Actors come in all shapes and sizes. Fat, thin, tall and small, there really is a role tailor made for any type of person. However, every now and then a role comes up for someone that is really small. I mean smaller then small. A part which requires a certain kind of small. These are the roles which require a “little person.”
Little people have a long history in entertainment. Originally becoming prominent in medieval courts, little people performers were far more then just a novelty act. They were truly the predecessor of the stand up comedian, who would amuse king and queens with their sharp tongued wit at the expense of current politics, public figures and events. However, due to their size, little people jesters could get away with such comments where others could not. As a result, many midget jesters became advisers and confidants to the monarchy, while becoming valued entertainment for the court. This eventually led to their roles as circus performers and sideshow exhibits. Although it seems awful by today’s social standards, two centuries ago little people were still thought of as being an abnormality, and seeing them perform in circuses became not only a common sight, but often was the only way that many little people were able to make a living. In fact, some little people performers, such as General Tom Thumb, became international sensations and proved to be quite wealthy. Within time little people appeared in every form of entertainment. From the vaudeville stage to wrestling rings and burlesque theaters, little people performers were one of the great novelty acts of a previous, less socially tolerant, generation. Thus, with the advent of film finding popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was a matter of time before little people crossed over to the big screen. However, as time rolled on, and a culture that demanded respect for all people of all shape, color and sizes emerged, little people performers soon began to shed their novelty status.
Chronicling the history of little people in modern entertainment has been truly an eye opening journey. Although we may often disregard little people as being a screen oddity, they have, in fact, touched every aspect of the pop culture journey. Little people have been nominated for Oscars, Emmys and Tonys. They have stars on the Hollywood walk of fame and one little person has his feet at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (well…sort of). They have appeared in countless numbers of classic films appearing with some of the most iconic film stars of all time and have been involved in nearly every major film franchise imaginable. They appear in nearly every film genre including crime noir, horror, comedy, musicals, Asian action cinema and dramas. Little people are far more than just Munchkins and Oompa Loompas. They can do pretty much anything.
Come and join us as we take a look at the contributions of fifteen of the most notable little people in the history of Hollywood. By telling their stories, the entire history of Hollywood is encompassed, and we gain a look at the entertainment industry from a different perspective
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
DON’T FORGET THE LITTLE PEOPLE:
15 LITTLE PEOPLE WHO MADE IT BIG IN HOLLYWOOD
But before we go to the profiles, let’s take a look at the word “midget” versus the more politically correct “little people.” While writing this project the question of the political correctness of the term “midget” arose. For decades the term midget was considered to be demeaning, while the term “little people” was preferred. Personally, I find the term “little people” to sound condescending and confusing. I mean, technically you could call Gary Coleman or Danny DeVito a “little person,” but they are not. However, my search for an answer brought me to an essay by Dr. Leonard Sawish called “What Offends Us.” In the essay Sawish teaches of the origins of the word “midget.” The term “midget” was originally created by fabled showman PT Barnum at the end of the 19th Century. To Barnum, “midgets” were little people who had no physical deformities and looked to be just like normal sized people, just small. Meanwhile, Barnum kept what he called “dwarfs” as part of the sideshow and were kept away from the public. As a result there came a time where it was a status symbol to be a midget instead of a dwarf.
It wasn’t until actor Billy Barty formed the Little People of America in 1957 that the term “little people” was coined, but even then it was only as a compromise. Barty’s original intent was to call the group “Midget of America,” but received opposition from members that considered themselves to be dwarfs instead of midgets. Barty then proposed to call the group “Midgets and Dwarfs of America,” but once again faced criticism because there was a higher membership of dwarfs then midgets, and questions arose why the term “midget” appeared before “dwarf.” Thus, to please everybody, Barty came up with the term “little people.” It encompassed everyone, and made everybody happy. Thus, as time wore on, and people became more sensitive to political correctness, the term “midget” began to be questioned while the term “little people” become the favored expression. However, recently the term “midget” has started to be, once again, accepted by many members of the little people community. It really isn’t what the word represents as much as how you use it. Do you use it as a condescending point or do you use it as an expressive term. Still, “midget” is a touchy term, thus I have decided to not use the word throughout this article despite my sensibilities as a writer. If anything is learned from this article it’s that little people are incredible people who can do anything and be anything. Not allowing their height to be an obstacle, little people can live lives and have experiences beyond normal sized people. So now that we have an understanding of the debate over the term “midget” and “little person” let’s start our look at some of the greatest little people performers in the history of entertainment
