Sam Tweedle: Last night I sat down and watched The Black Bird because I had read that it is your favorite screen role.
Felix Silla: Yes it was. I liked that movie. It was a nice part. But it didn’t really do much for me because they released [The Black Bird as a double feature] with an X-rated movie, so it didn’t go anywhere. On top of that George Segal and the producer were having some problems. They were on an ego trip. So I don’t know. It was my favorite, but it didn’t do any justice for me.
Sam: What was it about that film and that role that makes it your favorite?
Felix: That was a sequel to The Maltese Falcon as a comedy, and I play the part of the villain. Also, we had the actress who played the original secretary from The Maltese Falcon. She was twenty years old when she did The Maltese Falcon, and she was eighty when we did The Black Bird.
Sam: It was interesting to see you in it playing a major role. When I think of the roles you are famous for you are concealed in costumes and we can’t see you. That wasn’t the case in The Black Bird. We could see you.
Felix: Well in those days it was either costume work or doing stunts for kids, or standing in for kids. In those days they used a lot of kids and animals. Now they don’t do that as much anymore.
Sam: So when did you first come to America from Italy?
Felix: I came over here when I was sixteen years old. I had a brother in upstate New York and I came to this country with no idea of what I was going to do. I didn’t speak English at all, so when I got here he took me to see the Ringing Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in New York City and I got a job with them. I worked with them for a little while and travelled to different cities.
Sam: What kind of work did you do in the circus?
Felix: Well, I had to get some kind of a job. There was no place for me to get an office job. But when my brother took me to New York to see the circus I got a job with Nat Eagle who had a lot of little people in the side show. Well I decided I didn’t like it, so I started up with a group from Italy working with the horses. I was a bareback rider. But in 1962 I decided I had had enough and decided to stay in California. I went to work for a company that did publicity for the circus every time it came to LA. One day one of my boss’s friends came over and he said “You know, they are looking for some little people to do some stunt work for a movie. Why don’t you go? You might be the right size of person,” which I was. At that time I didn’t have a car and I was just learning the language pretty good. So a friend of mine took me to MGM Studios and I started working in the movies doing stunt work for little kids.
Sam: One of my favorite things you did in the early part of your career was when you played a leprechaun on Bonanza.
Felix: Oh my God! Bonanza! You know what? That’s one of the best episodes of Bonanza produced. It was so funny! I did that in 1964 and then I went and did some work at the New York World’s Fair working for Sid and Marty Kroft.
Sam: I am a big fan of Sid and Marty Kroft!
Felix: You are? I did H.R. Pufnstuf and Lidsville with them.
Sam: How did you get involved with the Kroft Brothers?
Felix: I just went in for an interview. They were looking for little people and I got the job. I first worked with the Krofts at the World’s Fair in New York. They used to have a show called Le Poupees de Paris. Well I was the only live person in the show. All the rest of the show were puppets. Well I played the part of Frankenstein. Some of the kids, I scared the daylights out of them. I would be lying on a board, and then I would come alive and I would walk towards the audience on the platform. I’d step off of the platform, that would take me down to the floor and then I’d walk all the way to the front entrance. Kids would be stomping all over and screaming and it was wonderful.
Sam: Billy Barty was also in a lot of the Krofft Brothers shows.
Felix: Yes. Billy worked on Lidsville and Pufnstuf. They had a bunch of little people for those shows. In fact, they didn’t have enough so what they had to do was make us run around like chickens with our heads cut off to get out of one costume and into another. They didn’t have enough guys but had too many characters.
Sam: Another guy I like that worked on those Krofft shows was Little Angelo.
Felix: Yeah. Yeah. He did. Angelo was in the industry way before I got to California. Angelo was a really smart guy.
Sam: Now you’re most iconic role is playing Cousin Itt on The Addams Family. Now what kind of audition process did you have to go through to get that role?
Felix: You know, it was so easy. It was really really easy. I was the only one in the interview. There was no one else.
