Meet the former NBA journeyman who was a stand-in for Chewbacca

Mark McNamara has an NBA championship ring and a great 'Star Wars' story to tell.

Ken Levine & Mike Marsland (Wire

Former NBA journeyman Mark McNamara spent eight years in the league with five teams and has a championship ring to his name. But the 7-footer’s biggest claim to fame actually may have come off the court in his role as Wookie of the year.

In the summer of 1982, between the end of his senior season at Cal and the start of his first year with the Philadelphia 76ers, McNamara, the 22nd pick in the ’82 draft, worked as a stand-in for Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca on the set of "Return of the Jedi".

A Northern California native, McNamara never had any interest in acting before he made his debut in one of the biggest movies of all time. But he landed the role after his cousin, Chris Bowers, got a gig as Carrie Fisher’s stand-in in the film.

"She was at a meeting and they were saying they couldn’t find a 7-footer who was kind of athletic and had the right color eyes and had been involved with cameras," McNamara told FOX Sports from Alaska in a phone interview Thursday, a few hours before the highly anticipated release of the latest installation in the "Star Wars" series, "The Force Awakens".

"They needed someone to be a stand-in for Peter," he continued. "She said, ‘Hey, my cousin is a 7-footer and he plays basketball at Cal,’ and they giggled because they thought she was kidding, because she was so little."

It was no joke, however, and before long — after a thorough vetting process — McNamara found himself on set with George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Fisher, Mayhew and the rest of the "Star Wars" cast.

Part of McNamara’s responsibility as a stand-in was to help with what’s known as "blocking," walking through scenes to make sure the lighting, focus and sound are as they should be before the stars take over. However, McNamara also had to be at the ready for more physical scenes, in case his athleticism was needed in the event Mayhew couldn’t complete a stunt.

Chewbacca had a very distinctive walk, so they had me walking and practicing these different scenes, and it’s hot in those costumes.

— Mark McNamara

Additionally, McNamara took part in a few long shots, where his version of Chewbacca was indistinguishable from Mayhew’s. Which means, yes, he got to wear the suit.

"They made me wear it and practice walking, because Peter — I’m not sure if knock-kneed is the right term, but he walked with his knees together," McNamara said. "Chewbacca had a very distinctive walk, so they had me walking and practicing these different scenes, and it’s hot in those costumes. I was young so it didn’t bother me, but you would get warm quick, and days that were like 14 hours long weren’t uncommon."

McNamara, who is a video editor for a documentary filmmaking company called Twin Lions Productions and an assistant high school basketball coach in Haines, Alaska, said he doesn’t believe any of his scenes made it into the final cut — turns out Mayhew proved to be pretty capable — but he still spent three or four months on set and grew friendly with some of the biggest names in the business.

"We filmed in two primary locations," McNamara said. "We filmed out where Lucas Ranch is now, out in the Redwood Forest there, and then they had their secret, hidden studios — all these fake-named businesses — out in San Rafael. There was a little deli where everyone ate, and I got the great opportunity to have lunch with Harrison Ford several times, sitting there him and I just chatting, and I thought he was a fabulous person."

He also formed a bond with the people in the props department — "I was just enthralled by the creativity of these people," he said — and when filming was done, they offered McNamara a special piece of memorabilia to take with him.

"On the last day I was there shooting, the guys said, ‘Hey, one of the Chewbacca masks that pulls over and doesn’t glue to you — swing by and I’ll give you the mask,’ " McNamara said.

However . . .

"I never went and got it," he continued. "I was too lazy. We were shooting up at Lucas Ranch, and I was like, ‘Oh, God, I’m exhausted.’ I had to drive back to San Rafael to the main offices to pick it up, and instead I just jumped on the bridge and went back to Berkeley. I told my friends the story the other day and they’re like, ‘You’re an idiot.’ "

I’m an amazingly fortunate person to have experienced what I did behind the scenes with Star Wars, and to see those people creating it.

— Mark McNamara

McNamara said he doesn’t regret not claiming one of the masks, though. The memories are more than enough.

"It’s like being a player in the NBA," said McNamara, who later worked as a stunt double for Carel Struycken in the 1985 made-for-TV movie "Ewoks: The Battle for Endor."

"You can’t stay a fan, you have to become a player. I remember Dr. J saying to us rookies the first day, ‘Hey, it’s great that you guys are watching us and think we’re the greatest, but we need you to get after it and foul us, scratch us, claw us. You need to be one of us,’ " McNamara continued. "So I guess that’s kind of the prevailing thing that happened for me. I have the memories and the friendships I made, and as much as I would have loved to have gotten the mask, the other stuff is what really matters."

Despite his experience with "Return of the Jedi", however, McNamara still won’t be lining up to see the new film anytime soon. Movie theater seats are inherently uncomfortable for people of McNamara’s size and they don’t get any more cozy in a packed house, so he’ll wait and catch it when it comes out on DVD. And in the meantime, he’ll be content to reminisce about his fleeting stint as a movie star — which, in retrospect, was like his basketball career.

"I’m an amazingly fortunate person to have experienced what I did behind the scenes with "Star Wars", and to see those people creating it," McNamara said. "After being on the set of two Lucasfilm movies, I’m not shocked at all that they’ve produced such an amazing thing. So I feel a little bit like a fan and a little bit like I was touched to be around the Lucasfilm family for a while.

"We used to call ourselves at the end of the bench ‘scrubs,’ where it’s like you’re part of the team and you’re important to the team, but you’re still not the superstar," McNamara added. "And that’s pretty much exactly what I was. I was a scrub on the ‘Star Wars’ team, but I was there, and it was a fabulous experience."

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.