© The Birmingham Mail
Last weekend saw the passing of Kenny Baker, an actor whose face wasn’t famous but whose most prominent film-role certainly was. The three-foot, eight-inch-tall Baker was the man inside the bodywork of the diminutive Star Wars robot R2D2, part dodgem car and part coffee percolator. He steered the trundling, beeping droid through six instalments of George Lucas’s lucrative space-fantasy saga. He would have returned in a seventh, last year’s The Force Awakens, but declining health prevented this.
In the movies R2D2 was partnered with the jabbering humanoid robot C-3PO, whom I always thought was a bit of a knob-head. R2D2, though, was the star. Indeed, according to R2D2’s Wikipedia entry, George Lucas made a point of having the resourceful little droid save the day on at least one occasion in every film.
That said, I think Baker’s finest hour wasn’t as R2D2 but as Fidget, one of the six time-travelling dwarves in Terry Gilliam’s superlative fantasy film, The Time Bandits (1981). The kindly Fidget gets killed near the end, squashed beneath a falling pillar; but fortunately God, played by Sir Ralph Richardson, pops up in the nick of time to restore him to life. I’ve heard claims that Gilliam based the dwarves’ characters on the six members of the outfit he’d formerly belonged to, the Monty Python team; and Fidget, the nice-guy dwarf, was modelled on Michael Palin.
Kenny Baker’s death got me thinking. I’ve seen a lot of short actors in my time – especially as they appear in many horror, fantasy and science-fiction movies, three genres I’m a fan of. So who are my favourite ones?
Firstly, I’d pick Skip Martin. By the time of his death in 1984 Martin had appeared in several British horror movies that, because I watched them at a formative age, are now seared on my memory. As well as playing big-top dwarves in John Llewellyn Moxley / Werner Jacobs’ Circus of Fear (1966) and Robert Young’s atmospheric Vampire Circus (1972), Skip Martin appeared in Corridors of Blood (1958), The Hellfire Club (1961), Son of Dracula (1974) and the absolutely barking-mad-insane Horror Hospital (1973).
© Alta Vista Productions / AIP
But he’s at his best in Roger Corman’s majestic 1964 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. Writers Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell stitch a second Poe story, Hop Frog, into the plot and Martin takes the title role in this. Well, almost the title role – Beaumont and Campbell rename him ‘Hop Toad’ for some reason. Hop Toad is one of two little people employed as entertainers by rottenly-evil Prince Prospero (Vincent Price), who’s holed up in his castle and living a life of drink / drugs / sex / party / diabolism-fuelled decadence while a plague, the Red Death, decimates the countryside outside. One of Prospero’s loathsome guests, Alfredo (Patrick Magee), insults Hop Toad’s dainty, doll-like partner Esmerelda and he vows revenge.
This comes when Alfredo decides to don fancy dress at Prospero’s next big social event, the masque. Hop Toad persuades him to wear a hairy (and inflammable) ape costume. Then on the night, with the help of some chains and a giant hanging candelabrum, he suspends Alfredo above the revellers on the dance floor, sets his costume alight and burns him to a crisp. This delights Price’s Prospero, who purrs, “Look… I believe Hop Toad is playing some sort of a joke on Alfredo!” Gratifyingly, when the inevitable happens and the Red Death gets into the castle and poops the party, Hop Toad and Esmerelda are among the few who escape.
Less prolific in British horror movies, but still memorable, was American actor Michael Dunn. A man with an intriguing back story – he reputedly had an IQ of 178 and a non-acting CV that included stints as a singer, a journalist, a hotel detective and a monk – he made his name during the 1960s with appearances in countless American TV shows, most famously as Dr Miguelito Loveless, the main villain in The Wild, Wild West (1965-1968). He was also nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in Edward Albee’s stage adaptation of Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café and for an Oscar for his role as narrator in Ship of Fools (1965).
Near the end of his life he appeared in another British-made Poe adaptation, Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971); and another British horror film of the barking-mad-insane variety, Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations (1973), in which he was a member of a carnival sideshow that’s a front for some horrific gene-splicing experiments carried out by mad scientist Donald Pleasence. In the year The Mutations was made, Dunn – by then frustrated about the roles he was getting – died of pulmonary heart disease. His health wasn’t helped by his fondness for Jack Daniel’s, which despite his size he could put away a lot of.
When I’m in the right mood, I quite like The Mutations. But I can see how appearing in a sleazy British horror movie where Donald Pleasence surgically turns people into plant monsters must have convinced Dunn his career was on the skids.
