“It’s very tiring looking up all the time”
At 3-feet-11, Herve Villechaize has to battle to succeed as an actor and human being
By John M. Wilson
Most of us have grown up seeing midgets, dwarfs and other small people portrayed as freaks. We need to be reminded from time to time that they are just like us—only miniatures.
At 3-feet-11 and 73 slightly chubby pounds, Herve Villechaize is one of the great reminders.
He’s the costar, with Ricardo Montalban, of Fantasy Island, ABC’s new Saturday-night hit. To begin with, there is some question as to whether Herve is a midget or a dwarf. The term midget signifies a person who is very small (roughly 4-feet-11 or less), but normally proportioned. A dwarf, also tiny, is usually distinguished by a disproportionately large torso and head, and short arms and legs. Herve claims to be a midget, but admits that his birth certificate lists him as a dwarf. An outside opinion was sought, and Billy Barty, perhaps the world’s most famous dwarf and one who prefers the term little person, said “Oh, don’t let him kid you. He’s a dwarf.”
Herve isn’t all that concerned. “I don’t care what they call me,” he said, as long as it’s said with respect.”
These days Villechaize is getting plenty of respect, along with boxfuls of fan mail. On the show, Montalban plays the dignified Mr. Roarke, creator of illusions, and Villechaize his mischievous sidekick, Tattoo, who is forever ogling pretty girls. They oversee a lush tropical paradise where citizens of a more mundane world drop by to live out cherished fantasies.
Many critics find the show itself hopelessly mundane, but with its high ratings, Montalban and Villechaize have become TV’s most popular odd couple. “We’re like an old couple living together,” said Villechaize of Mr. Roarke and Tattoo. “We bicker a lot, but we love each other.” Their roles, it turns out, have some basis in reality. Villechaize considers himself a free spirit, a Bohemian painter-turned-actor with an eye for female beauty, who has to check himself around the more proper Montalban. “He’s very straight,” Villechaize said, his thick French accent compounded by a slight lisp, “and I’m completely cuckoo.”
Indeed, there have been reports that Herve’s liberal use of four-letter words and freewheeling manner have caused the graying Latin actor to raise his eyebrows, but Montalban said they are “quite fond of each other.” His main problem, he said, has been relating to Herve on-camera as the scripts require. “I was hesitant in the beginning to show annoyance, because he’s so small. I was afraid the public might find it cruel. But as I have grown to know and respect him, I no longer think of him as little at all.”
At 35, Herve Villechaize (pronounced Er-vay Veal-luh-shez) is a cherubic, Pillsbury-doughboy kind of figure, with a thatch of thick black hair and mischievous dark eyes under sleepy lids. He has an easily tickled sense of humor, but he can be something of a terror with his temper.
“I am very independent,” he said, sitting in his personal trailer and smoking a small cigar. “Anything that infringes on my freedom makes me very mad.” He poured some wine and mentioned that he got the trailer only after becoming ill from wet weather, and taking refuge in Montalban’s. He also has his own personal driver. “Next year I’ll ask for an airplane.”
Villechaize can be as pompous as The Little King, and those on the Fantasy Island set have learned to cater to him when he’s in a petulant mood. But much of the act is motivated by survival, the fight for what is rightfully his. And he knows how to put up a fight, at least according to his own startling confession.
“I was arrested for terrorizing Troy Donahue,” he said.
Troy Donahue—the tall, blond, pretty boy movie star of the 1960s? “That’s right,” Herve said with a bit of pride. Herve claimed that he and Donahue argued some years ago when Villechaize felt he had been cheated out of the rights to a movie idea he had written, for a film in which Donahue had starred “I just went berserk,” Herve said. He broke a window in Donahue’s apartment, then began smashing his dishes, until Donahue tossed him out the door. “I was outside trying to get in by the window when the cops came.” The movie was never released. but Herve was—with the charges dropped, and a financial settlement for his story in his pocket. That, in any case, is the way Villechaize tells the story. Donahue says it never happened and that his relationship with Herve had always been a good one.
Herve’s agent Arnold Rifkin, takes special care to send his client on interviews only if the elevators are equipped with buttons he can reach. And appointments after dark are ruled out. “I’m asking for a bodyguard now,” Rifkin said. “The crowds are beginning to mob him. People accost him and don’t realize they can hurt him.”
Attacking dogs are also dangerous. In supermarkets Herve sometimes has to climb the shelves to reach a highly placed can. And, he says, “It’s very tiring looking up all the time.” But in general he makes few concessions to his size. He lives in a normal-sized house with normal-sized furnishings. “People always think that if you’re a midget, you know all the other midgets town. I don’t, so why should my big friends be uncomfortable? Yeah, I’m handicapped, but I don’t feel it’s a big hassle. Nothing in my life do I let be a big wall. If I see a wall, I push it down.”
Villechaize was born into a normal-sized family, with three brothers, in Paris in 1943, and contends that his size was less an obstacle than his alienation in a “bourgeois” family. His French father was a surgeon, his English mother “an artist at heart. But in my family, artists were bums.”
He was graduated at 16 from a prestigious art academy, and emigrated to New York for further study. He taught himself English by watching TV Westerns, then began acting in 1968, getting a few minor roles on Broadway and off. While in New York, he also met and married another artist, a full-sized, attractive brunette, but they are now divorcing after eight years.
After appearing in several undistinguised feature films, he was cast in the 1974 James Bond caper, “The Man with the Golden Gun.” “The One and Only” followed last winter. In 1977, producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg were working on Fantasy Island, they disagreed with the network’s idea of casting an attractive female sidekick for Montalban. The producers came up with the idea of a little person and after seeing The Man with the Golden Gun, they signed Villechaize immediately
Villechalze doesn’t want to remain marooned on TV, and actively socializes with film writers and directors, encouraging them to create a worthwhile role for a little person
“Mostly, they think we’re dumb,” he says. “Most of the scripts I get make us do stupid things. If they write us love scenes, 19 out of 20 times I’m going to be under the covers with a tall girl… it’s not going to be lovemaking the regular way, it’s not going to be tender. They’re going to make it look dirty.
“I joke about sex. I have a very healthy sex life. But they don’t relate to that. If a girl goes out with me they treat her like a tramp. Just because my wife was married to me, she had to take such abuse, you wouldn’t believe it. And that didn’t help the marriage, let me tell you.”
Because of his size, he has been denied housing and refused job interviews at ad agencies, even with a full art portfolio. “But what am I going to do? Get a gun and shoot them? There is a way to change people. That’s how I’m using the media. I want people to know that I’m just like them, with my weaknesses and my strengths, my ups and downs.
The afternoon was waning and Herve had to be back on the set. As he put on his coat the head of a pretty blonde actress appeared outside a window. Herve leaned out and asked. “You want to go to school?” She was confused and he pointed to a sign on his trailer door: Sex Instructor—First Lesson Free. “The teacher is in,” he said. Flustered, she hurried away.
“I make her blush,” Herve squealed, digging his chubby fists into his cheeks and almost choking on his laughter. “I love it. I love it!”
The Terror of Fantasy Island.