I Tortured Chewbacca
Out of all of the Star Wars life forms, the wookies are the best. They’re a combination pet, best friend and handy fixer-upper. They are wonderful companions who fight by your side while making growling noises, but they can also repair your broken space vehicle.
I am a Star Wars and Star Trek nerd, and I can hold my own in any Comi Con conversation on whether Hans Solo shot first and what the Borg represents in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Years back, when I heard rumors that for Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, there would be a full on battle on Kashyyyk, planet of the wookies, I became even more obsessed with the tall furry creatures and I did everything I could to get cast as a wookie extra, but I never made the cut.
Chewbacca, of course, is the most bad-ass wookie of them all, and my hero. He helps save the galaxy, he’s great with a wrench, he’s loyal, super-intelligent and his life span is over two centuries.
Unfortunately, I have a dirty little secret. I managed to frustrate Peter Mayhew, the actor who plays Chewbacca so much that he begged me to stop torturing him, and I’ve been ashamed ever since.
In 1997, MTV awarded Chewbacca a Lifetime Achievement Award at the MTV Movie Awards. In a roundabout way, I was involved in the production of that particular TV show. One of my tasks was to send Peter Mayhew, who lived in England at the time, the crucial information he would need to come to Los Angeles, and to make his appearance in costume as Chewbacca, and then receive his distinguished award. There were contract adjustments, scripts, hotel reservations, plane and car service and restaurant information -- I had stacks of documents to send to him from Los Angeles.
I didn’t want to bother my hero with an actual phone call, and I was too nervous to actually talk to him anyway. There was no need. After all, his agent and the VP of Talent and Specials at MTV had arranged all that. I just had to make sure he got his documents. That was my job.
This was pre-email in 1997, so they gave me his fax number. Faxes was the fastest way to go then. Actually, I got both his fax numbers. Plural -- the man had TWO! I figured one must be for his office, and the other must be for his agent’s office. Or one must be for his London office, and the other was for his mansion in the country.
So I started sliding the documents in the tray, dialing the number and hitting Send. Sometimes it would go through, and sometimes it wouldn’t. Actually, most of the time it wouldn’t. So I kept dialing and kept trying, and when one number didn’t work, I’d try to other one. The fax machines in the office were cumbersome and hard to use, and I had dozens of pages to send him, so I started to take the documents home. I was so intent on making sure he got his paperwork, I was fine with running up my phone bill so that my hero could get his international faxes.
Sometimes, I’d dial his fax numbers at 6 p.m. at night, and I’d keep trying every hour, at 6, 7, 8, and then 9 p.m. Yes, I am aware that there is an eight hour time difference between London and Los Angeles.
What I did not know, because no one knew, was that Peter Mayhew’s fax number was actually his home phone number. His home phone numbers, actually. Plural. There was no London office, no mansion in the country, no high-powered agent’s office. There were two phone lines in house...or flat...or wherever he lived.
I was calling Chewbacca’s house in the middle of the night, and I’d keep calling, ever hour. His phone would ring at 2, then 3, then 4 in the morning. I suspect that he had a phone/fax machine combo on one line, so that if you answered and heard the buzz of an incoming fax, you could hit receive and paper would spew out with the message. Sometimes he would rush to answer the phone, pick it up, and hear a fax tone, and then hit the receive button and it went through. When it didn’t go through, I imagine that he just didn’t want to get out of bed, so he’d just let it ring. But then, just as he was drifting off...his other home phone would ring. Me, the dedicated jackass in Los Angeles, was so intent on sending him his faxes, I would then start dialing the other number at three in the morning.
This went on for four days.
In retrospect, I now imagine him going to bed and pulling up the covers, wondering whether the jackass would call that night. Then, when the jackass did call, he would awaken and then lie there and decide whether he should leap out of bed or not, or wait...but if he didn’t answer then a few minutes later, the other phone would ring. It must have been torture. If he was in a flat, his neighbors may have heard it as well, and hated him for it.
For the first few days, in my stupid enthusiasm, I never noticed how the second fax number I was dialing never worked. No fax EVER went through on it. The first number sometimes worked, but when it didn’t I’d diligently dial that second number and walk away and let the fax machine do it’s thing. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. It automatically would dial it again and again.
On the fifth day, I looked at my confirmation of delivery fax reports and noticed the difference in success rates between the two lines. The fax machine was dialing, connecting, but the fax was never going through. In fact -- it was happening right then, as I was standing in front of the machine.
So, on a whim, I picked up the receiver. For the first time in five days.
I heard Peter Mayhew’s voice --
I inhaled sharply when I heard his voice, and he must have heard it --
Please! Who are you? Why are you doing this to us? We need to sleep, in God’s name please stop calling us! What do you want!?
Chewbacca had lost his wits. My hero was desperate. I had driven him insane. So I did what any rational caring person would do in that situation, when his hero is in pain from the torture of sleep-deprivation.
I hung up on him. And I never mentioned it to anyone, ever, until now.
Peter Mayhew got his faxes, and he made it to the MTV Movie Awards, George Lucas was there, and Carrie Fisher was there. I was in the audience, and backstage, and I saw the large trunk arrive from LucasFilm that contained the actual Chewbacca costume. I saw Chewbacca backstage, and was there when this photo was snapped. But I didn’t dare introduce myself. He must have figured out that some jackass from MTV was calling him, but he never complained to any higher-ups, and no one ever found out that I tortured Chewbacca.
Some fun wookie facts:
The wookie planet of Kashyyyk was also the setting of the rarely seen Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978, which was supposedly one of the worst and most surreal pieces of TV sci-fi variety ever made. George Lucas has tried to destroy every copy of that TV show.
Chewbacca's voice was created by the original films' sound designer, Ben Burtt, from a mix of recordings of walruses, lions, camels, bears, rabbits, tigers and badgers in Burt's personal library.
In the Empire Strikes Back, another actor played Chewbacca because Mayhew was ill, but his performance was so lacking in creativity and “wookie-ness” they had to reshoot all his scenes.
I have a Chewbacca pez dispenser.
Peter Mayhew will reprise the role of Chewbacca in the upcoming Star Wars VII, set 30 years after the Return of the Jedi. I will be doing my best to wear a wookie suit and be an extra. Maybe then I will confess my crime to Chewie.
Here is a link to him getting his award: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUXIz8C3028