Star Wars writer-director George Lucas got the inspiration for Chewbacca from his Alaskan malamute, Indiana. Lucas remarked that he looked like a "furry copilot" who would sit in the passenger seat of his wife's car when she went driving.
The word "Wookiee" is the invention of disc jockey Terry McGovern, a friend of Lucas. The story goes that the two were riding in McGovern's car and drove over some unknown obstruction. "Sorry, George," McGovern said. "Must have run over a wookiee back there."
As Lucas revised the Star Wars script, Chewbacca went through many changes. The furry smuggler has a few traits that never made it to the screen, including glowing yellow eyes. For more information on the development of Chewbacca, click here.
CREATING THE GROWL
According to the Star Wars: Behind the Magic CD, Chewbacca's voice was a combination of many varied animal sounds from Ben Burtt's collection, including bear, walruses, camels, and badgers. It took about two weeks for Burtt to perfectly record all of Chewie's dialogue on tape. One of the major components of Chewbacca's vocals was the voice of a black bear named Tarik, who lived at the Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California. Sadly, Tarik died in 1994 at the age of 16, of congestive heart failure, liver diesease, and cancer.
However, TheForce.Net reported that Ben Burtt himself said during "The Sound of Star Wars: An Evening With Ben Burtt" presentation (hosted by the American Film Institute) that Chewie was voiced by the bear cub named Pooh. He also explained that to get the extensive dialogue that Chewie has, the bear was starved for a couple days before recording began.
Chewbacca's costume was designed by Stuart Freeborn (who also designed the Ewok suit and numerous other movie costumes), and was knitted from mohair and straight yak hair. Before donning the over-suit, Mayhew put on a leotard. Knitted padding was added to his shulders, chest and back to produce Chewie's broad upper body. The entire costume weighed 15 pounds.
A lightweight, honeycomb plastic formed the skull, while a layer of foam-rubber padding provided the shape of Chewie's head and face. His teeth were acrylic, and numerous toggles around the mouth, eyes and nose provided realistic facial movement. Before his multi-layered mask was put into place, Mayhew had large, black circles painted around his eyes. Although he wore black gloves and boots during filming, these were concealed by long strands of hair.
The suit was so well-conceived that the design was never altered in any significant manner. However, during the filming of A New Hope, the suit needed to be thickened and reknotted because, it was discovered, the suit had a tendency to molt in hot weather. Duplicate portions of the costume were built throughout the trilogy, and Freeborn completed an entirely new suit for ROTJ.
According to Mayhew, the costume was not unduly uncomfortable when he was performing on location. For instance, while shooting in Arizona, he explained that is he faced the wind, he would cool down quickly. However, the suit did become rather hot while shooting beneath the large lights on studio sets. Under normal studio conditions, Mayhew found that he could only keep the mask on for 30 or 40 minutes. Scenes in the carbon-freezing chamber, a set that often exceeded 90 degrees F, proved especially trying. While filming inside the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, a small spotlight actually ignited part of the costume. During the skiff battle in Return of the Jedi, Chewie again caught fire when a spark from a nearby explosion hit the hairy costume. Fortunately, in both instances, the flames were extinguished before Mayhew was injured.
EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE
When Lucas decided he wanted Wookiees to be among the dozens of represenatives in the Galactic Senate scene of Episode I, he turned to TPM Creature Effects Supervisor Nick Dudman. Rather than create a whole new Wookiee suit, Dudman pulled a Chewbacca costume from the Lucasfilm Archives which had recently been used for Chewie's public appearances. To differentiate between the three Wookiee senators that would appear in the film, Dudman added varying amounts of white hair to the costume, and the actor wearing it was shot three separate times.
"We would move the Wookiee into a new position on the set and add more or less white hair to it," Dudman explains. "When the shots were put together, we ended up with three different Wookiees out of one suit."