Con Men

Written by Brian Heater on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


I went out to do the interview and all the characters were drawn out on a piece of paper on the wall,” Peter Mayhew begins, with the familiarity of a man who has clearly told this story many times. “I looked at Leia, Luke, Han, 3PO, R2,Vader and Chewie. I thought, ‘maybe Vader,’ but I looked again and it said 6foot-9 as the maximum.Then I looked at Chewie, which was sort of a Neanderthal man, and it said 8-foot-plus. I said, ‘Great. I will do that if it’s offered.’ So I sat there and waited for George to come back. [He] walks… I stand up, and he goes, ‘Hmm, I think we found him.’”

Mayhew recounts the story with a certain sense of whimsy—one of those splitsecond decisions that would shape the remainder of his life. It’s in the manner of fate-based tales on which Star Wars fans tend to thrive. After all, besides his physical adherence to that old adage of everything being big in home stage, the actor, now 64, is a rather alien character: a 7-foot-3-inch British sci-fi actor living deep in the heart of the Lone Star state. Of course, thanks to his stint as a galaxy far, far away’s most celebrated Wookie, Mayhew hasn’t spent much of his post-trilogy existence at home. Three decades after first donning the big furry suit, the continued pop-cultural love affair with the movies that made him a nerdy household name still keeps him on the road, attending some 20 conventions a year, by his estimation. He and his wife Angie just arrived back from Phoenix late last night, and are prepping themselves for a return to New York for the fourth annual New York Comic Con, taking place this weekend. “I’ve always enjoyed wherever we go,” Mayhew says happily, in a soft spoken British accent, from his home outside of Fort Worth, “and New York fans are usually pretty nice and respectful.”

Mayhew, for his part, seems blissfully aware of the absurdity of his situation, that despite the fact that his best-known role fated his face to be obscured by a thick hairy mask 20 times a year in cavernous expo halls, he became a god, and despite all of the column space that’s been devoted to celebrating the merger between geek culture and pop culture, there
are certain laws of the universe that are only fully realized between
convention center walls, where the man who played Chewbacca can command
the level of feverish fandom largely reserved these days for reality
television stars. “You get the young ladies who want their T-shirts
signed [while] they’re still wearing them,” he laughs. “It’s a little
bit awkward. I don’t mind signing shirts, but they’ve got to be laid
flat on the table.”

“It’s like working in a traveling circus,”
Mayhew continues. “At certain shows you’re going to see certain
people.When you get, say, R2D2, Chewie and Bobba Fett together, these
are guys that have known each other for a long time. It’s like family.
It really is.” For the most part, however, Mayhew’s brand of cult
stardom is a dying phenomenon. Each new year brings another crop of
CGIed out action flicks; most of them largely wiped away from the
collective nerd memory by the time the next convention roles around.

Very
few souls have managed to Mayhew’s level of celebrity in the insular
world of geekery without having added subsequent high-profile roles to
their resumes. By that standard, Lou Ferrigno is something of a brother
in arms.The bodybuilder’s moment in the sun came in 1977—the same year
as the first Star Wars film—when he played the green id to Bill Bixby’s Dr. David Banner in the television adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Incredible Hulk series.

Ferrigno’s return to New York
Comic Con’s autograph stage, he points out, is something of a
homecoming for the Brooklyn-born weightlifter turned actor. Still,
speaking with Ferrigno over the phone, it’s easy to forget this fact.
His deep monotone seems somehow foreign. He tosses the word “powah”
around a lot, when describing the lasting appeal of his most famous
role, as in “it’s all about powah.”

Telephone communication
isn’t necessarily Ferrigno’s strong suit. Chalk it up to the
significant hearing loss he suffered at an early age, or just an over-
eagerness to promote his many continued pursuits, but, well, interviews
or otherwise, no one can accuse Lou Ferrigno of doing anything by the
book. Early on, he deflects a question to promote a new film, I Love You, Man, in
which he plays himself. He plugs his website and his ongoing career as
a personal trainer. Like Mayhew, Ferrigno is quick to express affection
for those who have continued to demand his attention for the past 30
years. “I talk to the fans and they tell me it was a positive message
they received from me when I did the series and also my involvement
with fitness and bodybuilding, and how it motivates them.” And then, he
quickly reveals yet another aspect of the many faces of Lou Ferrigno.
“The tell me how much they love the series and also the other things I
do with my life—because I’m also a deputy sheriff for the sheriff’s
department.”

But ultimately, Ferrigno knows exactly what it is
that keeps getting him invited to the shows, year after year: powah.
“They like the pictures and they like to meet someone like myself,
because I’m in great shape. It’s like seeing a real-life hero.When they
see my body, when they see my persona, they can really connect with the
character and the persona of Lou Ferrigno. Every one of us has a little Hulk inside.”

Everyone
including Lou Ferrigno. “I’ve been the Hulk my whole life, and I
wouldn’t mind continuing with the legacy of the Hulk. They’re doing a
movie called The Avengers and I will be involved with the
project again. It’ll be a part of me for the rest of my life.” It’s a
bit of sentimental affection happily echoed by Mayhew. “You’ve got the Clone Wars animated
series out now. Maybe in two years’ time, they’re gonna do live-action
TV. And hopefully, if  don’t get too old, I can do some of that.
Luckily.The people who matter know this and are quite willing to do
whatever is necessary. If the fans want Chewie back, I’m quite willing
to do it as long as possible.”


New York
Comic Con
Feb. 6-8, Jacob K. Javits Center, 655 W. 34th St. (betw. 11th & 12th Aves.), 888-605-6059; times vary, $30-$50

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