One short actor whose career is unlikely to be on the skids anytime soon is British actor Warwick Davis. After his appearances in three Star Wars films, eight Harry Potter films, plus the Ricky Gervais situation comedy Life’s Too Short (2011-2013), he’s now regarded in Britain as a national treasure. Incidentally, when he was less famous, Davis played the title character in six instalments of the dopey Leprechaun horror-comedy franchise. He was in Leprechaun (1992), Leprechaun II (1993), Leprechaun III (1994), Leprechaun IV: In Space (1996), Leprechaun: In the Hood (2000) and Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood (2003). About the last film, Entertainment Weekly mused, “If a movie could spark a race riot, this is it.”
I like Warwick Davis a lot. However, having seen clips of those Leprechaun movies – I’ve never watched any in their entirety because, er, life’s too short – I’d advise him to do a bit of work on his Irish accent.
Another modern actor of short stature who seems to be doing well is Canadian actor Jordan Prentice. Like Kenny Baker and Warwick Davis, Prentice found early employment with George Lucas; but while Baker and Davis were lucky enough to be involved in the box-office-busting Star Wars series, Prentice was involved in a less illustrious item in the Lucas canon. He was one of the actors operating the title character in the atrocious 1986 sci-fi comedy Howard the Duck.
In the noughties Prentice appeared in two of my favourite comic-noir movies. Michael McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008) sees him playing Jimmy, an obnoxious ketamine-abusing, prostitute-chasing dwarf actor who’s doing some filming in the Belgian city of the title. Jimmy has to put up with dim-witted interloper Ray (Colin Farrell), who insists on babbling about the existentialist misery of being a dwarf: “People go around calling you a midget when you want to be called a dwarf. Of course you’re going to blow your head off.”
© Film4 Productions / Focus Films
The previous year he’d appeared in Allan Moyle’s Weirdsville, an amusing shaggy-dog story set in Ontario and involving druggies, Satanists and, yes, dwarves. The latter seem to belong to a historical re-enactment society for vertically-challenged people and they’re led by Prentice’s character, Martin. When late in the film Martin and his buddies turn up to save the day dressed in medieval garb, they provide an obvious visual reference to The Time Bandits.
That brings me back to The Time Bandits and my next favourite short actor. Englishman David Rappaport seemed ubiquitous on UK television when I was a youth. He appeared alongside the anarchic likes of Spike Milligan, Sylvester McCoy, Rik Mayall and Kenny Everett in various madcap kids’ and adult TV shows that I enjoyed, including Q9 (1980), Jigsaw (1980-1981), The Goodies (1981), Tiswas (1981-1982), The Young Ones (1982-1983) and The Kenny Everett Television Show (1985). He was also in movies like Cuba (1979) and The Bride (1985). But his cinematic break came when another anarchic talent, Terry Gilliam, cast him in The Time Bandits as Randall, the dwarves’ cocky but essentially good-hearted leader. If you believe the Monty Python theory, Gilliam based this character on John Cleese.
© HandMade Films / Janus Films
Tragically, Rappaport suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1990. Three years later, another short actor, Frenchman Hervé Villechaize, star of the schmaltzy 1980s American TV show Fantasy Island, took his own life – though Villechaize was driven to this not because of mental anguish but because of chronic pain caused by his physical condition. (In In Bruges, Colin Farrell’s character alludes to both Rapport and Villechaize during his babblings about dwarves.)
I’m not a Fantasy Island fan but I admired Villechaize for his performance as Nick Nack, henchman of the villainous Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) in the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun. The film’s lame but it has one thing going for it – its baddies, Lee and Villechaize. While Lee invests Scaramanga with his usual imperious wickedness, Villechaize is more sinisterly ambiguous. He seems affable. He’s dutiful and obedient. Because of his size, he’s almost elf-like. So is he dangerous? And if so, how dangerous? Even Bond himself, Roger Moore, can’t make up his mind. At the film’s end, rather than liquidating Nick Nack, he settles for trapping him inside a suitcase.
© Eon Productions
Incidentally, I’ve read that the American short actor Peter Dinklage – famous for his performances in the 2003 arthouse hit The Station Agent and the tits-blood-and-dragons TV fantasy show Game of Thrones – is currently trying to make a film about Villechaize called My Dinner with Hervé. If the project comes to fruition, let’s hope it’s a worthy epitaph for James Bond’s littlest adversary.
© HandMade Films / Janus Films