd never met the actor expressed sadness over his loss.

"Chewie meant so much to so many, and that was all due to Peter's excellent heartfelt performance," one fan tweeted on Thursday. "His kindness towards his fans was legendary -- he will be missed."

Mayhew is survived by his wife, Angie, and three children.

Originally published May 2 at 3:44 p.m. PT.
Update, 6:45 p.m.: Adds statement from Harrison Ford.