There are plenty of aspects of the series that make Star Wars one of the greatest movie franchises of all time. The story is derivative, but still great, the setting (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”) and some of the concepts like light speed travel and the Force make it a great experience. Above all however, the characters make the series what it is.
Luke, Leia, Han, and all the rest make up an incredible group of ranging and contrasting personalities with a dynamic that contributes to the plot brilliantly despite the poor writing. Yes, the writing was poor… terrible at times. If anything makes the movies hard to watch from time to time, it is the terrible dialogue. But moving back to the characters, one of the most interesting things about a couple of the main characters is that they don’t speak English and have no subtitles. One of these is R2-D2, who provides an element of comic relief through his neurotic, idiotic, paranoid counterpart C-3PO.
The other non-English-speaking major character is the lovable “walking carpet” Chewbacca. He’s the fearless muscle to back up Han Solo’s scoundrel antics. Despite communicating in little more than grunts and roars, Chewie is one of the series’ most popular characters. Despite his role as a major character in Episodes IV through VI, we learn very little about the big guy through those three films. He has a healthy working relationship with Han, develops a kinship with Luke and the droids and eventually comes to deal with Leia, despite her foul attitude toward him during A New Hope.
Most people know that a guy named Peter Mayhew wore the costume, and that Chewie hails from a rain forest planet called Kashyyyk, but for the most part, he remains an unknown for many fans. Here are fifteen facts you didn’t know about the most famous Wookiee in Star Wars.
15. Origin Of The Word Wookiee
For most of us, the first time we saw a Wookiee was during the cantina scene of A New Hope. The line, spoken by Alec Guinness as Obi Wan, went: “Chewbacca here is first mate on a ship that might suit us”. The rest is history. While that was the first time a Wookiee was seen on the screen, George Lucas had used the term for a creature in a movie years before.
Lucas’ first film, THX 1138, told the story of a futuristic dystopian society in which humans are rigidly controlled by robotic police. During a chase scene near the end of the film, one of the robots exclaims “I think I ran over a Wookiee back there”. The line was an improvisation by the actor, and “Wookey” was one of his friends’ last names. This was actually the birth of the term, but the specifics, such as the look and sound of the creatures would come later.
14. The Costume
The Chewbacca costume itself is an impressive piece of work. The original suit consisted of a base suit of mohair (durable goat hair) with yak and rabbit furs sewn in. This original suit was used in the first three movies. A new suit was manufactured for the filming of episode III. This one required a cooling system because Peter Mayhew was 20 years older and needed to not overheat while wearing the suit for several hours at a time.
Many people also don’t know that in the 1970s, when filming was ongoing, Lucas and the producers of A New Hope were pressured to have Chewie wear clothes. Sketches were drawn of him wearing shorts and a utility vest, but ultimately it never became part of the role. Chewie has appeared naked as the day he was born, save for the bandoleer. But really, who on a mission needs anything more than a bandoleer?
13. Chewie’s Age
In the Star Wars universe, humans seem to age at about the same rate as we do on Earth. Obi Wan Kenobi ages from a man in his 20s in The Phantom Menace to roughly late 50s or early 60s in A New Hope. His aging seems pretty normal for a human male. But many other species in that galaxy far, far away live far longer. We know that Yoda was around 900 years old when he died, but it is unclear whether this is normal for his race. In fact, very little is known about his race.
12. The Man In the Suit
We can’t talk about this legendary character without talking about the man who played him. For starters, it was almost David Prowse, the man who played Darth Vader (not the voice), who took the part, but he turned it down, preferring to play the iconic villain instead.
Mayhew stands a massive 7’3 and according to his own telling of the story, all he had to do to earn the role was stand up. He was working as an orderly in a hospital in England before he landed the role. He has Marfan Syndrome which, among other health concerns, generally makes people very tall with particularly long limbs. These days, he doesn’t get around as well as he did in his youth (Mayhew is now 72 years old) and was unable to perform some of the scenes for The Force Awakens. Instead, they hired Finnish basketball player-turned-actor Joonas Suotamo, who stands at about 6’10.
