Nick Maley recalls a crucial element in the evolution of Chewbacca. ........Ergo
Chewbacca, Chinese soup and the Minotaur's shoes
"If memory serves me right, it was in 1974 that I helped Colin Arthur with the MFX for SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER. Colin's career had gotten a kick-start when he helped Stuart Freeborn on 2001 - A SPACE ODYSSEY and he quickly proceeded as make-up effects designer on a succession of low-to-moderate budgeted, fantasy films. Colin was a good guy. He helped me a lot in those early years.
Part of Colin's tasks on THE EYE OF THE TIGER was to create full size creatures to match Ray Harryhausen's stop motion figures. One of the creatures was the Minotaur, half bull and half man, and we were making a prosthetic suit for the odd shots where the Minotaur was involved in the live action. Well....... the guy inside the Minotaur suit was a very pleasant young man by the name of Peter Mayhew.
A lot of people who go inside suits can be very hard to work with. It's hot and uncomfortable in there! Especially under studio archlamps. They can get irritable, argumentative and sometimes downright resentful. Peter was none of those things. He was (and probably still is) a truly lovable guy, quiet, patient and very helpful. When he wasn't being the Minotaur, he spent his days wheeling people around a hospital on trolleys and in wheelchairs. He was a hospital porter and I believe SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER was his first movie part. Now pushing people around a hospital may not sound like an occupation that is hugely taxing on the interlect but I don't want you to think that Peter was simple minded. You see, Peter had a very unusual problem that discouraged a lot of firms from employing him. He was almost 7'2" tall. The second tallest man in Britain in fact. (Of course this made him ideal for going inside strange mythical character suits and I'm sure the production team probably liked the fact that a hospital porter was a lot cheaper than an Equity member). Being tall wasn't Peter's only problem. He took size 18 shoes. You can't buy those in your local shoe store.
To demonstrate how big this guy was I should tell you that at the time Colin was in the habit of doing pre-production in his terraced home in Chiswick, London. The entire house was like a studio/lab for some demented sculptor-painter with a passion for chemistry. You couldn't move without falling over clay models, discarded molds, modeling tools, paint, brushes, raw materials, nasty looking jars of mysterious chemicals and the odd decomposing remains of some past creation. We used to work long, long, hours so the kitchen became the main relaxation area. It had a central breakfast bar and I remember Peter scrunched up on a stool eating supper there one night. It was Christmas. Colin was up a ladder in one corner of the room putting up Christmas paperchains. He passed the end of the decoration to Peter in the center of the room who reached up and attached it in the other corner of the kitchen....whilst he was still seated! Even a regular doorway offered something of an obstacle to him. He would have to crouch just to get into the room.
"Anyway......... one day Colin told me that Chris Greenaway, (Britain's tallest man), was stopping by and we were going to cast his, and Peter's feet so that the casts could be sent to their shoe maker as templates for new shoes. (When you don't have size 18 feet it doesn't occur to you that nobody makes shoes that big and these guys were supplied footware on the National Health System!). Chris was an accountant, he wasn't interested in making movies, (he just wanted a pair of shoes), but you know, having these 2 huge guys sitting in a room.............. It was quite a trip. "
When we were finished, Colin's girlfriend and chief helper, Marian Nicholson, suggested we go out to the local Chinese restaurant. Imagine the scene. It's 9 o'clock at night. There's me, (I'm a little guy), then there's Colin, (he's maybe an inch taller than me), and Marian, (who's a few inches shorter), and none of us are exactly slim. We're strolling down the street with these 2 giants like a bunch of toons who just escaped from Disneyland! I go in the restaurant first and the place is completely empty except for this one little Chinese guy sitting at a table, quietly eating a bowl of soup. He never stops spooning it into his mouth. He looks across at me as I come in........ and Colin and Marian come in behind me......... You can see him slow down spooning this stuff into his mouth as Peter, this huge 7'2" guy, crouches down and squeezes into the restaurant. When Chris, this even bigger guy squeezes through the doorway and raises to his full height with his head just a few inches from the ceiling, this little Chinese man, who's smaller than all of us, slowly gets up, still spooning soup into his mouth, and quietly backs out into the kitchen without a word. We never saw him again!
But I'm getting off track. I know, you're asking yourself, "What does any of this have to do with Chewbacca?"
Well....... a year later I worked at EMI Studios on a moderate budget SciFi movie destined to rock the world. It was called STAR WARS. I'd been asked by Stuart Freeborn to help him in the Creature workshop. It was a privilege to be one of six people that helped create the creatures for the main unit shoot in the Cantina. The Creature Workshop as we called it was not the splendid facility you might imagine. It consisted of two rooms, one barely more than a store room housing a custom built "eyeball" vacuum machine of Stuart's design. The other measured perhaps twenty feet by thirty feet and was previously known as "The Old Schoolroom."
As a department we seemed to have very little guidance from the production team. Admittedly, I didn't sign on at the very beginning and Stuart always kept his consultation with the production staff confidential, but there were no drawings that I saw. Chris Tucker and Charlie Parker had specific projects (the ill fated praying mantis and the Uglies), other than that it seemed that Stuart would discuss whatever needed to be done with Graham Freeborn and we would just get on with it. We would finish one project, grab a lump of clay and start something else. Stuart told us what he liked and what he didn't and we rarely saw George Lucas ( who was known around the set as "The Guv'nor").
One exception to this scenario occurred soon after I started on the picture. Stuart was modeling Chewbacca but the details were not finalized. George Lucas wandered into the workshop with a laid back air that seemed typical of him at that time. He held up a picture of his dog and said to Stuart, "Chewbacca should look something like this". Stuart pinned the picture up next to the clay model and that was all the direction I ever heard him get.
"Nobody knew at that time how huge STAR WARS would become. I certainly didn't realize that Chewbacca would play a pivotal role in my life. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I need to back up a little.
"Before I even started on STAR WARS, (actually while I was trying to get on it ), I was over at Graham Freeborn's house one day. He and I were close friends having spent 8 weeks on location in Morocco together on YOUNG WINSTON. He taught me to play backgammon and his wife, Shiela used to feed me when I was struggling to break into the business. We were discussing STAR WARS and he told me about the Chewbacca suit, and how they planned to use built up shoes and an extended scull shape to try to make the character 8 feet tall. However, he thought they were going to have difficulty making that work realistically since the tallest performer they could find was only 6'10".
"So it was that I told him about this lovable guy that I had met on SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER........ and Graham told Stuart......... and Peter Mayhew, the hospital porter, landed a staring role in the world's most successful Scifi movie series..... and later went on to do the university talk circuit across America.
Stuart never said anything about it, but I always felt that my helping him find a suitable Chewy probably influenced his decision to use me on the movie. In hindsight, this one turn of events and coincidences probably changed my life, as it changed Peter's life, forever.
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