Sam: Where did they find you?
Felix: Well they were looking for someone and my agent send me to the office on a Friday evening. I arrived at the studio, I went inside an office and there were a couple of guys sitting inside. They looked at me, looked at each other and said “That’s Itt” and I got the job. They didn’t say what I was supposed to be doing. They didn’t tell me nothing at all. They just said come back Monday. So I came back Monday and I started working as Cousin Itt. It was a very very heavy costume of human hear. It was very heavy and very hot and it was very flammable. When the crew was on break they’d go across the stage and get a cup of coffee and, meanwhile, they are smoking a cigarette and they throw it on the floor to step it out. So the producer said “You know what? This is very dangerous to have Felix walking around in this costume on and what if some guy throws down a cigarette and he misses? If Felix is walking around and sweeps it up, he’s going to go up in flames!” So they came back with a new costume made of synthetic material. IT was so nice. It was light and not hot at all. So I came in during the middle of the series and I went to the end. Then, in 1970, they tried to do it again but in color, but it didn’t work.
Sam: The Addams Family is a series they’ve tried to bring back many times, but they always seem to screw it up. It never has the magic of the original TV series.
Felix: I know what you’re trying to tell me. If it’s not broken then don’t fix it. Because it’s crazy. Like I said, they tried to remake it. If it doesn’t work it doesn’t work. The writers we had were great. They knew comedy. They knew what they were doing. And then all of a sudden everything got cancelled. Our show and The Munsters got cancelled in the same year. Everything got dropped.
Sam: Now Cousin Itt wasn’t in the first episodes of the series, nor was he in the original comic by Charles Addams. However, he has arguably the most beloved character of the series. What do you think the appeal of Cousin Itt is?
Felix: You know Sam, I have no idea. Can you tell me? I don’t really know. He became so famous. Every time I do a convention people come to my table and go “Oh my God! Now I know who Cousin Itt was!” They go crazy. They don’t believe I’m standing right in front of them. Some people will ask stupid questions. They’ll look at my photos and go “Did you do this? Did you do that?” I say “Of course I did. If I didn’t what do you think I’m doing here? Holding up a chair?” Of course that’s me. It was me. You know, I didn’t think that thirty or forty years later that they’d still be talking about that show.
Sam: Now when I was a little kid, and going through the first wave of Star Wars obsession, I just loved watching Buck Rogers, and Twiki the Robot was obviously my favorite.
Felix: Yeah, the kids loved Twiki and the fathers were watching Erin Gray. That was another good show, but in the second season they really killed it. It changed so much. They got a different producer who was from Gunsmoke to do sci-fi. I mean, how can you go from a western to sci-fi? So then they said that Buck Rogers was too expensive in the first year, so they got rid of Tim O’Connor. To this day he doesn’t know why they got rid of him. So they got rid of one person, but then they added four more. They brought in the Hawk and Wilfred Hyde-White. That guy couldn’t remember dialogue. They had to use cue cards for him. He was an old man. He was pretty old. A very slow guy. A good actor though.
Sam: Although you played Twiki, Mel Blanc did his voice. Did you ever get to meet Mel Blanc?
Felix: I only met him one time. I had my picture taken with him. He was sitting in the chair and I was standing next to him. I don’t know who took the photo. I wish I had the photo. Maybe it was the producer. I only met him once and then he passed away.
Sam: Talking about classic sci-fi, you had a memorable moment as a child ape in Planet of the Apes during Carleton Heston’s scene where he escapes that ends with him yelling the famous line “Get your paws off me you damn dirty ape.”
Felix: Oh yeah. I had to be on the set at three o’clock in the morning to do three hours of makeup. They glued nine pieces on my face and had to make it up with the hair. Three hours every morning. And then after you did that, and when they started filming, it’d started to rain and they’d say “Okay, take it all off, go home and then come back tomorrow.” And in those days they were using spirit gum to glue those pieces on my face, and to get it off they used acid soap. It burned so much. I couldn’t wait for that film to be over. Five days a week I had to go there.
