Blog Directory CineVerse: Revenge of the Hollywood half-pints

Revenge of the Hollywood half-pints

Thursday, July 2, 2009

by Erik J. Martin

Randy Newman be damned, short people do have reason to live long and prosper, especially in action/adventure/science-fiction films and TV fare. If not for the talents of short statured actors like Billy Barty, Kenny Baker, Warwick Davis and Beatrice Straight, the world might never have enjoyed big- and small-screen characters like Mayor of the Munchkin City, Rumpelstilskin, R2- D2, Willow and "Poltergeist's" great mini-medium Tangina.

Yet rumors of exploitation of dwarves and midget actors in the film and television industry endure. Tha
t diminutive thespians continue to be typecast in fictional Lilliputian-esque roles is a given. But are these actors disrespected, unappreciated and underpaid, as alleged by many insiders?

Yes and no, said Warwick Davis, the English star who plays Filius Flitwick in the "Harry Potter" films and the titular characters in "Willow" and the "Leprechaun" series and founder of the Willow Management agency for British actors under 5-feet tall.

"We've seen a lot of exploitation and very low pay in this industry, but we've managed to turn a lot of it around…through our agency's efforts. We've accomplished much better working conditions for short actors, better pay, and equal treatment. Before us, there wasn't a very good reputation for short actors, at least in England."

"Sometimes we're overlook
ed and forgotten about, yes," said Kenny Baker, best known for his role of R2D2 in "Star Wars" Episodes 4 through 6. "I remember acting in a British production of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' with Anthony Hopkins, and the director said, 'Wait in your dressing room we're not ready for you.'" Next thing I know, everyone had gone home without telling me."

Thanks to short actor advocates like Willow Management, however, little people have garnered more respect and learned to reject freak show entertainment-type work, a la circus acts and dwarf-throwing. And Hollywood hasn't turned a deaf ear, either.

"I think roles in movies have gotten better for shorter people, and the filmmaking industry has gotten its act together," said Davis, who adds that he and his dwarfish brethren have also adopted a change in attitude to enhance confidence and self-respect: "We're not being exploited; we're only exploiting ourselves, just like any actor selling his services."

Davis' argument to a produ
cer looking to underpay a midget cast in the background of a commercial, for example, is simple: "Why did you ask for a shorter actor in the first place? You're obviously featuring him or her. Why not double their rate of pay."

"Unless you're being put down or belittled, I don't think [a short actor is] being exploited by being typecast into roles," agreed Baker. "Our problem is more that we're not being cast at all. There aren't many parts for dwarves or midgets in a straight acting role. And the death of Jim Henson [who helped short actors land roles in films like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal] didn't do us any favors."

Davis, who has landed plum roles in big-budget features, certainly isn't complaining.

"A company such as Lucasfilm or BBC Television absolutely treats its shorter actors with respect," said Davis. "I've never run into any problems in my career, really. Sure, I've turned down some scripts that I thought didn't reflect very positive images of short actors. That's the sacrifice you have to make."

With digital effects advancing to the point where the computer can make normal sized actors appear diminutive, Baker and his friends always have to look over their shoulders.

“Anybody can be replaced,” adds Baker, “particularly little folk. I've always had that worry, especially with me being inside a robot like R2-D2, which can be computerized," Baker said. "But I think Lucas likes a man inside the robot, to make it wibble and wobble and come alive more naturally."

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