Harry Earles -Often playing the roles of babies or as stunt doubles for children, Harry Earles was possibly the first little person who became a Hollywood superstar in pop culture history. Born in Germany in 1902, Earles’ real name was Kurt Fritz Schneider and was one of four siblings who were all little people born to Emma and Gustav Schneider (Harry had another three siblings who were of normal height). Harry and his older sister Frieda started a song and dance act and entered the sideshow circuit under the names “Hansel and Grethel.” Not long after they developed the act, the pair were discovered by an American showman named Bert W. Earles who brought the pair to the United States to tour with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show. Living with Bert Earles and his family, Kurt and Frieda adopted their last name as well as changed their first names to the more Americanized Harry and Gracie. Eventually the younger Schneider siblings, Hilda and Elly, joined their brother and sister’s act in America, and renamed themselves Daisy and Tiny Earles. Eventually the four joined a long partnership with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, in which they were a popular attraction from 1926 until 1952,
Although all of the Earles siblings appeared in films, Harry Earles became the standout of the four for his ability to get roles that were larger than that of most little people actors at the time. Harry’s film career began in 1925 when he gained the attention of famous horror director Tod Browning. Browning was preparing to do a film version of a short crime story called The Unholy Three about a trio of circus performers who start a crime wave. Signing horror superstar Lon Chaney in the role of the ventriloquist and Victor McLaglen as a strongman, Browning scoured circus sideshows for a little person to play the role of Little Willie. Browning eventually came across Earles and signed him on for the part of the baby faced villainous “midget.” One of the stranger films of the silent era, The Unholy Three featured Chaney, McLaglen and Earles as three circus performers who open a pet shop as a front for a crime spree. Chaney disguises himself as a little old lady, McLaglen her son and Earles pretended to be a baby in a carriage so that the public would not expect the three to be behind the robberies. The film was successful, and Earles became close friends with both Browning and Chaney, as well as gained the attention of studio executives. A year later Earles took on his first starring role playing an actual baby in a silent comedy called That’s My Baby. The film featured Earles made up to look like a real baby who gets into dangerous misadventures, such as playing with explosives, dancing on the wing of a bi-plane and walking into traffic, only to escape unscathed while his babysitter, played by Douglas McLean, gets pulverized. Earles would appear in four more silent comedies between 1926 and 1928, but he quickly became typecast either as a baby, or a little person in the guise of a baby. Does that sound familiar? Harry Earles became the inspiration and model for Baby Herman from the 1988 Walt Disney film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
However, Earles had bigger ambitions then playing just babies for his entire career, and when he was re-teamed with Lon Chaney for a sound version of The Unholy Three in 1930, Harry read a short story in a pulp magazine called Spurs, about a circus “midget” who falls in love with a malicious trapeze artist who, who married the little person for his money and plots to kill him with the help of a strongman. Harry brought the story to Tod Browning in hopes that it would make a vehicle for him beyond the baby roles he had been wedged into. Seeing the potential in the project Browning, Earles and Chaney began preparation to develop Spurs into a film. Unfortunately the remake of The Unholy Three would be Chaney’s last film. He died within the year, while development of Spurs was still in its early stages. Browning and Earles continued on and over the next two years assembled the largest group of sideshow attraction ever brought together on one sound stage. Changing the movie’s title to Freaks, Harry Earles took on his most important role as the love sick and scorned circus “midget” Hans. Harry’s sister Daisy was also cast in the film as his rejected girlfriend Frieda. Although a powerful film, the film proved to be controversial at the time, and while Browning, who started his own career in the circus himself, attempted to give a loving look at sideshow performers as being human, the film bordered on exploitation and the often grotesque performances by the other performers was deemed too shocking for movie audiences. Freaks was banned in cities and states all over America, as well as in a number of European countries. Because of the bad reputation of the film, Browning was reduced to directing B movies for the rest of his career.
After Freaks Harry Earles would make one more major film appearance. Representing the Lollipop Guild in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, Harry Earles was the Lollipop Guild member on the far right dressed in blue. The rest of the Earles siblings appeared as munchkins in The Wizard of Oz as well, but Harry was the only one who gained actual memorable screen time.
After The Wizard of Oz, the Earles siblings decided to leave Hollywood behind and chose the life of the circus over the movie business, and continued with Ringing Brothers and Barnum and Bailey until 1952. Becoming quite wealthy due to proper management, the four built a home in Florida that was custom made to their small size. The four remained together in Florida until their deaths. Harry died in 1985 at age 83. Since his death Freaks has become a major cult film, and one of the highest acclaimed horror/exploitation films of all time, gaining Harry Earles a prominent place in the history of film.
Billy Barty – Possibly the most famous of all little people actors, Billy Barty had one of the longest and most colorful careers in Hollywood. However, Billy Barty was more then just another short actor. Billy Barty was an activist that dedicated his life to bettering the lives, and offering support, for people with the same stature as himself.
