For some, all the world’s a stage, for others, a battlefield. Circumstances sometimes mean that these two options are thrust upon a person, both socially and as a career. It’s one thing to possess what would be deemed ‘unconventional looks’ as an actor – these would perhaps be accentuated or swathed in make-up for a role, the over-riding tone being that they are instantly recognisable and often fit that most go-to pigeonhole-means-nothing phrase – ‘character actor’. For some actors, there is no disguise, no hiding place and often no sympathy.
The use of men, women and children affected by dwarfism and other related conditions is, of course, nothing new – from freak shows, circuses and the entertainment of royalty there is a rich, if unforgiving history of short entertainers. With the exception of the Ancient Egyptians who gave dwarfs exalted status and the most desirable occupations, more often they have found themselves slaves to be used for sex, salacious entertainment and mockery in ancient Roman, Chinese, African and European culture.
A modicum of respect and deference was given to some dwarfs in the European courts of the 15th to 19th centuries but more often this gave way to treating dwarfs more like pets than members of their immediate social circle. Eye-popping examples include the demeaning-as-you-might-expect ‘dwarf pits’ of the Medicis, to the playthings of the courts of France and Russia, where numbers were often assembled into harems.
By the 19th and well into the 20th century, it was considered almost de rigueur for dwarfs to consider the travelling fair or freak show as not only gainful employment but also a way of life. Regardless of intellect or talent, it has often proved impossible for people to look beyond the stature and physique, though the exploits of P.T. Barnum did at least offer the opportunity to showcase the skills of many performers whose look differed from the norm, in return for safe surroundings and an often not inconsiderable income.
Many of the dwarf actors in this article come from a circus background, from Harry Earles to Luis de Jesus, their performances on-screen often reflecting the wide-eyed acts they honed in front of live audiences desperate for salacious and thrilling spectacle. It is notable that in many of the films mentioned – Freaks, She-Freak, Circus of Fear and others – the circus environment and the tapestry of strange characters therein, hold the key to the unfolding double-crossing and hidden secrets of the narrative.
Upon establishing Barnum’s American Museum in 1841, what would nowadays be recognised as a ‘freak show’ was born. Though not the first to exhibit people with physical deformities as entertainment, Barnum’s outlandish showmanship and feverish marketing techniques brought the spectacle out of the royal palaces and sordid backstreets an uncomfortably into the mainstream. Though distasteful on many levels, they were enormously successful and gave performers denied an opportunity to demonstrate their skills in other forms of employment, a meaningful career.
One of Barnum’s most celebrated stars came early in his career, in 1842, the Connecticut-born Charles Stratton Sherwood, he would become better known through his stage name, General Tom Thumb. Hitting the stage when aged only four-years-old (though advertised as being eleven), Stratton never grew beyond 3’35” (though spent most of his career nearer the 2’5” mark) and his performance pitched his size against his age in adulthood, smoking a pipe, joke-telling and impersonating the likes of Napoleon, whilst masquerading as an infant. It is said that Stratton was always grateful for the life Barnum had afforded him, despite the apparent exploitation a modern audience may perceive.
Incidentally, it is said that Barnum first suggested the use of the word ‘midget’ to differentiate between small but proportioned individuals and ‘dwarfs’, those with a condition which affects the proportions. In either case, modern reference generally defines either as being at or below the height of 4’10”.
By the time of Barnum’s death in 1910, the appeal of freak shows was still at its height – touring shows appeared across America and Europe, with previously hidden natural wonders now eagerly proffered for the potentially sizeable returns for exhibition. As well as mobile presentations, there were also static displays, of particular note Coney Island in New York and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.
Though it would take until towards the end of the century for attitudes to change (at least to some extent – it still took some time to largely banish phrases such as ‘the handicapped’), there remains a fascination for many, with films such as David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) shining a different light on the lives of those presented as freaks. However, though travelling fairs died out, there became a new medium for to both satiate the thirst for the exotic and to give careers to those regularly shunned.
Harry and Daisy Earles
Harry was born Kurt Fritz Schneider in 1902 in Germany, one of seven children, four of whom were small in stature, including his sister Daisy (born Hilda, in 1907). In 1915, both Harry and Daisy relocated to America where they soon found employment in both the travelling circus and vaudeville around the New York area. Just after the turn of the decade, their similarly-sized siblings, Gracie (born Frieda) and Tiny (Ellie), joined them and they named themselves ‘The Doll Family’ an entertainment troupe specialising in song and dance, with the extra string to their bow of being skilful horse-riders.
Appearing for both the Ringling and Barnum circuses, they had initially assumed the surname Earles after the American entrepreneur who enabled their passage to America. It was Harry and Daisy whose performances really stood out, particularly Harry’s ability to hold the audience in his hand and Daisy’s glamourous looks.
