During this season to be jolly, we are commonly entertained by Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Here are some Dickensian tidbits that can be used to enlighten your theater companions during intermission at this year's presentation of A Christmas Carol (which, by the way, was first published 165 years ago, on December 19, 1843).
1. Dickens (1812-1870) put his pen to paper at an early age, submitting accounts of fires and other mishaps to the British Press starting at the age of 12. As a young man, Dickens was a tremendously successful reporter.
2. His early pseudonym was "Boz," and most of what he wrote under this moniker was later published in a collection called "Sketches by Boz" in 1836. A lesser known (and lesser used) pseudonym was "Timothy Sparks."
3. Dickens' novel Nicholas Nickleby was one of many Dickens works that were published serially. Theater-goers, however, have had the dubious privilege of seeing the entire story presented in one fell swoop. Playwright David Edgar and the Royal Shakespeare Company brought it to the stage in London's West End in 1980, with a production that lasted 10 hours (including intermissions and a dinner break). Whew! Nevertheless, the daunting length was no setback, as the production drew critical acclaim and moved to Broadway the following year. You can schedule your own potty breaks when you opt to watch it on DVD.
4.A Christmas Carol is actually the short title for A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. It has been made into countless theater productions and films. Oldsters remember the Mister Magoo version in 1962, with the voice of Jim Backus as Mister Magoo and Ebenezer Scrooge. Thirty years later Michael Caine supplied the voice of Scrooge in The Muppets Christmas Carol with Gonzo as Dickens the narrator. But Thomas Edison had a leg up on both of these; he filmed a version in 1908.
5. Dickens loved animals, particularly dogs. However, one of his favorite pets was a raven he called "Grip."
6. With his wife, Catherine Hogarth, he had 10 children, several of whom were named after writers he admired, such as Alfred Tennyson, Henry Fielding, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
7. Dickens was a details guy, and his last will and testament was no exception. Noting that he had expended quite a lot of money in maintaining his large family and providing for his wife, from whom he separated after 24 years, he instructed thusly (and, in typical fashion for wills at the time, with a dearth of punctuation):
I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive unostentatious and strictly private manner that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial that at the utmost not more than three plain mourning coaches be employed and that those who attend my funeral wear no scarf cloak black bow long hatband or other such revolting absurdity.
Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.
1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.
The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.
2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.
The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.
3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.
In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.
4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.
Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.
5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.
For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.
6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.
To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.
Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.
7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.
The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”
8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.
Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”
9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.
In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”
10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.
Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.
11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.
Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”
12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.
According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.
13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.
Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.
14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.
During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.
15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.
David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca. When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”
Additional Sources:Star Wars DVD special features The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler