Star Wars: How David Prowse and Peter Mayhew Became Unsung Heroes

David Prowse and Peter Mayhew were two larger than life figures not just because of just their height, but rather they did so much together on screen for the Star Wars franchise without so much as uttering a word. Sebastian Shaw performed the few lines as a dying Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi (1983), neither Prowse nor Mayhew did any speaking in their screen time as they were in masks the entire time. Prowse became the body for Vader during the original trilogy, and Mayhew was the physical presence behind Chewbacca for seven of the nine episodic films. While Chewbacca was created via synthesizer mixed with a dog and Vader's voice dubbed in post-production by James Earl Jones, Mayhew and Prowse provided some of the most memorable and powerful scenes in franchise history.

Star Wars: How David Prowse and Peter Mayhew Became Unsung Heroes
David Prowse as Darth Vader in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). Images courtesy of Lucasfilm

With Prowse's passing on November 28 and Mayhew's in April 2019, let's look back at their contributions and why they're just as important a presence alongside their more famous co-stars. Looking beyond the cheesy MTV Movie Awards Live Time Achievement Award and the Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca became one of the most enduring and endearing characters in the canon. Most associated with the captain of the Millennium Falcon in Han Solo, mostly played by Harrison Ford in the films and Alden Ehrenreich in Solo (2018), the proud Wookie offered so much personality beyond his growls with Mayhew's body language. I would even argue that Ford wouldn't be the actor he became, and Han wouldn't be the charismatic rogue without Chewy to complete him.

Analyzing David Prowse and Peter Mayhew's Screen Presences in Star Wars

Whether if it's acting like Han's muscle or trying to painstakingly tolerate C-3PO's (Anthony Daniels) over-the-top whining, Chewbacca was such a complete character every which way. He can pull off intimidating, scared, annoyed, and remained beloved all at the same time, and he probably gave the best hugs. The only time personally, it felt awkward for me is when he was without his best friend. Yeah, I'm talking to you, Revenge of the Sith (2005) and sequels after The Force Awakens (2015). He just felt forgotten about and lost in the shuffle. To me, the Prowse era Darth Vader represented the best times of the character. I get we're three generations of the films in, but the one that stuck to me the most was the original trilogy. Obviously, given the character's fate in ROTJ, it would be hard to justify his return but thank the Force, Lucasfilm showed restraint given what happened with The Emperor. The other times we saw were the maligned "Noooo" at the end of ROTS and Rogue One (2016), which I can take it or leave it.

David Prowse
David Prowse in 2013. Credit: Xanathon, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Most fans adored him cleaning the house of Rebel scum to bookend A New Hope (1977) at the end of RO, but for me, the scene was just a byproduct of its time. Growing up, Darth Vader never needed to show his brute strength to prove a point. Prowse did that perfectly for me with his bulky figure and subtle hand gesturing. He was power incarnate, not because he can cut you down with a lightsaber. That's too easy. He kills you with a stare or with a simple clench of his hand, asphyxiates you as long as he can see you with his Force choke. It's kept mysterious on purpose, not knowing what he could do if he tried.

Star Wars: How David Prowse and Peter Mayhew Became Unsung Heroes
Peter Mayhew
Photo by Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com

When the prequels came out, that subtlety went out the window, and video game mechanics took over. They took out the mystique of Vader because everything about the Force became micromanaged and stated. Now you have a fan edit of his fight with Obi-Wan Kenobi from ANH, and you have these grotesque overindulgent displays of power that didn't need to remind you how badass Vader is. Look at how he's portrayed not only in ANH but its immediate sequels in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and ROTJ. Compare those to other Star Wars villains and tell me who people still talk about after all these years and why Vader remains the apex predator of the Dark Side.

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About Tom Chang

I'm a follower of pop culture from gaming, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, film, and TV for over 30 years. I grew up reading magazines like Starlog, Mad, and Fangora. As a professional writer for over 10 years, Star Wars was the first sci-fi franchise I fell in love with. I'm a nerd-of-all-trades.
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