The son of vaudeville performers, Billy started his acting career at the age of one in a 1925 film called Half a Hero and in 1927, at age four, Billy was cast in the role of Billy McGuire in the Mickey McGuire films. A rival to Hal Roach’s classic Our Gang films, the Mickey McGuire films featured seven year old Mickey Rooney as a rough and tumble kid with a gang of friends, including Billy as Mickey’s baby brother. Billy appeared in over thirty Mickey McGuire films between 1927 and 1934, but while audiences watched Mickey Rooney grow up on screen, Billy always remained a baby. In fact, Billy would play primarily roles as a baby until the age of eleven, even appearing as a baby in films such as Golddiggers of 1933, The Bride of Frankenstein and The Three Stooges film debut Soup to Nuts. Billy would struggle in Hollywood playing the typical little people roles with little notoriety for decades. However, with the popularity of television in the 1950’s, Billy finally was able to find his foothold in the entertainment industry. Playing a leprechaun in an episode of The Dennis Day Show, Billy caught the attention of musical comedian Spike Jones. Billy joined Jones stage show, which was eventually brought to television in 1954. Now a prolific actor, Billy began to make frequent appearances on programs of all sorts. There wasn’t anything Billy Barty couldn’t do. Throughout the fifties and sixties Billy appeared in programs as diverse as Rawhide, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Get Smart, Mr. Lucky, Thriller, Laugh-In and The Joey Bishop Show. Billy also held regular roles on Peter Gunn, playing Peter Gunn’s shoe shine informer Babby; Circus Boy as Little Tom; and The Red Skelton Show. During this time Billy even appeared with Elvis Presley in two films – Harum Scarum and Roustabout.
By the end of the 1960’s Billy became acquainted with puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft and became an important part of their productions, often playing costumed companions to the human stars of Kroft’s imaginative, acid driven kids programs. Starting in the role of Googy Gopher in H.R Pufn’stuf, Billy played The Bugaloo’s sidekick Sparky the Firefly, and then starred as Sigmund in Sigmund the Sea Monster. Billy would also appear in other Krofft productions as The Lost Saucer, The Ghostbusters and Dr. Shrinker.
Barty continued as being every program’s token little person throughout the seventies and eighties. Because of his high energy, agreeable personality and sense of fun, Barty became a popular actor for directors and producers. As a result he appeared in more programs then any other little person performer before or since. A partial list of Barty’s television guest appearances throughout the later period of his career include The Waltons, Love American Style, Chico and the Man, Barney Miller, Man From Atlantis, Charlie’s Angels, CHiP’s, Supertrain, Fantasy Island, Love Boat, Little House on the Prairie, Trapper John MD, Hart to Hart and The Golden Girls.
But, Barty had a larger purpose then just being another actor. In 1957 Barty organized a gathering of little people in Reno, Nevada. From that gathering Barty, along with other professionals and actors of his stature, formed The Little People of America, as a non profit organization to provide support and information for people living with dwarfism and their families. In fact, it was Billy Barty himself who came up with the term “little people” which become the politically correct term for people of his stature, replacing the decades old term “midget.” The LPA still exists today and has more then 7,000 members. Barty spent his life as a crusader to increase the public’s awareness of dwarfism, and fighting against the public’s tendency to treat little people as jokes or novelties. Barty believed that little people could do anything a person of normal height could do, and fought for the social acceptance of little people.
By the end of eighties Barty had slowed down his acting appearances, although he did appear in a few films and television programs. However, Barty chose to move primarily to voice acting. Billy’s final major television appearance would be a 1996 episode of Frasier, with his final movie being a forgettable film called I/O Error. Billy Barty died in 2000 at age 76, leaving behind a long legacy of television and screen appearances, as well as being an inspiration for little people all over the world.
Angelo Rossitto aka Little Angelo- Billed as “Little Angelo throughout his career, Angelo Rossitto was one of the more familiar faces in B movies and horror films throughout the early days of Hollywood. However, Rossitto was not just a fixture on the Hollywood screen, but became a part of Hollywood culture as well where he ran a newspaper stand on Hollywood Boulevard for decades. You see, unlike most little people performer in the early part of the twentieth century, Angelo didn’t start his career in vaudeville or the circus sideshow. Instead, Angelo learned to be a showman by hocking newspapers. Standing on a suitcase, the small man would yell out headlines to draw crowds, and peddle papers in order to survive. In fact, it was at his newspaper stand that Little Angelo was first discovered by movie legend John Barrymore, who brought Angelo to the attention of director Alan Crosland who was looking for a little person to play a dwarf in the silent film The Beloved Rouge which led to Angelo winning further roles in a number of crime and horror pictures. However, as a result of his dark hair and bushy eyebrows, Angelo had a far rougher and more menacing face. As a result, Angelo was able to avoid the “baby” roles that his contemporaries such as Billy Barty and Harry Earles were stuck in, and instead played rougher and more menacing parts.
