When we began it was just another film,” says actor Peter Mayhew, “and by the time the negative was in the can we thought we’d been in a pretty good film.” It just happened to be Star Wars, which is about to knock off Jaws as the biggest-grossing movie in history. But though he played the biggest star (by 7 inches) in Star Wars—Chewbacca, the charming 7’3″ “wookie” co-pilot of the pirate spaceship—Peter is now supporting himself slopping bedpans and swabbing floors at Mayday Hospital in suburban London. The salary’s such a pittance (even with overtime for weekends) that bachelor Mayhew at 33 has had to move back in with his folks.
Peter was cast not only for his bulk (out of wookie suit, he’s a mere 7’2″) but also for his screen experience as the minotaur in Sinbad and the Eye of the Golden Tiger. He shot Star Wars on a 12-week leave from the hospital, where he’s toiled since 1961. The producers paid him $450 a week, but he did not get a piece of the action that’s now pushing $150 million.
It says High & Mighty in his clothes, but that has nothing to do with Peter’s post-postmovie airs—it’s the label of London’s only shop that can fit the chap who claims to be “about the third tallest man in Britain.” The son of a 6’1″ policeman-turned-cabbie, Mayhew reports, “Safe to say, I was never bullied in school.” Life has been harder since. “London’s buses are a disaster. Telephone booths are sheer murder—the receiver seems like it’s down around my knees.” In movie houses, out of deference to everyone but his lady friends, he politely scrunches into the back row.
As for taking a back seat in the Star Wars proceeds and glory, Peter is uncomplaining, even though he missed out when those two hardware heartthrobs R2-D2 and C-3PO implanted their feet in the hallowed cement at the old Grauman’s Chinese Theater. (Many of Mayhew’s English mates, who did 90 percent of the film’s donkey work, are miffed that it is being called a Hollywood triumph when most of the shooting took place there and in Tunisia.) Mayhew isn’t making any wookie growls about the injustice of it all, though, because, along with Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, he has been lined up for the sequel. That means a year from now Peter will be relaunched out of the bedpans and into the star fire.