Sam: How many extras did they have being made up every day as apes?
Felix: I don’t really remember, but there was quite a few.
Sam: Now a few years ago a friend of mine got me to watch The Manitou, and I remember thinking how I thought it was one of the weirdest freaking movies I ever saw in my life. What was up with that film? And it had such a great cast.
Felix: Oh, I know. Tony Curtis and so many wonderful actors.
Sam: And you’re naked and slimy throughout the whole thing.
Felix: Oh my god. They put so much make up on my body. I had a g-string on and then they’d glue all this crap on me. I couldn’t stand it.
Sam: Now let me see if I remember this. You play a slimy Indian fetus.
Felix: Yeah. It was a hell of a movie. The director died right when we were having the wrap party. He got killed in an airplane crash. I’ll have to rewatch that myself. You know, I don’t really watch too much stuff that I did. The last time I went to the movies was when they were showing the premier of Howard the Duck. I don’t really care too much to go anymore.
Sam: Well you worked with some really great directors in the later part of your career. You worked with George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg and Tim Burton.
Felix: Yeah. I worked with some good directors.
Sam: Now you were involved in E.T. I’ve heard different things about what you did for that film. I heard that you were a stunt double for Henry Thomas, but also that you played E.T. in a few scenes. Which is correct?
Felix: No, I was never in an E.T. costume. Let me tell you what I did. I had worked with Spielberg in the film 1941, and he called me again to do some stunts on E.T. I did the trick or treating scene. Drew Barrymore was only six or seven years old, and minors are not allowed to work certain hours. So when we were doing the night scene, and she is dressed like a ghost and she is going up and down the street trick or treating and there were fireworks involved. So Spielberg called me up from the location and he wanted me to double for her. So that’s what I did.
Sam: What is Steven Spielberg like to work with?
Felix: Oh my God. He is a very very smart man. When he comes on the set he knows exactly what he’s going to do for that day. He doesn’t come on the set screaming and hollering at everybody. Some of these directors don’t know anything. They don’t do their homework. But when Steven comes on the set he has everything figured out. He figures it out the night before at the office. So he’s ready to go. He takes a few takes and that’s it.
Sam: And that has to be a big part of his success.
Felix: Of course it is. He knows what he’s doing and everybody likes the guy. He’s very smart. He knows what he’s doing and what he wants.
Sam: Compared to Spielberg, what is it like working with George Lucas?
Felix: George is a very nice guy. I never worked with him as a director. On Indiana Jones I worked with Spielberg. On Return of the Jedi it was Richard Marquand. On Howard the Duck it was somebody else. But, George is a very nice person. I would say George is kind of shy. He stays in the background. He says good morning and hello and good night and that’s it. You don’t have a conversation with him like you do with Spielberg. Spielberg is different. Sometimes we would get on the set of Indiana Jones early and one day he said “Hey Felix. If you were an inch and a half shorter I could use you in the second E.T.” We’re still waiting for that. I don’t think it’ll ever happen. But he is funny. You can talk to him. If you’re not working you can have a conversation with him. He likes to talk. What he likes to do is hire kids who are not well known actors.
Sam: I’ve noticed that.
Felix: You know that little kid Short Round? They hired me before they hired him.
Sam: You were his stunt double.
Felix: Yes. I did all the stunts for him. We were doing that movie for six months. We were back and forth from L.A. to Shri Lanka to India to China. It was a full six months. They hired a kid who was not well known so they could teach him on the set while he was filming.
Sam: The story that has been repeated many times is that you were nearly killed filming Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. What happened exactly?
