Hervé Villechaize was a man who, had he not been born a dwarf, would have most likely never been a success as an actor. However, his size – while a problem for him while growing up due to bullying, and a time bomb in terms of his personal health – would ensure that he found plenty of acting work in the 1970s, and thanks to appearances in a Bond movie and a hugely popular TV series, he became something of a celebrity for a while.
Born in 1943, Villechaize had dabbled in painting as a young man in his native France, before moving to the USA in 1964. Once he had mastered English (after a fashion at least, apparently learned from watching TV), he set out to become an actor – or else fell into it after being spotted by casting directors looking out for a dwarf. His first film was Chappaqua in 1966 (where he was uncredited), and he would go on to have roles in films like the bizarre Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, Oliver Stone’s horror film Seizure, and The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Alejandro Jodorowsky wanted him for Dune – well, of course he did – but as that project fell through, Villechaize found himself out of work and living in his car. That’s when he had his big break, being cast in The Man With the Golden Gun in 1974, playing Scaramanga’s assistant Nick Nack. Not for the first or last time, the novelty henchman stole the show, and his new fame saw him cast as Tattoo in Fantasy Island, where his line “ze plane! Ze plane!” quickly became a catchphrase of sorts – the only thing about the romantic drama series that anyone really remembers.
Despite the fact that he was being cast entirely because of his physical size rather than due to any sort of innate talent – which astute viewers quickly came to realise was conspicuous by its absence – Villechaize apparently developed quite the ego during the Fantasy Island years, believing that the success off the show was entirely down to him. When he demanded a salary equal to that of actual star Ricardo Montalban, the producers responded by firing him. He also began to berate anyone who called him a dwarf, insisting that he was a midget, seemingly unaware that both terms are equally un-PC. If we are being kind, we might see his egotism as a reaction to the way he had been treated all his life, but it’s just as likely that he was simply another Hollywood asshole who had an inflated sense of his own importance.
Curiously though, Villechaize was also a member of a civic group that dealt with cases of child abuse and neglect, even showing up at crime scenes to comfort victims and chastise perpetrators. Quite what anyone made of seeing the excitable dwarf from a popular TV show popping up during their most painful moments has never been revealed.
Like many dwarfs, Villechaize suffered for years with health problems relating to his size – his internal organs developed at a rate that his body could not keep up with, resulting in chronic pain. He had attempted suicide several times, and in 1993, he finally succeeded, shooting himself in his Hollywood home. At the time, he hadn’t worked for years (his last credit was in 1988, in Two Moon Junction) but was in negotiation to provide a voice for the cartoon Space Ghost: Coast to Coast.
In 1980, at the height of his fame, Villechaize recorded a record, called Why? – a question listeners immediately found themselves thinking upon hearing it. A heartfelt cry for peace and understanding, Why? unfortunately falls between the stools of schmaltz and outsider art, with Villechaize proving himself to be a worse singer than he was actor. His fame did not propel the song up the charts, but it has inevitably become a kitsch classic in more recent years.
Here he is performing the song to a presumably aghast TV audience in 1980.