It isn’t clear as to when or how they found themselves in Hollywood but they soon came to the attention of the director, Tod Browning, who at this time had already worked with the legendary Lon Chaney on the highly effective 1919 film, The Wicked Darling. In 1925, Browning was ready to adapt a short crime story, The Unholy Three, into a film, and began a search for the casting of one of the most critical roles – a miniature adult thief disguised as a baby to avoid detection.
Once Harry came to Browning’s attention, he was soon cast and made his appearance in the dark and often alarming The Unholy Three in 1925, alongside a cross-dressing Lon Chaney and Victor McLaglen. The film was the first of a remarkable six occasions that Earle would appear as an adult masquerading as an adult – typecasting of a most unusual kind but still often bypassing the roles he really wanted to avoid – comedies which amounted to little more than ridicule.
The advent of sound led to a remake in 1930, again featuring Chaney and Earles. It is a much undervalued film, abruptly startling and unforgiving. Earles is excellent as the squinting, debauched miniature menace, a perfect foil for Chaney in his only speaking role. Despite his fulsome German accent, Harry is undubbed throughout.
Without question, it is Earle’s portrayal of Hans in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) that lingers longest in the memory. Playing the pivotal role of a soon-to-be wealthy sideshow performer, he is tempted to stray from his similarly-sized fiancée (played by Daisy Earles) by the conventionally-sized Cleo, a money-hungry trapeze artist in cahoots with her strongman boyfriend, Hercules, to woo, then bump off her target.
An astonishingly expressive performance from Harry is both believable, and by turn, doused in pathos and overflowing with over-wrought indignation and largess. When Cleo reels Hans yet further into her spiteful web by getting him drunk, the camera is unforgiving, yet sympathetic, showing the character as vulnerable, despite his regular bravado.
What really comes across from the performance is Earle’s extraordinary confidence as an actor – in a film packed with real sideshow performers, many amateur actors at best, he more than holds his own, an essential ingredient to adding a veil of reality to the film, immediately elevating the film above what could so easily have been cringe-worthy and farcical.
Along with his three siblings, Harry appeared, perhaps inevitably, in The Wizard of Oz (1939), as part of the ensemble of Munchkins, indeed he is instantly recognisable. Though this was his last known screen role, Harry continued to perform on stage in travelling shows for many years to come, certainly until he was well into his 50’s, after which he retired with his three siblings in Florida, in a specially adapted house, dying in 1985 at the age of eighty-three.
Daisy had a much briefer career on-screen – a brief, uncredited role alongside Harry in the 1928 circus-set drama, Three-Ring Marriage, was her only appearance before taking the role of Frieda in Freaks. Both Harry and Daisy were amongst the first of the circus-folk to be cast, through virtue of already having been acquainted with director, Tod Browning. Partly due to their prowess, though more likely to pertain to their less alarming appearance, both Daisy and Harry were permitted to dine with the other studio staff and actors at MGM’s canteen. It would be reasonable to say that Daisy’s role was the lesser of the two Earle’s roles – Daisy’s doe-eyed concern at her beloved’s taunting at the hands of Cleo borders on the saccharine, though her predicament is made all the more sympathetic by Harry’s oddly brusque and uncaring attitude to her pleas for caution. As was the unspoken requirement, Daisy also appeared in The Wizard of Oz, passing away at the family home in 1980.
Often known as Little Ang or simply, Moe, Angelo Rossitto was born in Nebraska in 1908 with dwarfism, restricting his height to only 2’11”. Angelo’s prolific and varied acting career can be seen as a benchmark of sorts for actors of restricted height, his seventy film career, as well as roles on television being only one aspect of his remarkable life. Along with the other noted dwarf actor, Billy Barty, he formed The Little People of America, a non-profit organisation still offering support and information to people of short stature and their families today.
From his earliest acting days, Rossitto was happy with roles of any magnitude, from pivotal speaking parts to uncredited appearances in heavy disguise. By his own admission, he was a “ham and eggs actor”, never expecting stardom and supplementing his income for large parts of his life by selling newspapers from a stand on Hollywood and Vine, becoming one of Hollywood’s most recognisable faces somewhat via the backdoor.
Rossitto’s first film role was in The Beloved Rogue in 1927, alongside the meaty acting chops of John Barrymore and Conrad Veidt. His name now in casting director’s contacts books, he starred as everything from pygmies to Vikings to monsters, usually in blink and you miss him roles , though had a slightly more extended appearance in Benjamin Christensen’s Seven Footprints to Satan as a mysterious goateed house guest, up until the Year Zero for actors of unusual appearance, 1932’s Freaks. With a good deal of screen time and an unusual weighty presence, Angelo achieved a level of pop culture fame which would resonate for decades to come, leading the chant of “one of us”, at the sideshow performers’ wedding feast.
In no sense did Angelo’s appearance in Freaks lead to his acting star rising heavenwards. Though he could be seen onscreen in vehicles as diverse as Cecil B. DeMille (Sign of the Cross) and Laurel and Hardy (Babes in Toyland) it was only in roles that could politely be referred to as ‘supporting’ – occasionally parts would present themselves in the unlikeliest places (Shirley Temple’s stunt stand-in, for example).
