Saturday, May 4, 2019

May the Fourth Be With You! 2019

We're in the last year of Star Wars movies but on this Star Wars day--May the Fourth--I'd like to look back and remember two who have left us.

Peter Mayhew died last week, on April 30, 2019. Star Wars fans know him as Chewbacca, Han Solo's sidekick and co-pilot. Born on May 19, 1944, he was not an actor at all until George Lucas cast him as Chewbacca in 1976. The three main actors get lots of credit for the success of Star Wars, but can you imagine the original or its two sequels without Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca? It's a sad thing to contemplate.

Strangely, Chewbacca began life as a pointy-eared alien. Only later was he softened into a furry and lovable creature. The artist who first depicted him was a Hoosier, Ralph McQuarrie, who was born on June 13, 1929, in Gary, Indiana. McQuarrie wasn't in the movie business, either, until shortly before George Lucas hired him to create pre-production artwork for Star Wars. He went on to work on many more movies. A great deal of the look and mood of the Star Wars universe is based on his work. Ralph McQuarrie died on March 3, 2012.

As it turns out, Chewbacca's final appearance was inspired by the works of another artist and another writer. The writer was someone you might have heard of, George R.R. Martin, who wrote a story called "And Seven Times Never Kill Man," which was published in Analog in July 1975. The artist was John Schoenherr (1935-2010), who illustrated Mr. Martin's story and provided a painting for the cover of Analog that Star Wars fans will, I think, find very familiar. (In addition to Chewbacca, think Ewoks.) Michael Heilemann tells the full story on his very fine blog Kitbashed: The Origin of Star Wars, here.

Early promotional poster artwork by Ralph McQuarrie, dated April 1, 1975. The tall, pointy-eared alien is an early version of Chewbacca. Note the resemblance of the Luke Skywalker-like character to George Lucas and the golden robot to the figure in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. You can see why McQuarrie's pre-production paintings of Star Wars helped to sell Twentieth Century Fox on the project. It must have been this version of Chewbacca to whom Carrie Fisher referred in her audition for Star Wars.

Here's a sketch of the new, furry Chewbacca. The body and the getup are mostly the same. It's the head and arms that have changed, based on inspiration by science fiction artist John Schoenherr from 1975.

Here is Chewbacca with the other principals on Tatooine. Painting by Ralph McQuarrie.

And here he is again on the Death Star in another of McQuarrie's famed panoramic paintings.

Original text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley, with acknowledgments to Michael Heilemann for his research on the origins of Chewbacca.