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Peter Mayhew remembered: The Star Wars legend and gentle giant I knew

Appreciation: Mayhew's kindness and love for Star Wars made him a fan favorite. Former Lucasfilm staffer Bonnie Burton shares her memories of the Chewbacca actor.

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Actor Peter Mayhew poses with the Chewbacca sock puppet from my Star Wars Craft Book.

Bonnie Burton/CNET

When I was a young geek growing up in the Midwest in the '70s and '80s, Chewbacca defined my childhood. I loved Chewie for being such a loyal sidekick and best friend to the snarky Han Solo. He was the only Star Wars character who could keep Han in check.

But Chewbacca also felt like someone I might hang out with in real life. Or could have if I lived on the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk rather than in Kansas. 

I loved Chewbacca so much that his original Kenner action figure -- which I found as a kid by accident on a dirt road by my house -- sits proudly on my office desk. Sometimes I even carry the toy around with me as a good luck charm. 

So when I heard that Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew passed away Thursday at the age of 74, I felt like a beloved family member left my orbit. 

As a child, I always associated Mayhew with Chewbacca. But as an adult, I was lucky to know him as a kind, generous and funny man in his own right.  

When I worked at Lucasfilm as a senior editor for the website StarWars.com, I always felt honored when my path crossed with his. Whenever he visited Lucasfilm headquarters for a special event, or if he was at one of the many comic book conventions I attended, Mayhew was always happy to say hello and give me one of his famous Wookiee hugs. 

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Getting to chat with Peter Mayhew during his many comic convention appearances was always a treat.

Bonnie Burton

I don't know how he did it, considering the thousands of people he's met over the years, but he always remembered my name. 

Peter's impressive stature, at 7 feet, 2 inches (2.1 meters) tall, made him seem intimidating at first. But his gentle and kind demeanor made me feel instantly at ease.

One of my fondest memories was when I was doing my first book signing for my Star Wars Craft Book at San Diego Comic Con. I was so nervous about meeting fans as an author. Peter stopped by to say hello and pose for a photo holding my Chewbacca sock puppet doll. His visit to my signing gave me the much-needed confidence boost I needed to chat with fellow fans who wanted my signature. 

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Peter Mayhew stopping by my book signing will always be a cherished memory.

Bonnie Burton

But that was Peter Mayhew in a nutshell. He would walk around conventions and say hello to Star Wars artists, comic book creators, cosplayers and other fans, making them all feel like rock stars. Mayhew delighted in seeing fans dressed up in Chewbacca cosplay. He loved it when a young fan greeted him with a Wookiee roar. And he never rushed through a conversation. 

Peter made you feel special whenever he chatted with you. At his own autograph table, he took his time to talk with fans who stood in long lines just to say hello. Whenever I was working at the Lucasfilm area during conventions, I'd make excuses to be near him when he was in deep conversations with fans. 

It was fun to see how happy he made fans by sharing his personal stories about acting alongside Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher in the original Star Wars movies. Peter gave fans something extra special with every interaction. 

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Here's one of the many times Peter Mayhew would chat with Star Wars fans about his favorite memories playing Chewbacca.

Bonnie Burton

Hamill summed it up best when describing Mayhew's loving personality. 

"He was the gentlest of giants," Hamill tweeted on Thursday. The man who played Luke Skywalker described Mayhew as "a big man with an even bigger heart who never failed to make me smile, and a loyal friend who I loved dearly."

Peter will be missed by millions of fans, his costars and anyone who was lucky enough to chat with him -- and get a Wookiee hug.

Originally published 2:39 a.m. PT.