His connection to the horror genre was never far away, not least due to regular appearances alongside screen giants Boris Karloff (two Mr. Wong films) and more especially Bela Lugosi, alongside whom he made several well-intentioned but often somewhat ropey films. However, for every dud (1941’s Spooks Run Wild; 1947’s Scared To Death) there’s the odd gem (1942’s The Corpse Vanishes).
By the 1950’s, work was beginning to thin out, not least in the sense of his time onscreen in films anything above camp trash – 1953’s Mesa of Lost Women; the iconic lead alien in Invasion of the Saucermen (unrecognisable under Paul Blaisdell’s costume) and the Johnny Weissmuller atrocity, Jungle Moon Men (1955) will give you an idea of the standard of parts available.
Even what, on paper, looked like blockbusters were a false dawn – 1957’s The Story Of Mankind may have boasted stars such as Vincent Price, John Carradine, Caesar Romero and the Marx Brothers, but even then it was hailed as camp of the highest order.
Some salvation came in the mid-60s when television was given greater credence, leading to role in the likes of Gunsmoke, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, as well as a recurring role in, of all things, H.R. Pufnstuf.
If Angelo’s film roles in the 40’s and 50’s seemed a little on the low-budget side, audiences can rightly have left cinemas heading straight for the shower after his appearances in two of Al Adamson’s trashiest sleazefests – Brain of Blood and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (both tainting 1971).
Although Angelo had the longest-running role of his career in the mid-70’s, in the fondly remembered Beretta as shoe-shine boy informant, Little Moe, the twilight of acting life also saw him accepting roles which were as garish, out-there and sleazy as ever.
On the tamer side of things were the likes of the well-worth seeking out gangster film, Little Cigars (1973) and literal and metaphorical car crash of a movie, Smokey Bites the Dust (1981), whilst the other end of the scale saw appearances in the largely forgotten William Devane-starring The Dark (1979) and 1980’s thoroughly entertaining Galaxina.
A low point, but still entirely in keeping with his philosophy of taking whatever job was presented to him, was the softcore movie Adult Fairy Tales, which saw Rossitto as one of the few stars to keep his clothes on.
Rossitto’s final roles of note are amongst his most engaging since the 1930’s – a small role in the impressive interpretation of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983); an iconic turn as The Master in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985 – an experience he regarded as the most enjoyable of his career); and his final on-screen role in the Vincent Price-starring From a Whisper To a Scream (1987).
By this stage, Angelo was almost totally blind – though his body and mind were willing to still carry on, film producers were unable (or unwilling) to give him roles as no insurance company would provide appropriate cover for him.
Having already achieved immortality in a 61-year film career (and in music, featuring on the cover of Tom Waits’ seminal 1983 album Swordfishtrombones). Rossitto retired, dying at the grand old age of eighty-three in 1991.
Though his involvement in horror was somewhat fleeting, despite his lengthy career, it would be wrong of us not to spend a moment considering the contribution of Billy Barty.
Born in 1924, the 3’9” Barty was the driving force behind the formation of The Little People of America in 1957, alongside the aforementioned Angelo Rossitto. His acting career clung far closer to the mainstream, becoming popular for comedic roles and voice-acting right up until his death aged seventy-six in 2000.
Barty’s earlier appearances on-screen had run the usual course of ‘baby’ roles, though with a slight twist – a regular participant in pre-code Busby Berkeley musicals, he often played a quite shockingly seedy infant, leering and plotting to catch glimpses of the chorus girls.
In 1935, he made what could be politely described as a cameo appearance in Bride of Frankenstein, in rather indistinct long-shots of Dr Pretorius’ bottled experiments, perhaps inevitably, dressed as a baby in a high chair. Clearer still shots have been discovered in recent years.
A far more prominent horror role came in 1957’s The Undead, a blisteringly bad, though inadvertently entertaining time-travel farrago from Roger Corman, which sees Billy playing the part of an imp. An equally enjoyable/painful watch is 1989’s Lobster Man from Mars, a spoof film-within-a-film in which Barty plays a somewhat fleeting part.
Despite being born in 1909, Curtis, who stood at 4’2” tall, was never either compelled or drawn towards exhibiting himself at sideshows and enjoyed a healthy fifty-year career as an actor.
After spending some time on Broadway (often playing children, as was de rigueur), his very first screen role was no less than the lead in the now derided musical Western, The Terror of Tiny Town, rather like The Wizard of Oz, an almost obligatory gig if you were of a certain size in the industry at the time. However, at the time, the film made huge returns at the box office and promised several sequels and spin-offs, none of which materialised.
