Wookiees are one of George Lucas‘ more interesting creations, a fascinating dichotomy: an ape-ish, bi-pedal being covered head to foot (paw? hoof?) in luxurious hair, that can shoot a laser weapon and even fly a starship. So how did Wookiees, and their most famous representative, Chewbacca, come to be?
There are conflicting stories as to how the term “Wookiee” actually came about. Walter Murch was a sound editor on Lucas’ first film, THX 1138, responsible for cutting the sound montages of radio chatter between the robot cops of the movie. Murch has stated that Terry McGovern, one of the actors brought in to do ADR for the film, improvised a line for one of the cops during a chase sequence, “I think I ran over a wookey [sic] back on the expressway.” Lucas was so enamored with the term that it stuck in his head.
McGovern himself recalls that the word came about when he arrived late for a recording session for THX 1138. As it was held on a Saturday, it conflicted with his commitment to the Army reserves. He was accompanied to the session with his friend, Bill Wookey. As a joke on his friend, his excuse for his tardiness was, “I ran over my pet wookey.”
At any rate, there is no denying that the word was created by McGovern, that it was derived from his friend’s name, and that Lucas was smitten with the term and eventually used it in his space opera.
But what is a Wookiee? The alien race and a precursor character for Chewbacca appear all the way back in the original The Star Wars story synopsis, written by Lucas in 1973. This is more than can be said for his friend and fellow pilot Han Solo, who doesn’t appear until the first draft script. In the synopsis, there is described a “giant furry alien,” from a species that ride “large, bird-like creatures” and live on the “forbidden” planet Yavin. Not yet the loyal and noble creatures they would eventually become, they capture the nameless rebel princess and two bickering Imperial bureaucrats and sell them to an Imperial patrol. One of them, a forerunner to Chewbacca, exhibits kindness to ‘General Skywalker’ and helps lead him to the captured rebels.
Chewbacca and his fellow ‘Wookees’ continued to develop through the various iterations of the story of The Star Wars. In the May 1974 rough draft, the newly named Chewbacca is a prince of the Wookee tribe, rescued from alien trappers on Yavin by one Annikin Starkiller. The look of the creatures is inspired by the same source as the hero’s name from Lucas’ later Raiders of the Lost Ark: his wife Marcia’s large, gray Alaskan malamute dog, named Indiana. Sitting next to Lucas in the “co-pilot” seat on car rides, the dog makes for an arresting image to Lucas, sitting nearly as tall as him.
After their rescue the fierce Wookees and the rebels engage in a forest battle against an Imperial outpost; this scene would be excised from further versions of Star Wars and used later for the Endor forest battle in Return of the Jedi. There, the Wookiees would be cut in size by half, their name jumbled around and called Ewoks. In the 1974 rough draft, it is the Wookees that fly fighter ships in an attack that destroys the Death Star.
By the time of the second draft, titled The Adventures of the Starkiller (Episode One): The Star Wars, the “Wookee” subplot has been abandoned. Chewbacca is now described as a two-hundred-year-old, “eight foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon-like’ fangs”. He has lost his royalty status, now the companion of one Han Solo. He is also more modest; in this draft, he wears cloth shorts and a camouflaged flak jacket under his two chrome bandoliers. It is in this draft that the spelling of the name for his species is settled upon: he is a Wookiee. He is also granted his signature vocalizations, described as grunts, “strange animal sounds” and “a horrifying laugh”.
In the 1975 third draft, Chewbacca is still clad in clothing. The ship he co-pilots with Han is described for the first time, “a long Rube Goldberg-pieced together contraption, which can only be loosely called a spaceship.” It would get its Millennium Falcon name in the fourth draft. The only other change to be noted here is that Chewbacca actually receives a medallion with his fellow rebels during the awards ceremony at the end. By the fourth draft, used when principal photography for Star Wars gets underway in 1976, he ends up snubbed by Princess Leia. It is later retconned that Wookiees care not for such symbols of bravery.
The fourth draft does, however, grant Chewbacca the nickname ‘Chewie’ for the first time. He still retains the savage look from the previous drafts, with his imposing fangs. Lucas would eventually be persuaded to soften the appearance of Wookiees, mostly through the drawings of production artist Ralph McQuarrie. Chewie would also be stripped of his clothes, with only one chrome bandolier remaining.
Backstory info written by Lucas granted Wookiees a homeworld called Kashyyyk and described Han Solo’s rescuing of Chewbacca at the hands of Imperial traders. This resulted in a life debt owed to Solo, explaining why the Wookiee travels the galaxy at his side. If you have an iron constitution you can get a further glimpse of Wookiee culture, as well as meet Chewie’s family, by chasing down the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, which aired on TV on CBS in 1978. Once.
Chewbacca and his race suffered a number of indignities during the evolution of the Star Wars story, but the Wookiee has remained as one of the best-loved characters in the franchise.