The Men Behind the Masks
Chewbacca, Sloth, and Big Bird are all iconic roles, but could you pick any of the actors who played them out of a lineup? Probably not. Let’s take a look at the unheralded men behind the mask, under the makeup, or in the suit for a handful of memorable roles in movies and TV shows.
1. John Matuszak as Sloth
A generation of kids grew up cheering for Matuszak as Lotney “Sloth” Fratelli in The Goonies, but they probably didn’t know that just a few years earlier “Tooz” had heard the cheers of thousands of Oakland Raiders fans. Before he ever became an actor, Matuszak was a heck of a football player; as a 6’8”, 280-pound defensive end he was even the first overall pick in the 1973 NFL Draft.
Matuszak won two Super Bowl rings with the Raiders before retiring after the 1981 season, but he’s most remembered for his madcap personality. “Tooz” would throw back a “breakfast of champions” that consisted of vodka and Valium, brawl with teammates and coaches, and generally wreak havoc on and off the field. No wonder Sports Illustrated named him one of the NFL’s top five bad boys of all time in 2005.
2. Kevin Peter Hall as Harry and the Predator
The late Kevin Peter Hall had quite a bit of range once he got inside a suit. He could play a gentle giant like the Bigfoot Harry in Harry and the Hendersons, or he could kick some butt as a bloodthirsty alien like he did in the first two Predator movies. The 7’2” Hall had previously excelled as a basketball player for George Washington University, and he also had a recurring role on the NBC sitcom 227. The gig on 227 proved to be particularly fruitful for the former Predator; he married star Alaina Reed, who had previously risen to fame as Olivia on Sesame Street.
3. Warwick Davis as Wicket W. Warrick
Movie buffs probably recognize Davis as the title character in Willow and the Leprechaun series, but they might not have known that he broke into acting as an Ewok. When George Lucas was casting Return of the Jedi he put out a series of radio ads looking for people under four feet tall to play the Ewoks. Davis’ grandmother heard the spot and took Davis, who was 2’11” and a rabid Star Wars fan, to audition. After Lucas’s original choice to play Wicket fell ill, Davis nabbed the role of lead Ewok and launched a successful film career.
Interestingly, Davis was only 17 years old when he played the title role in Willow. Although he had to take lessons in sword fighting and horseback riding to prepare for the fantasy film, Davis later said that the toughest part of the role was learning how to act like a parent to his infant co-star. He said on the DVD commentary, “I had to learn parenting skills, which taught me how to hold a baby correctly, how to feed a baby, and worst of all, how to change a nappy, or diaper."
4. Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca
Like the much shorter Davis, Mayhew found his way into films thanks to George Lucas. When Lucas was first casting the Star Wars series, he wanted English bodybuilder David Prowse to play Chewbacca. Prowse wasn’t interested in being a Wookiee, though; he asked to be the man in the Darth Vader suit. Lucas agreed and in turn asked 7’3” hospital worker Mayhew to play Chewie.
An anecdote from the production of The Empire Strikes Back accentuates just how indispensable these costumed actors can be. Mayhew fell ill during one day of filming, and since the producers didn’t want to lose a whole day of work, they put another very tall actor in the Chewie suit. After all, it’s just a suit, right? Turns out it’s not that simple. Mayhew had crafted all of Chewbacca’s mannerisms and his gait based on careful observations of large animals, but the stand-in couldn’t match them. The shots just didn’t look like the real Chewbacca. Eventually Lucas scrapped all of the footage of the impostor Chewie and reshot it with Mayhew in the suit.
5. Caroll Spinney as Big Bird
Spinney has been the man behind Sesame Street’s most iconic resident since the show’s first episode aired in 1969. Although Big Bird is 8’2”, Spinney isn’t as towering as many of the other actors on this list; he’s only 5’10”. Spinney has played Big Bird in the White House for a number of Presidents (his only complaint from these gigs is that Nancy Reagan was rude), and he’s also played another signature Sesame Street role: Oscar the Grouch.
6. Bolaji Badejo as the Alien
Bolaji Badejo was just a Nigerian design student when Ridley Scott put him into millions of audience members’ nightmares in Alien. Scott wanted his extraterrestrial monster to look like no human could possibly be inside the costume, so he sought out an actor who was extremely tall and impossibly lanky. Badejo fit the bill. At 7’2” and incredibly thin, Badejo brought his unique body type to the terrifying role, then never appeared in another film. [Image courtesy FilmGeek.fr; hat tip to reader Kim W.]
7. Dick Durock as Swamp Thing
If not for an NFL trade, we may never have seen Swamp Thing as we know him. Former Marine Dick Durock was living in Pittsburgh with his older sister and her husband, Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Frank Varrichione, when four-time Pro Bowler Varrichione found himself traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 1961.
The trade worked out well for the Rams – Varrichione made another Pro Bowl with the team – but it panned out even better for Durock. He followed his family to Los Angeles and began working out in a gym frequented by a number of stuntmen. Eventually he became a stuntman himself, and in 1982 he took on the role of Swamp Thing for the first of two movies and then 71 episodes of the subsequent television series.