Like many of the short actors who appeared in 1939’s Wizard of Oz, Curtis’ part goes uncredited, a fact that rather supports his oft-quoted line that Toto the dog got paid $200 dollars, compared to those with roles as Munchkins’, $50. However, Curtis’ career revolved not only around his size but equally his acting prowess – he rarely took roles which others may consider demeaning, appearing in many Westerns as a character who happened to be short, as opposed to a comedic aside of sorts.
Curtis changed direction just before the end of the War with a (yet again) small, uncredited role in Ghost Catchers and in the 1943 supernatural anthology, Flesh and Fantasy, which he could at least console himself with the fact Peter Lawford also appeared without an acting credit.
The 1950’s and the advent of the dreaded Atom, provided slightly more opportunities to appear in film, though not necessarily in stellar roles. In George Reeve’s debut in Superman and the Mole Men (1951) he played, yes, a Mole Man; in the peculiarly heavyweight Gorilla at Large he featured alongside Anne Bancroft, Lee Marvin and Cameron Mitchell, leading to a lead role… of sorts… in 1954’s Gog, in the unenviable position of being responsible for manoeuvring the metallic/cardboard contraption.
Other genre roles from this period include the excellent The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and Angry Red Planet (1959) and a strange bookend to everything we’ve seen so far – the role of Harry Earles in The Unholy Three re-enactment in James Cagney’s rather so-so biopic of Lon Chaney, Man of a Thousand Faces (1957).
Like Billy Barty, television allowed more regular opportunities for work, though it could be argued that Curtis got the cooler parts – the 1960’s saw him appear in everything from Batman to The Monkees to Bewitched to Get Smart. Curtis had certainly warmed to science fiction and fantasy; he starred alongside Horrorpedia favourite Reggie Nalder in the Star Trek episode Journey to Babel and as an ape child in the genre-shaking Planet of the Apes.
Hailing from London and born in 1923, Skip became something of a horror film regular, fondly thought of by keen-eyed enthusiasts for his appearances in movies with a very European gothic slant. Acquiring his nickname from his habit of skipping school, Martin was born Alec Derek George Horowitz, the surname being due to his Russian father. Although managing a perfectly serviceable career as an actor, he earned his trade on a more stable footing as a tobacconist.
Filmed in 1958, though released in 1962, Martin appeared in the Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff vehicle Corridors of Blood as a tavern regular – not a part that saw him speak or do very much other than slowly carry his gruel to his table but certainly a part he could boast about to his regular customers. Continuing his habit of appearing with horror film icons, he next appeared in the 1961 film, The Hellfire Club, alongside Peter Cushing, the film itself scripted by Hammer stalwart, Jimmy Sangster.
The role for which Martin is best remembered is undoubtedly that of Hop-Toad in Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death (1964), also giving him the opportunity to complete his holy quadrangle of horror co-stars alongside Vincent Price. Rather than the silent cameos he had been given previously, Hop-Toad is given a pleasing amount of screen-time, as well as some particularly juicy lines and the film’s standout killing.
Clearly doing enough to catch the eye of Harry Alan Towers, his next appearance was equally significant, as Mr. Big in the 1966 film, Circus of Fear, another chance to work with Christopher Lee, as well the challenge of being on-screen with Klaus Kinski. Whilst not an especially rewarding film, Skip’s character has a lurking menace which at least makes it a fascinating study of shady dealings and potential danger in every shadow.
An easy to miss role in Tinto Brass’ highly-stylised 1967 murder mystery Col Cuore In Gola (I Am What I Am aka Deadly Sweet) may have suggested an increasingly steady decline in more meaty acting parts but instead proved only to be a blip before three more significant horror films.
In Vampire Circus (1971), he again creates unease as the tumbling, mysterious clown, leading to a particularly satisfying revenge enacted upon him by the poor, pestered villagers.
Martin also lends his sonorous voice and magnetic charisma to Horror Hospital (1973) before an unfortunate coda to his career: firstly an appearance in the irredeemably poor rock ‘n’ roll musical Son of Dracula alongside the likes of Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson; and finally the role of a mini-Rolf Harris in the famous episode of The Goodies set in a zoo. True horror!
Born Gary Neil Miller in Oklahoma, Dunn allegedly taught himself to read at the age of three, a sign that the rare case of dwarfism, which affected both his bone structure (both his hips were dislocated, making walking extremely painful) and his lung-growth, would do little to hold him back. A talented pianist and singer, Dunn and his family rejected overtures for him to receive an education in a ‘special school’, preferring instead that his voracious appetite for knowledge be satiated in a standard setting.
Dunn’s acting ability is arguably a step ahead of many of his shorter contemporaries, indeed, often degrees above both his averagely-heighted co-stars and the calibre of vehicle he was appearing in. His acting career began in the theatre after moving to New York from his home in Miami where he had gained a degree in journalism. His parts initially were off-Broadway, though he became a familiar fixture in local bars where he sung with his surprisingly strong voice to great applause.
In 1963, his dedication to his craft paid off when he appeared in the Edward Albee adaptation of the novella, The Sad Cafe, by Carson McCullers. Playing the mysterious hunchback, Cousin Lymon, he earned a Tony award nomination, the play itself sweeping the board at that year’s ceremony.
