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Movie shorts

Eye to eye with Hollywood’s little people

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The Station Agent (reviewed this week) is one of relatively few movies to provide a substantive lead role for an actor with dwarfism—ever. The advocacy organization Little People of America (LPA) defines dwarfism as a medical or genetic condition resulting in an adult height of 4 feet, 10 inches or shorter. There are approximately 200 diagnosed types of dwarfism, the most common (at around 70 percent of cases) being achondroplasia.

The term “midget” to describe a person with proportionate dwarfism is now generally regarded as offensive, dating as it does from a time when such persons were often displayed for public amusement. The terms little person, LP, or person of short stature are acceptable—although, as the LPA points out, most people (actors included) prefer to be known by their names.

What follows is a brief videography of films featuring actors of short stature.
Freaks (1932)

Moviegoers and critics alike repudiated Tod Browning’s Freaks so adamantly upon its original release that it took over 40 years for the film to take its place as a cult classic (Britain even banned the film until 1962). The story involves a midget circus performer named Hans who falls in love with a beautiful acrobat named Cleopatra. When Cleopatra learns that Hans is to inherit a fortune, she agrees to marry him even though she secretly despises his “freakish” nature. When Hans’ friends (other “freaks”) learn of Cleopatra’s plan to kill Hans, they take revenge on her and her strongman lover in what becomes the film’s haunting finale. The repulsive element of Freaks is not its candid presentation of real physical human deformity—as some may argue—but the extent of the cruelty many endure for the misfortune of being born different. (Diego Bejarano)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Stories of wild behavior and drunken orgies by the Munchkin cast of this classic have approached legendary status in Hollywood—and they’re mostly exaggerated. Still, Munchkin life on the Wizard set was arduous and occasionally humiliating for the “Singer Midgets,” a troupe of diminutive actors named not for their vocal abilities but for their manager, Leo Singer. According to Jerry Maren, one of only two Munchkin actors whose voices weren’t later overdubbed by other actors, the little people on the set were paid $50 for a six-day work week, while the dog who played Toto received $125. Rumor holds that a disturbance visible in some trees at one point in the film was caused by a Munchkin actor hanging himself, though it’s actually an animal handler going after a wayward charge.

Meinhardt Raabe, who played the Coroner of Munchkinland, volunteered for military service during WWII but was turned down. He was accepted as a volunteer instructor in the Civil Air Patrol, however, at one time holding the record as shortest licensed pilot in the United States. (Andy Smetanka)
Time Bandits (1981)

“The fabric of the universe is far from perfect,” exclaims the short-statured bandit named Randall (David Rappaport) after stealing a map from God that allows its processor to travel through time. Kevin (Craig Warnock), a young English boy fascinated with legends and heroes of old, joins Randall and his crew of five little bandits as they gambol through time exploiting the flaws they’ve discovered in the Supreme Being’s creation. Time Bandits is probably the first film to portray multiple little people in leading roles without the mockery or inanity that so often comes hand in hand with Hollywood’s relationships with little actors. The movie became a box office success and established writer/director Terry Gilliam—of Monty Python fame—as a clever and masterful storyteller. (Diego Bejarano)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

Following the success of Time Bandits—and subsequently the incomparable Brazil (1985)—director Gilliam continued his exploration of fantasy genres with this visually impressive film. Based on a collection of 18th-century children’s stories by Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymous von Munchausen, the film depicts Baron Munchausen (John Neville) as a veteran adventurer in Newtonian times agitated by the modern generation’s unbelief in the fantastic and the magical. Aided by a faithful little girl (Sarah Polley), the Baron embarks on a journey to locate his once powerful friends to help him defeat the invading Turkish army. The film stars Jack Purvis as Gustavus, a little guy with acute hearing and mighty lungs who can blow away entire ranks of the Sultan’s forces with a deep breath. (Diego Bejarano)
The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)

Despite previous roles in the 1971 gangster comedy The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight and the 1974 Oliver Stone film Seizure, Herve Villechaize’s film career started going downhill after he appeared as Nick Nack in The Man with the Golden Gun. The slump finally ended with his serendipitous casting in the part that made him a national phenomenon—that of Ricardo Montalban’s sidekick Tattoo on the TV show Fantasy Island from 1978 to 1983. Suddenly beset by admiring fans, the garrulous, party-loving 3-foot-11-inch actor hired a female bodyguard and demanded a salary hike (to $25,000 per episode) befitting his newfound celebrity.

When he dared demand the same salary as Montalban in early 1983, producers responded by dropping him from the show and replacing him with a new sidekick for Mr. Rourke during the final ’83–’84 season. Villechaize never fully recovered, either professionally, financially or personally. Penniless, drinking heavily and reduced to making beer and doughnut commercials for less than $500 per week, the actor fatally shot himself in the chest in September 1993.

Born in southern France during the height of the Nazi occupation, Villechaize suffered from a thyroid condition that stunted his growth. At age 12, he sailed to the United States alone to undergo radical surgeries that failed to produce results and left him vowing never to attempt such treatments again. His internal organs, all normal-sized, were squeezed into a small ribcage that caused him great pain in later life. After a postmortem examination—at the actor’s request—by physicians specializing in dwarfism at UCLA, Villechaize’s remains were cremated and his ashes scattered at sea. (Andy Smetanka)

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