About two decades ago, when I was running Atomic Comics, a comic book store, and writing comics on the side, I was at the San Diego Comic-Con with friends. That’s when I first met Chewbacca, or more accurately, Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca, and his wife, who wore a name tag at the convention that read, “Mrs. Chewbacca.”
One of my friends, Ilan, is a huge Star Wars fan, and he had lugged a prize with him from Providence. It was an original Star Wars poster, signed by some of the actors from the movie. It was his intention to meet Peter Mayhew and get his autograph on the poster. I tagged along.
Peter Mayhew and Mrs. Chewbacca were perfectly pleasant. They had a table in the autograph area where they sold glossy photos and paraphernalia to fans who weren’t as prepared as my friend Ilan. An 8×10 glossy might run you $30, signed by Chewbacca himself.
Peter Mayhew used a walking stick to get around. His health was not great at this point of his life, and Mrs. Chewbacca not only looked after him, she did most of the wheeling and dealing at the table. Ilan presented the poster and asked for a signature.
“That’s $20,” said Mrs. Chewbacca, to my dismay.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “The rules at Comic-Con say that if someone presents something for you to sign, the signature is free. You can sell a photo with a signature for money, but if I already have a photo, you have to sign it for free.”
“No,” said Mrs. Chewbacca, doubling down. “That’s $20.”
“This is a rip off,” I said.
“Steve, it’s okay,” said Ilan, ponying up the cash. “I don’t mind.”
I seethed. It thought it was wrong for an actor to take advantage of his fans like this, especially when it was clearly against the rules. To be fair, this was between the period of the first three Star Wars movies and the later prequels. Mayhew hadn’t worked in years, and for all I know he and Mrs. Chewbacca needed the money. But I hated watching my friend be ripped off.
Nevertheless, Ilan seemed satisfied with the experience.
After this disappointing meeting with Chewbacca, I met other friends for lunch at a downtown San Diego restaurant. There were maybe five of us at the table. I told them about how Chewbacca ripped off Ilan.
“Keep it down, Steve,” said my friend Chris. “Chewbacca’s in the booth right behind you.”
I scoffed, thinking Chris was kidding.
“Yeah, right,” I said. “What’s he going to say?” Then in answer to my own question, I did my best impression of a Wookie roar, something like, “Hroonk!”
My friends were all aghast. I turned and there’s Peter Mayhew, Mrs. Chewbacca, as well as the actors who played R2-D2 and C-3PO, sitting in the booth behind me, with other people I didn’t recognize.
For the rest of the lunch I was very quiet.
On the plane back home from San Diego, I sat with my friend Brian. As we were waiting for takeoff, I told Brian about my encounters with Chewbacca, explaining how stupid I felt, and included the Wookie roar as an exclamation point in my story. It was embarrassing, I thought, but also kind of funny.
Brian looked at me like I lost my mind.
“Dude,” said Brian, throwing a thumb over his shoulder. “Chewbacca’s on this plane.”
I craned my neck and looked across the aisle and two rows down. Peter Mayhew was glaring at me, and Mrs. Chewbacac had her arms crossed.
It was a long flight to the Chicago hub.
Two years later I was in New York, at another comic convention. My friend Dan was with me. He knew the story about Chewbacca and thought it was hilarious. We were making our way through the thick crowds, and sometimes the aisles at the convention were so crowded we could barely move.
“You know,” said Dan, “Chewbacca’s at this convention.”
“I’m not trying to harass Chewbacca,” I said to Dan. “Really, I don’t care about Star Wars or Chewbacca at all, and I’m not trying to keep some sort of pretend feud going.”
Of course, I said this while standing right next to the table Chewbacca and Mrs. Chewbacca were seated at, selling autographs. I don’t know if they heard what I said or not. I just avoided that part of the convention for the rest of the show.
That was my last interaction with Peter Mayhew, the man who played Chewbacca. Peter Mayhew died in April of this year so I’ve been thinking about the ways I accidentally insulted him. I feel bad about it, though I’m sure I’m far from the worst person he’s had to deal with at a comic book convention and doubly sure that his meetings with me were not nearly as memorable as my meetings with him.
From all I’ve read, Peter Mayhew was a good and kind man.
When Star Wars came out in 1977, I was 14 years old. I saw that movie maybe 100 times in theaters over the next few years.
There was a cinema in Warwick, where I grew up, that played Star Wars on a loop, from about noon to 10pm everyday, for a 99 cent admission. I would bring my bicycle into the theater with me and park it in the aisle next to me. After a while the movie would just be playing as background as I read books (and comics) in the theater.
I get it. I’m a nerd.
Chewbacca was a very big part of my life growing up, even though I probably didn’t really get that at the time. Looking back, I really appreciate Mayhew’s performance – his kind eyes radiating intelligence and compassion through all that makeup and fur. He made Chewbacca a person, not just a puppet of special effect.
One final bit: I mentioned that my friend Dan thinks my Chewbacca story is hilarious. At a convention he attended years later, he approached Peter Mayhew, purchased a photograph and had him sign it as a gift to me:
“To Steven Ahlquist, My Good Friend, Peter Mayhew, Chewbacca”
Rest in peace, my friend. Thank you.