After forming a nightclub act alongside the actress Phoebe Dorin, he appeared in 1965’s Ship of Fools, alongside the likes of Lee Marvin and Vivienne Leigh. His lynchpin part, narrating both the beginning and end of the film, alongside a moving role in the main body, led to an Academy Award nomination.
It was from this springboard that his most famous appearances on television: firstly on Get Smart as Mr Big, then to fondly remembered one-off parts in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; Star Trek (in which he would have stolen the show appearing as Alexander in the episode, Plato’s Stepchildren, now more often remembered as the episode in which Kirk kisses Uhura) and Wild, Wild West, where his role as the villainous Dr. Miguelito Loveless endeared him to a generation of viewers.
Dunn’s first true genre appearance was in Gordon Hessler’s (Scream and Scream Again; Cry of the Banshee) 1971 adaptation of Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, a small part in an unfulfilling movie. Better was to come with an appearance in the Night Gallery episode, The Sins of the Fathers, one of the more alarming episodes of Rod Serling’s less appreciated TV series.
Roles became more and more difficult to find, leading to Dunn taking increasingly less-stellar parts in what could be seen as more demeaning for a man with such great notices earlier in his career. 1973 saw him appear in The Werewolf of Washington, as Dr. Kiss, presumably a nod to Wild, Wild West.
Far worse was to follow the year after in Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks as the perverted, corpse fondling Genz, alongside HORRORPEDIA favourite, Sal Boris (here listed as Boris Lugosi). It’s a film that doesn’t even pass the ‘so bad it’s good’ test, a waste of Dunn’s considerable talents.
From his early days appearing in New York nightclubs, Dunn had developed a fondness for alcohol (he was already a smoker from an early age), not uncommon for the actors of the time in the city. It had taken its toll on his liver and an ill-fated relationship with a burlesque dancer had left him wiped out financially. It was now a case of taking roles of any kind, though his later appearances show him moving with even more difficulty than only a few years prior.
It was in this state of physical degradation that Michael Dunn appeared in The Mutations (aka Freakmaker), alongside Donald Pleasence. He lends a terrific element of the unnerving to what veers towards farce on occasion, his ability to hold the camera with his gaze evident in abundance. It was to be his final appearance during his lifetime.
Whilst filming The Abdication in London during 1974, he passed away at the hotel he was staying in whilst in London. Though rumours still circulate that his body was ‘stolen’ for a period and his room ransacked, evidence suggests no foul play and that his medical condition has led to his death at the age of 38.
Felix Silla was born near Rome, Italy, in 1937, moving to the United States in 1955, joining a succession of circuses where he perfected various skills, from bareback horse-riding, to acrobatics to flying trapeze. When the Ringling Brothers circus he performed with disbanded in the early 1960s, he became an in-demand stunt performer, his stature (3’11”) filling a niche for skilled performers who could fulfil roles not normally possible for average-heights actors.
His relocation to Hollywood quickly earned him to bit-parts in TV series, though it was a casting-call for the soon-to-be aired The Addams Family which led to sustained employment. Passing the audition on-sight, his role was to be that of Cousin Itt, a part which left him disguised under a heap of (real) hair and shades – his burbling voice was dubbed over afterwards. The costume was later replaced with a synthetic, flame-retardant hair ensemble, lest Felix be engulfed in fire from a stray cigarette butt.
Silla was always willing to take parts which either had little value in terms of art or craft, or indeed left him unidentifiable on-screen. A role where Felix is able to exercise his acting chops more clearly came in 1967, with She-Freak the shaky-handed re-telling of 1932’s masterful Freaks. Appearing as the conniving Shorty, he is in an environment he no doubt knew only too well, though the casting of Silla in the film led to an even more shadowy outcome, a nine-year affair with lead actress, Claire Brennan, one which led to them having a child but was kept secret from the outside world.
Aside from a minor role as a child gorilla in Planet of the Apes, Silla worked extensively in television, from H.R. Pufnstuf to Bewitched, toothsome film parts being few and far between. Little Cigars alongside Billy Curtis promised much but only led to inconsequential, appearances as sideshow acts and diminutive monsters –neither as an attraction in 1973’s SSSSnake; a fireplace imp in TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark; a malformed infant in 1977’s Demon Seed; nor an admittedly creepy supernatural being in 1978’s The Manitou led to critical acclaim nor award nominations, though as one of the creatures in David Cronenberg’s The Brood, he at least worked with a notable auteur.
More financially rewarding was the role of the somewhat annoying robot, Twiki, in the much-loved (at the time) Buck Rogers in the 25th Century television series, the second repeat appearance he made in a landmark sci-fi show, following from his appearances in Battlestar Galactica.
