BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — He fought in epic battles against the galactic empire. Now an actor who portrayed "Star Wars" legend Chewbacca is fighting for Venezuela's poor with an online fundraising campaign whose proceeds will benefit a charity feeding underprivileged children in the crisis-wracked South American nation.
Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca in five "Star Wars" movies, has so far raised more than $10,000 through the sale of commemorative coins showing the Wookiee warrior's hairy legs and a bullet belt slung around a map of Venezuela.
The 74-year-old actor, who is retired, said the idea emerged after he met Elisa Arguello, a Venezuelan actress and "Star Wars" fan who migrated three years ago to the Dallas-Fort Worth area where Mayhew also resides.
"We follow her on Facebook, and were aware of the deteriorating situation in Venezuela," Mayhew told the Associated Press. "It had been bothering us for a while and one night, my wife Angie picked up the phone and asked Elisa if there was any way we could get involved. She started crying and said yes."
The copper coins are being sold online for $10 by the Peter Mayhew Foundation. However, proceeds will go to a small Texas charity called "Ponte en sus zapatos," which is Spanish for "Put yourself in their shoes." The charity has been working in Venezuela for more than a year and said it feeds 100 needy children every day and donates supplies like diapers and baby formula to a hospital that treats children with cancer.
Hospitals in Venezuela often cannot provide patients with the most basic supplies due to widespread shortages and five-digit inflation.
"This campaign has made us cry with gratitude," said Antonieta Galvez, a Dallas-based businesswoman originally from Venezuela who runs the charity. Galvez said with just $3, her partners in Venezuela are able to make lunch for 100 children.
Arguello said more than 1,500 coins have been sold since the campaign started in late May, and a handmade Chewbacca mask went for $1,100 in an online auction.
The commemorative coins have been mostly bought by members of the 501st legion, a "Star Wars" fan club that has dozens of chapters, or "garrisons," around the world. Its Texas chapter, the Star Garrison, has more than 500 active members, and Mayhew hosts some events for the group at his home.
The fan club also supports local charities, and members sometimes dress in galactic costumes and visit hospitalized children to cheer them up.
"There is a lot of solidarity in the legion," said Arguello, who regularly attends comic conventions dressed as Princess Leia or a Storm Trooper. As a lifelong fan of the space saga, she said that meeting Mayhew was a dream come true.
"Wookiees are fierce creatures," the 36-year-old Venezuelan joked. "But they have a big heart."
Lucasfilm Ltd., which owns the Chewbacca trademark, is not participating in the campaign, which doesn't directly mention the Star Wars character.
Mayhew was initially picked to play Chewbacca because of his outstanding height. The British-born actor, who became a U.S. citizen some years ago, stands at more than 7 feet tall, the result of a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome.
However, his towering height, which made him a shoo-in for the cult role of Chewie, has also been the source of endless health complications.
Mayhew has suffered from respiratory problems and has difficulty walking. He attends comic conventions in a seated scooter but rarely provides media interviews due to speech limitations. He answered questions to the AP via e-mail.
Still, these problems have not stopped the gentle giant from contributing to a number of charitable causes and fighting for kids in a land far, far away.
"Everyone seems to know something about Venezuela right now, but too many just don't realize how bad things have become," Mayhew said. "Chewbacca will not leave hungry children unfed. If he has the power to help."