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9 Famous People Who Started as Disney Park Characters

A couple of years ago, I did a post on celebrities who got their first tastes of the entertainment biz by working at one of the Disney Parks, whether they did tricks at the Magic Shop (Steve Martin) or cracked wise as a Jungle Cruise skipper (John Lasseter). But which celebs might you actually spot next to your terrified little brother in your family photo album? Here are a few.
 
1. Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson kept pretty busy at Disney World in Orlando - he was Aladdin, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and Prince Eric in the Little Mermaid show. I think I was in fourth grade when I visited what was then Disney-MGM Studios; I was super excited to see Donatello roaming the fake streets of New York. When I stood in front of him so my mom could snap a picture, he put his three-fingered hand on my shoulder and squeezed so hard I’m actually wincing a little in the picture. Was that you, Kevin Richardson? Not cool.

2. Check out young Michelle Pfeiffer. You can totally see her as Alice in Wonderland, can’t you? One of her first jobs in entertainment was portraying Disney’s version of the Lewis Carroll ingenue in the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland.

3. Kevin Costner met his first wife, Cindy, at work in the Anaheim park. Cindy was busy signing autographs and posing for pictures as Snow White while Kevin apparently told terrible jokes on the Jungle Cruise. You can tell he's been influenced by the cheesy script - when a reporter once asked him where he found the guts to ask Snow White for a date, he replied, “Easy - I was her Prince Charming.” Unlike Snow White and her Prince, however, Kevin and Cindy divorced in 1994.

4. A lot of people think it’s air conditioned inside of those big costumes, but Wayne Brady is here to tell you it’s not. “Inside that costume it was about 90,000 degrees,” he said. A 16-year-old Brady was playing Tigger in a parade at one of the Orlando parks when he passed out from the heat. “I should have paced myself. But I fell flat on my face. They carried me off with my recorded voice still going, ‘Ooh-hoo-hoo!”

5. Alyson Reed has kind of come full circle with Disney - she played Alice at Disneyland back in the late ‘70s, but these days she’s better known as Mrs. Darbus from the High School Musical movies. In between her Disney stints, she had a ton of parts in some pretty notable TV shows and also did some Broadway.

6. I don’t tend to remember Miss Americas, really, but for some reason I remember Leanza Cornett. I think it might be the distinctive name. Anyway, before Leanza wore the sash and tiara of Miss America in 1993, she was the first live-action actress to play Ariel from The Little Mermaid. She didn’t sign autographs in the park, though - she played Ariel in the Voyage of the Little Mermaid show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. What’s slightly odd is that the next Miss Florida also played Ariel in the same show after Leanza left. Is there a Mermaid Conspiracy?!

7. Remember Katherine Harris of the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida? Rumor has it that she played Snow White at Disney World when she was a teenager. The Washington Post actually called Disney for verification of this fascinating nugget of information, but they would only confirm that Harris was a “pageant hostess” at the park from 1973-1975. The Disney spokesperson then added, “We do not generally reveal costumed character identities."

8. British actor Kevin Sacre, probably best known for the British soap Hollyoaks, honed his acting skills playing Aladdin at Disneyland Paris in the late ‘90s. He should get together with Kevin Richardson and compare notes.

9. If the name Alexis Mateo doesn’t ring a bell, maybe that’s because you haven’t been watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. Alexis, the second runner up in season three, apparently worked for Disney as a character for five years, but wouldn’t reveal any more information than that. In fact, as of January 2011, Alexis was still a seasonal cast member there. Hmm. Any guesses? Here’s a picture.

Honorable mention: Writer Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux, The Magician’s Elephant) worked at Disney and really wanted to be a chipmunk. Alas, she said the maximum height to portray Chip or Dale was 4’10” and she was automatically disqualified.

I’ve also heard but haven’t been able to confirm that Geena Davis once played Goofy. She certainly has the height for it... anyone know if that’s an urban legend or the real deal?

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images

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.

Peter Mayhew
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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.

Chewbacca's costume
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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.

Peter Mayhew
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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.

Darth Vader
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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

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