Towards the end of his screen career, he made the requisite appearance as an ewok in the third instalment of the Star Wars saga (or the sixth, if you’re picky), a critter in House and Dink in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs. Whilst Silla was rarely given (or perhaps even craved) the acting opportunities afforded to his similarly-sized contemporaries, he has achieved lasting fame playing monstrous oddities and comedic weirdos, something many in Hollywood would be grateful for.
Hervé Jean-Pierre Villechaize, some twenty-odd years after his death is still one of the best-known dwarf actors, to the extent where his name will often prompt an impression from someone in the room, should alcoholic drinks have been taken.
Born in France in 1943 of Filipino and English extraction, the 3’10” Villechaize preferred to be referenced as a midget, as opposed to a dwarf, his head and body being in proportion. Despite several medical procedures, something his doctor father was insistent upon, his thyroid-related condition led to his growth being restricted.
Although nationally recognised at an early age for his painting and photography skills, Villechaize left for America aged 21, having taught himself English by watching American television programmes, appropriate given that his greatest success would be via that medium.
Settling in New York, he appeared in blink-and-you-miss-it film roles until a meatier role came along in the form of Christopher Speeth’s 1973 film, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood. Now considered a classic of American low-budget drive-in cinema, it allowed the actor to use his own very drawly French accent to convey an appropriately strange tone to an already bewildering spectacle.
The following year saw him build on this somewhat cult foundation by starring as the evil Spider in Oliver Stone’s big screen debut, Seizure. Evidently a casting agent had caught one of these early appearances as he soon found himself in the James Bond film, The Man With the Golden Gun, as Nick-Nack, still now hailed as one of the franchise’s greatest villains. It was the first acting part that really paid off financially, the actor living rough at the time in Los Angeles.
Despite the fame this brought him, it did not lead to further blockbuster roles, his next meaningful film appearance being in 1980’s, The Forbidden Zone, as the sexually-charged King Fausto. Indeed, Villechaize’s experience on Bond had sparked an outward confidence with the ladies, fuelled by a fondness for alcohol.
His star actually peaked on television from 1977-1983, as the character Tattoo in Fantasy Island, his refrain, “De plane, de plane!” being better remembered than the show itself. It was here he met his future wife, Donna Camille, a minor actress and model. The relationship only lasted two years, Villechaize a victim of drink, the self-aggrandisement his TV fame brought him and depression, leading to suicidal thoughts. Not long after, Villechaize had an appeal for a wage increase declined, leading to his departure from the hit show and the beginning of a downward spiral into far more intermittent work.
By 1993, he was reduced to self-referential TV cameos, the end truly being self-inflicted when he committed suicide by shooting himself. His suicide note explained he could no longer live with the severe pain his condition caused him.
Luis De Jesus
Born in New York in 1952, details of the 4’3” Luis de Jesus’ life and indeed film career are somewhat sketchy, perhaps befitting of a performer who took exploitation to a whole new level. It is said he began his career in entertainment at the circus, entirely believable considering that the sideshows of Coney Island were still a going concern. From here, his attentions turned to a particular form of film – one in which he appeared in for much of the rest of his life, to almost legendary notoriety.
The first appearance of de Jesus in film is agreed to be a 1970 peep-show loop, later expanded to a full feature which featured Luis doing exactly what you’d expect. For many years, it was thought to be something of an urban myth, something now ‘helpfully’ clarified. During this somewhat hazy period, it was alleged the actor in question was not in fact de Jesus but Hervé Villechaize, disregarding the fact there was no resemblance beyond their height.
Not long after this, the director, Joel M. Reed, was casting for the horror-sleaze epic, The Incredible Torture Show (1976, later re-titled Blood Sucking Freaks when picked up by Troma in 1981), the key role of the demented and sadistic dwarf, Ralphus, being earmarked, ironically, for Hervé Villechaize, whom he knew via his appearance in Oliver Stone’s aforementioned Seizure. Villechaize had at that time relocated briefly back to Paris and was insistent that his airfare be covered, should he accept, something Reed’s budget would not stretch to. Eager to find a replacement quickly, de Jesus was the first through the door and passed the audition through size and appearance alone, his mass of curly hair and fiendish grin being more than enough talent.
Without an R-rating, The Incredible Torture Show received limited showings in New York, eventually an excellent marketing tool, though at the time a disaster. Less so for de Jesus, who allegedly had enjoyed sexual liaisons with at least one of the models who featured in the film off-camera, despite the presence of her boyfriend. It was clear his acting career was not going to lead to a slew of offers from Hollywood after this part, a riotously entertaining, though equally filthy romp.
Indeed, he quickly returned to adult films, appearing in the likes of Gerard Damiano’s Make My Puppets Come (perhaps the only film that could compare to The Incredible Torture Show in terms of ludicrousness) Ultra-Flesh and Fanta-sex Island, a parody of Fantasy Island that yet again saw the two actors briefly crossing the horizon at the same time. By the time of his death in 1988, de Jesus had made a vague attempt at a mainstream career, appearing briefly in Under the Rainbow and as an ewok in Return of the Jedi.