11. That Voice
Anyone who says the sounds of the Star Wars series are not unique or impressive has no idea what they’re talking about. The man to thank for the brilliant sound design is Ben Burtt. He is also responsible for the beeps and boops that come out of R2-D2, lightsaber hums and the crack of lightsaber battles, blaster-fire and of course Darth Vader’s breathing. He also created the signature roars and grunts for the wookies in the series.
To get that distinct sound he took the noises made by a black bear, a badger, a lion, and a walrus. The majority of Chewie’s vocalizations came from a black bear named Tarik who lived at the Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose.
10. His Family
One of the worst hour and a half programs ever to hit the airwaves was the Star Wars Holiday Special. George Lucas hates it, and most people involved are embarrassed for having had a hand in it. It sounds promising on paper. The story saw Han Solo trying to get Chewie home to Kashyyyk for the Life Day celebration. This is the Wookiee equivalent to Christmas. It could have been a campy, “so bad it is kind of good”, type of flick, but instead it was a spectacle of poor acting, terrible dialogue and atrocious production value.
What we did get out of this disaster was some of Chewie’s background story. We meet his father, wife and son: Attichitcuk, Mallatobuck and Lumpawaroo, respectively. The three live back on Kashyyyk and Chewie’s dad is the leader of their tribe.
9. Inspiration For The Character
We know how the costume was made, how the voice was created, we know where the word came from, but we haven’t touched on who was the inspiration for Chewbacca. It was George Lucas’ Alaskan Malamute, named Indiana. According to Lucas, he would ride in the passenger seat of the car, was loyal (they are a great breed, and grow to be quite massive in some cases), very furry, and was a testament to the colloquial term for canines: “man’s best friend”. Many of these attributes can also be said of Chewie.
8. The Wookiee Language
So we’ve already taken a look at how the growls, howls and roars were made, but while it just sounds like a series of those noises, the Wookiee language is called Shyriiwook and is far more complex than it seems.
It is very difficult for non-wookiee’s to speak, given the fact that it is primarily loud roars, which are hard on a speaker’s throat. In the expanded Star Wars universe some characters have spoken a bit of the language but never more than a few words. Many humans such as Han Solo and Rey can understand the language Shyriiwook as well. Many of the words sound the same, but it is a complex language, and in some cases there are multiple words for the same thing.
7. Chewie Eventually Got His Medal
No matter how much you loved A New Hope, that final scene with the medal ceremony after the destruction of the Death Star was painfully awkward. Furthermore, as Chewie quickly became a fan favorite throughout that first film, many fans were infuriated at his getting snubbed for a medal at the end of that scene. Han and Luke got them, but apparently Chewie’s actions and risk were not enough to earn some cred. It is actually widely believed that Carrie Fisher (Leia) was not tall enough to reach above Peter Mayhew’s head (she’s barely 5’1). There are other theories, such as there was not enough money to have more steps added to the set for Fisher or to have another medal made, but for what it’s worth, Mayhew never made a stink, so it was just a fan issue.
In response to the fan reactions to this scene, MTV gave Chewie a Lifetime Achievement Award, with Carrie Fisher presenting the award. She had to stand a few steps above him to actually get it around his neck.
6. Early Concept Art and George R.R. Martin’s Unintended “Involvement”
There were a few sketches considered for the character in the early conceptual days of Star Wars. A few of them looked like a bipedal cat with awkward looking limbs, while other sketches presented a far skinnier character.The picture featured above is of some concept art created by Ralph McQuarrie. This was back in 1975, at a time when Lucas still had Luke Skywalker as a female.
In 1975, George R.R. Martin, who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire (the Game of Thrones book series), had published a short story And Seven Times Never Kill a Man in Analog (a sci-fi magazine) and artist John Schoenherr had drawn the sketch above to accompany that story. McQuarrie then came up with the drawing on the right, which is very similar but had some significant changes such as the bandoleer.
5. Wookiee Culture
While getting to know Chewie, Han and Luke on the Death Star during A New Hope, Leia held a very “untrained eye” opinion of Chewbacca. We all remember the condescension; the “walking carpet” comment and such. But of course, as their relationship grew, she came to recognize the Wookiee for what he and his entire species are. They are highly intelligent, empathetic, strong, loyal creatures.