Felix: Yeah. Well, I got stuck under the raft in the river and nearly drowned. We were filming the scene where the raft falls from the airplane. Well we were doing the second unit in California, because Harrison Ford got hurt doing the film in London. He hurt his back, so they had to send him home to Los Angeles to see the doctor. So we flew back to L.A. to work with the second unit for the river scene. It was all done somewhere near Lake Tahoe. Well all the water was coming from the mountain, and it was a cold temperature. It was July and the outside temperature was 105 C. I don’t swim, and every time I stepped in the water I was shivering. My god it was terrible. Well anyway, it was myself, the stuntman for Harrison Ford and the stunt woman for Kate Capshaw. Well we were coming down the river and something happened to the raft and the other two people jumped out and it flipped over and I got stuck underneath the raft. Steven Spielberg found out what happened and he said “Don’t let Felix do anymore water work because I need him to finish the movie.” I had to go back to London.
Sam: How did you escape?
Felix: Well they gave me a vest, and I pulled on the string and finally it came up. Also, I didn’t want to let go of the raft because if I didn’t I would have gone down the river.
Sam: Now in Return of the Jedi you were the Ewok that flew through the air on the glider.
Sam: Did you get that role because of your background as a stuntman?
Felix: Well, I knew a guy when I was doing stunts on Poltergeist who told me “Felix, I need some help from you. I need a bunch of little people to do some stunts in a movie that’s coming up” but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. It was all top secret. Nobody knew anything about it. So all of a sudden [he called me up] and we went up to San Francisco where Lucasfilm is located, and we had about seventy five little people. So he said to me “You’re going to have to help me find other little people who can do stunt work.” Because mostly it was a lot of dwarfs. So I got the job as a stunt man, and little people were asking me “Hey Felix. Can you help me get jobs doing stunts so I can become a member of the Screen Actors Guild?” So I said “You know what? You got to show me what you can do.” But listen to this. We filmed so much scenes [featuring the Ewoks] that they used maybe about five percent of what they did. They barely showed anything of what we did.
Sam: So there is all this unseen Ewok footage in a vault somewhere?
Felix: Oh yeah. Somewhere in the can. Disney probably owns it now. We did a lot of fun scenes. A lot of good stuff.
Sam: Your final film was with Tim Burton which was Batman Returns where you played a penguin.
Felix: Yeah. If you look at the penguins I’m the second penguin on the right side. They call us Emperor Penguins.
Sam: Were all the penguins little people?
Felix: We had four or five of us and then there were these little tiny penguins. They had little costumes on them and they were running all over the place. That place was so cold. We were freezing cold. Everybody was wearing winter jackets. I told the wardrobe guy “This is the first time I don’t want to get out of my suit. Keep me in the suit.
Sam: And after Batman Returns you called it quits, correct>?
Felix: No. I did a movie more movie in 1995 in Romania called The Legend of Galgameth. It was a story of a little creature that like to eat metal and then he grew up. It was a fantasy type of thing and it was directed by a real well known Korean director. It was a lot of fun. We were there for three or four weeks.
Sam: And then you decided to call it quits.
Felix: Well, there was so much competition. You were competing with the big actors, and Under the Rainbow really killed the industry. During Under the Rainbow everybody came to California to become a millionaire. They think that they’re going to be rich overnight. It doesn’t work like that, and not too many people went back home. They stayed there and what happened? Some of them are still there and they still think they’ll make a lot of money. Look. I started movies in 1962 and I’ve been there for a long time. I never became a millionaire. I paid my dues and paid for my house. But we had a good pension from the Screen Actors Guild which I’m very thankful for. But you know what? There’s not much going on anymore.
Sam: Is there still jobs for little people in stunt work?
Felix: Well, you know what? Let me tell you Sam. Right now it’s a really bad time. I retired in 1995. The problem is that there is not a lot of work for little people anymore. What they’re doing is that they have their own kids doubling and doing stunts for other kids. That should be illegal! They’re minors! So that’s put little people out of work. That’s why they used little people to do stunts. Minors are not supposed to be allowed to do their own dangerous work.
Sam: That’s really awful, and I can see how it would put a strain on the market for stunt men.