Nelson de la Rosa
Nelson was recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s shortest man in 1989, reaching an adult height of only 2’4”. He became something of a national hero in his native Dominican Republic after becoming a regular fixture on Venezuelan television, though genre fans will remember him best for his appearance as the titular RatMan, a 1988 Italian production shot on location in his homeland.
His fanged mutation, technically classed as a rat/monkey hybrid, is a real treat, de la Rosa cropping up in the unlikeliest of places with a genuine creepy menace. Yet greater stardom beckoned, cast in the doomed Richard Stanley retelling of The Island of Dr. Moreau. The acting behemoth, Marlon Brando, became somewhat obsessed with de la Rosa, insisting his role was greatly expanded and goading him into making sexual advances towards female members of cast and crew.
Whilst the H.G. Wells film did not lead to further screen success, he became an adopted mascot by the Boston Red Sox baseball team and de la Rosa earned a comfortable living in circuses across South America, leaving a wife and child on his death in 2006.
Zelda Rubinstein was something of a late-comer to the world of entertainment, not venturing into the void until she was in her late 40’s. At 4’3” and with a distinctive, high-pitched voice, roles did not necessarily jump out at her, though her first job as a voice-over artist on The Flintstones cartoon did however, give her the confidence to leave her job as a blood bank technician and become a performer full-time.
Work on television adverts followed, leading to her first film role in Under the Rainbow, along with The Wizard of Oz and the Star Wars films, almost a rite of passage for actors of restricted height in Hollywood.
Her breakthrough came quickly, in Tobe Hooper’s (more likely the stewardship of writer, Steven Spielberg) 1982 hit, Poltergeist. Playing the psychic, Tangina, Rubinstein plays a pivotal character arriving slap-bang in the middle of the film. The part was written specifically for a small person and it was one which the actress had to battle hard for, going through several auditions to win the role. Her performance is one of both tenderness and stern warnings, many of her lines – “this house is clean”; “go into the light” – becoming quoted and referenced for many years afterwards.
A huge box-office hit, the film revitalised the haunted house genre and ushered forth two sequels in 1986 and 1988 – more were considered but the death of the little girl, JoBeth Williams brought the run to a close.
Rubinstein remained busy: of note for horror fans was Anguish, Bigas Luna’s dazzling, extremely strange 1987 film which sees the actress in an even more central role as a domineering mother controlling her son via hypnosis to commit grisly crimes. Here, her stature and voice add a more outwardly uneasy tension to the action, an excellent use of her acting skills in a far arty, surreal setting.
Television continued to be a reliable source of employment – recurring roles in Picket Fences and Santa Barbara still allowing time for one-off appearance in Tales from the Crypt and lesser feature films including Little Witches (1996); Wishcraft (2002) and Southland Tales (2006).
Her final film role came in 2006 in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Away from the world of film and television, she was a strong HIV/AIDS awareness activist, as well as supporting other actors of short stature – she founded the non-profit Michael Dunn Memorial Repertory Theatre Company, named after the trailblazing actor who broke down so many barriers before her. Zelda died in Los Angeles in 2010.
Perhaps the most well-known dwarf actor in the world (certainly in the UK), Warwick’s 3’6” stature won him the role of Wicket the ewok in Return of the Jedi at the tender age of 11, an association with the franchise that extended to the two spin-offs, Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor, as well as different roles in The Phantom Menace, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the as-yet-untitled part 8.
Warwick became the go-to actor for roles in many fantasy films of the 1980’s onwards, from the still fondly-remembered, Willow (1988); Labyrinth (1986) and, most memorably to younger eyes, the Harry Potter films.
For fans of horror, Davis became a horror icon, albeit, arguably, one of a rather lower division to that of Jason, Freddy et al – the wise-cracking anti-hero in the long-running Leprechaun series of films (six thus far – surely no more!?).
The 2004 film, Skinned Deep, a lousy Texas Chain Saw rip-off about a dysfunctional family of ghouls and 2007’s appalling Small Town Folk may have paid a gas bill but Davis’ career has largely been on television in recent years, in comedic roles and, bizarrely, as a game-show host.
New Orleans native Fondacaro was born in 1958 and has carved out an extremely productive career both onscreen and off as a voice-over artist. The ever-reliable Under the Rainbow in 1981 set him off on a career in entertainment that regularly weaved between genres, utilising his 3’6” stature and acting skill to play everything from evil villains to henchmen, monstrous entities and regular Joes. Fondacaro has shown more of a willingness than many dwarf actors to embrace horrific roles, rationalising that these are only characters, as any actor plays, and not a reflection of himself.
A role as a killer clown in Something Wicked This Way Comes in 1983, followed by the inevitable ewok in Return of the Jedi proved to be the springboard for a slew of roles in horror films. Fondacaro voice the character of Creeper in 1985’s Black Cauldron; The Dungeonmaster; Mickey in the ridiculous Hard Rock Zombies before appearing buried under the impressive costume of Torok in the highly successful Troll (1986). The cherry on the cake of Troll is its opportunity for his dual role as Malcolm Mallory, allowing Fondacaro to demonstrate his considerable acting skills.