On Kashyyyk, Wookiees have a complex society and have great loyalty to their tribes and families within those tribes. Bravery and loyalty are of the highest importance to the species. Not much else in the way of specifics is known about these awesome creatures. Of course, anyone who has played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (one of the greatest RPG video games ever made) knows that Wookiees value their claws as tools and consider the use of said claws as weapons to be an act of great dishonor.
4. The Bowcaster
One of the trademarks of Chewbacca is the distinct weapon that he carries. Most non-lightsaber wielding characters in the Star Wars universe carry some sort of a blaster. Whether a rifle or a pistol, these projectile weapons pack a decent punch, but none can hold a torch to a Wookiee bowcaster.
The bowcaster by its very nature is far more powerful than the standard blaster, and as such is seldom handled by non-wookiees. It’s heavy and difficult to control, but every now and again a human can get some shots off. Han Solo, shortly before his demise, used Chewie’s bowcaster briefly during the battle on Takodana. Other than that however, it requires the muscle mass and robust frame only found on a wookiee to fire the weapon rapidly and with consistent accuracy.
While each bowcaster is unique to the wookiee who crafted it, they all function on the same basic principle. They fire a metal projectile that is accelerated not only by the firing mechanism, but also by the two magnetic orbs on either side which give it the appearance of a crossbow.
3. Chewie, Han And The Life Debt
This entry can be taken with a grain of salt, because it has yet to be confirmed by actual Star Wars canon. Of course, “canon” refers only to the films, the rest of the expanded universe, from video games to novels, are true to the ideas of the series, but may well contradict the movies. But this is a complicated issue, and where the line between canon and fan fiction can be drawn for this series is a topic on which a book could be written.
But we digress, moving back to the issue at hand, the semi-official story of how Han and Chewie met is a beautiful one. The quick version is that before he became the smuggling God we know him as, Han was a young Imperial officer. One day his duties saw him ordered to skin a helpless, wounded Wookiee (Chewbacca) aboard an abandoned slaving vessel. He refused, and after a scuffle with his chain of command, he and Chewie were saved by the Rebels, and then set about their own adventures. Much like everyone’s favorite character from the prequels, Jar Jar Binks (don’t worry, that was a joke) did with Qui Gon Jinn, Chewie swore a life to Han. The life debt is a cultural practice among many species in that far, far away galaxy. In short the rules of the life debt are as follows: “save my life, and I’ve got your back until further notice”.
2. Non-Canon Death?
One of the most terrifying thoughts for anyone who read Star Wars literature in the early 2000s was whether or not the plot of the book The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime would have any bearing on The Force Awakens. Thankfully it did not. This novel however, was one of the best pieces of expanded universe work of that time, and detailed a galaxy in which Han and Leia had a couple of kids, and Luke has taken a wife who he has trained in the Force, Mara Jade.
During the book, Han, Leia, Luke, Chewie and the rest of the crew are in the process of rescuing people from a planet that is about to be impacted by its own moon. Ultimately, Chewie ends up spending more time saving kids than looking after himself and gets left on the planet by Anakin Solo (the youngest of three of Han and Leia’s kids). This scene and the aftermath (as you can imagine, Han was furious) were literary tear-jerkers.
1. Chewie Stank For Most of A New Hope
“What an incredible smell you’ve discovered”. It was a well delivered line and opened up a scene that offered not only a tense moment but also plenty of comic relief. The setting itself was of course not an actual trash compactor, but it did involve still water with refuse in it. Whether that refuse is organic waste or just various items found around a movie plot, it starts to stink after sitting for a day or two.
In the case of the cast of A New Hope they were shooting the scene for two days. While there was nothing particularly filthy about the set at the start of shooting the scene, by the end of day one, the water had started to smell foul. While the actors showered after shooting and most costumes could be cleaned, the Chewbacca suit was made of mostly animal fur and soaked up all the smells of the garbage compactor scene. Peter Mayhew was initially hesitant to do the scene at all given this exact concern.