Felix: Yeah. And another thing, every year we had at least two or three corporate commercials around Christmas where they’d use little people for elves and leprechauns and whatever, and all of sudden they are using regular guys that are 5’4 and they make them smaller and all of a sudden we are out of work again. We have to compete with 5’4 guys.
Sam: This is a conversation I’ve had with people in the past. I first noticed it when they used Peter Dinklage and Warwick Davies in the Narnia films for the roles of dwarves, and I was commenting on how I thought it was unfair that they were CGIing people in the Lord of the Rings films instead of giving little people more of those roles.
Felix: Yeah, they use these regular guys in the roles of smaller people, and then we’re not working. So I gave up in 1995 and in 2003 I moved to Vegas. California is very expensive.
Sam: But you know, I look through your credits and you’ve worked on so many different shows I love – from The Monkees to Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to Married with Children. But let me ask you this. Out of everybody you’ve worked with, who was your favorite?
Felix: Well, I worked on the film The Towering Inferno. I did all the stunts for the little girl. Remember when they couldn’t do down the elevator and Paul Newman had a little girl on his shoulder coming down the stairwell with the fire? Well that was me on his shoulder. During the daytime I was doing The Black Bird and at night I was doing The Towering Inferno. Well I had a mustache, and the director told me “Are you going to shave this off?” I said yes. But then when I did the interview for The Black Bird the director said “I want you to keep your mustache.” So the first day that I went to work on The Towering Inferno, Irwin Allen looks at me and says “Felix, I told you to shave that off.” So he pulls on my mustache and says “Is this real?” I said “Yeah.” I explained to him that I was doing another movie in the daytime. I’m on Paul Newman’s back and the camera is on my head pointing down anyways. So the only thing you saw was this long blonde wig. They didn’t have me in any close ups. So Irwin Allen was okay. He said “Forget about it. We’ll put on some makeup. Nobody will see it.” But that’s when I worked with Paul Newman. Paul Newman was really nice. Every day on the set he always carried a bottle of Budweiser and a container of popcorn all day long. He had to have his popcorn on the set all the time. Budweiser was his sponsor on his race cars. He had his Paul Newman food, and he made a lot of money for charity. He was a really great guy!
Sam: I’ve heard that from many people.
Felix: Do you know who I also liked? Michael Landon. I did the last show he ever did.
Sam: Highway to Heaven?
Felix: No. It was a movie called Where Pigeons Go to Die. It was filmed somewhere in Kansas. Nobody knew he was sick. He made everybody laugh. He was laughing all the time and making everybody happy. He never let anybody know that he was going to die a few months later. He was always talking about his family. He used the same cameramen from Bonanza. The guy was almost ninety years old. He went from Bonanza, and then worked on Little House on the Prairie and then Highway to Heaven. It was the same guy. Also, he also really respected the crew. He paid them union scale. Then he died.
Sam: So you’ve been retired now for almost twenty years. What do you do with yourself these days?
Felix: Yeah. I retired from the movie industry, I moved out of California and I have no idea what’s going on there. So I travel. I travel to conventions and I sign autographs. I respect my public and they ask me questions and I’ll answer their questions. They respect me and I respect them. I’m just a regular boring old guy.
When preparing my for my talk with Felix Silla I was astonished by how there were no decent interviews with him anywhere for me to access. Sure, Felix has made himself available to many people and he has spoken about his life and projects, but it seemed that most people either didn’t have a total grasp on Felix’s entire career or they were asking all the wrong questions. As a result, I was proud to be able to put together something that brought the entire scope of Felix Silla’s massive career together.
But even this interview didn’t come close to covering it all. Felix Silla has been a part of film and television history time and time again. It’s an astonishing career for any performer. Although the public may rarely saw his face, there is no doubt that Felix Silla was one of the biggest and most experienced performer on some pretty impressive sets. He created a huge legacy for himself in the history of entertainment.
Pop Culture Addict Note: A big thanks to my good friend Ken Wheaton for helping to arrange this interview with Felix Silla. Thank you for doing me a solid favorite Ken. You are good people!