The voice of Greaser Greg in The Garbage Pail Kids, roles in Invaders from Mars, Willow, Tales from the Darkside and Phantasm II led to an acting part in Ghoulies II, yet another opportunity to work with the infamous Band clan, here for the prolific Charles.
Later collaborations include Dollman vs. Demonic Toys; Blood Dolls; Decadent Evil Dead; Evil Bong and Devil Dolls (spot the running theme). Also of note is his appearance as Dracula in Band’s 1997 film, Deformed Monsters, hailed as the shortest Dracula on screen, a peculiar badge of honour.
Fondacaro had the distinction of taking Felix Silla’s role as Cousin Itt in the small screen revisit to The Addams Family Reunion, before an appearance in George Romero’s Land of the Dead. With regular mainstream TV appearances on the likes of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and CSI have ensured a healthy career for the actor.
Lest we also forget:
1934-2016 – 3’8”
Circus of Horrors (1960)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1982)
When the Devil Rides Out (2018)
Luigi Francis ‘Shorty’ Rossi
Born 1969 – 4’0”
Ice Scream – The ReMix (2006)
1939 – 2016 – 2’9”
Warlock: The Armageddon (1993)
1945 – 1993 – height unknown
The Sinful Dwarf (1973)
Born 1953 – 3’6”
Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980)
Invaders from Mars (1986)
Silence of the Hams (1994)
Leprechaun II (1994)
Ghoulies IV (1994)
As Taras do Mini-Vampiro (aka Little Vampire Taints) (1987)
Nickname: Lil Chris
Antonio De Martino
Born 1960 – 3’6”
Nightmare Cafe (TV Series, 1992)
The Munsters’ Scary Little Christmas (1996)
Deadtime Stories (TV Series, 2013)
Born 1948 – 4’2”
Disciple of Death (1972)
4′ (1.22 m)
The Limehouse Golem (2016) as Little Victor
1923 – 2003 – 4’0”
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1956)
Born August 29, 1996 – 3′ 3″
Cult of Chucky (2017) – uncredited as a body
Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block (2018) – as Smart Mouth
Born 1957 – 4’4”
Alien from L.A. (1988)
Howling VI: The Freaks (1991)
Corpse Bride (2005, voice only)
Paranormal Movie (2013)
Born 1956 – 4’1”
The People That Time Forgot (1977)
Aliens (1986 – stunt performer)
Jekyll & Hyde (1990)
Born 1936 – 3’11”
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
The Addams Family (1991)
Born 1920 – 4’3”
Planet of the Apes (1968)
The Being (1983)
Frankenstein Rising (2010)
Dahmer vs. Gacy (2010)
Tamara De Treaux
1959-1990 – 2’7”
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
4’2” date of birth unknown
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Debbie Lee Carrington
Born 1959 – 3’10”
Invaders from Mars (1986)
Monsters (TV series, 1989)
Born 1946 – 4’3”
Twilight Zone (TV Series, 1986)
Night of the Creeps (1986)
Joseph S. Griffo
Born 1952 – 4’3”
Night of the Creeps (1986)
Carnival of Souls (1998)
Biographical Details Unknown
Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994)
Blind Beast vs. Dwarf (2001)
D.O.B. unknown – 4’5”
Night of the Creeps (1986)
Twilight Zone (TV Series, 1986)
Nightmare Cafe (TV Series, 1992)
Born 1963 – 3’4”
Phantasm II (1988)
Child’s Play (Chucky’s Stunt Double, 1988)
Chopper Chicks in Zombietown (1989)
The Munsters’ Scary Little Christmas (1996)
Born 1973 – 4’1”
Wolf Girl (2001)
Long Pigs (2007)
Silent But Deadly (2011)
1918-2009 – 4’2”
Devil Doll (1964)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
1933-2001 – Height Unknown
Twins of Evil (1971)
I Don’t Want to be Born aka The Monster (1975)
Shadows (TV Series, 1975)
Wilhelm the Dwarf Vampire (short film, 2011)
Ravenwolf Towers (streaming and DVD series)
David J. Steinberg
February 12, 1965 – March 16, 2010
Are You Afraid of the Dark? – Canadian horror fantasy anthology television series, 1991
Transylmania (as Dean Floca, 2009
4′ 4″ (1.32 m)
Little Evil (as Gozomel, 2017)
1969 to 2018 – 2′ 8″ (0.81 m)
Gnome Alone (as The Gnome, 2015)
Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (TV series, 2002)
Wishmaster (Creature Stage #1, 1998)
Pinocchio’s Revenge (Pinocchio, 1996)
Article by Daz Lawrence © HORRORPEDIA 2017, with additional material by Adrian J Smith