It was in 1932 when Rossitto gained what has become his most iconic moment in film when he joined the cast of Tod Browning’s controversial film Freaks. Although Harry and Gracie Earles already had the starring little people roles, Little Angelo was a favorite performer at MGM studios and was added to the cast. As a result, Angelo became the central figure in the most memorable scene of the film. Getting on top of a banquet table during the wedding feast, Little Angelo passes the Loving Cup around to the sideshow performers as the cast chanted “Google Goggle! Google Goggle! We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us!” Despite the fact that Freaks was banned throughout the USA, as well in many European countries, the scene became one of the most famous moments in cult film history, with Little Angelo becoming one of the most memorable characters of the film.
Throughout the forties and fifties Angelo continued to appear in a variety of films with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars including Bela Lugosi in Spooks Run Wild, The Corpse Vanishes and Scared to Death; Boris Karloff in Mr. Wong in Chinatown and Doomed to Die; Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland in Lady in the Dark; Basil Rathbone in The Spider Woman; Harold Lloyd in The Sin of Harold Diddleback; Vincent Price in The Baron of Arizona as well as two Cecil B. DeMille productions’ Samson and Delilah and The Greatest Show on Earth. Angelo also appeared in notable films such as Child Bride, Invasion of the Saucer Men, The Story of Mankind and the Academy Award wining Carousel. In his strangest Hollywood job Angelo even donned a blonde wig and acted as Shirley Temple’s stunt double! However, for the majority of these films Angelo went uncredited. As a result, he earned little for any of these films, and was forced to continue to peddle papers on Hollywood Boulevard for a living.
Angelo continued to make occasional appearances on television during the 1960’s, including spots of The Fugitive, Rawhide and The Man From UNCLE. However, by the end of the decade he made two valuable contacts – kid show producers the Krofft Brothers and horror director Art Adamson. Along with Billy Barty, Angelo became a performer on HR Puf’n’stuf and Lidsville and with Al Adamson Angelo found a greater cult appeal throughout the 1970s by appearing in Dracula vs. Frankenstein and Brain of Blood.
In 1975 Angelo received his first regular acting gig when he was hired as informer Little Moe on Barretta. Through his appearances in Barretta Angelo received more television appearance on The Hardy Boys, The Incredible Hulk and Jason of Star Command. Yet, despite these regular TV appearances Angelo continued to sell the papers on Hollywood Boulevard. According to Angelo, it was the only steady wage that he knew.
Little Angelo’s final major role would be playing the Master Blaster in 1985’s Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome. Shortly afterwards Angelo retired from acting. He died in 1991 at age 83. During his life he gained little credit for what was an enormous body of work, but his performances will be remembered by movie fans forever.
Jerry Maren - It is difficult to pinpoint just where Jerry Marin’s true claim to fame lays, but with a prolific career that has lasted over sixty years, Marin has become one of the leading little people actors today.
Maren entered the pop culture scene in 1939 with all guns a blazing. Along with Harry Earles, Jerry Maren was one of the Lollipop Gang from The Wizard of Oz, where he stood out as the middle member in green who actually hands Judy Garland the giant lollipop. Following The Wizard of Oz Jerry’s movie career consisted of playing standard little people roles in a number of forgettable films until is appearance as one of the three mole men in Superman and the Mole Men, the feature length Superman film starring George Reeves which doubled as a pilot for the TV series that followed. Jerry would play other strange creatures in the mold of the Mole Men when he appeared as an alien on The Beverly Hillbillies and as a Gremlin on Bewitched. Marin also played the ape child in the memorable scene in Planet of the Apes when Carleton Heston escapes from his prison and runs wild around the Ape city.
However, it would be in the world of advertising that Maren would probably be best remembered. He played Buster Brown in Buster Brown Shoe commercials, Little Oscar for Oscar Meyer wieners and was the original Hambugler and Mayor McCheese for McDonalds. Maren also appeared alongside Billy Barty and Little Angelo in the Krofft Brother’s Lidsville series. He is often also remembered as the confetti throwing little person at the finale of 70s era Gong Show episodes.
Marin continued to make films and TV appearances throughout the 80’s and 90’s, including small uncredited parts in TRON, Spaceballs and The Great Outdoors, as well as making a memorable appearance in an episode of Seinfeld but these days, at age 89, Jerry Marin mainly appears at autograph shows as one of the last surviving cast members of The Wizard of Oz. However, Maren has hardly slowed down and has been in front of the screen again in films such as Frankenstein Rising in 2009, and Dahmer vs. Gacy in 2010. Although his place in pop culture history may be a bit more jumbled then others, Jerry Maren is still one of the most prolific and busiest little people performers in the world.
Michael Dunn - Michael Dunn had a philosophy. He believed that there were hundreds of little people actors, but none of them could actually act. As a result, Dunn decided that being short was not enough for him in order to enter the world of acting. A classically trained actor, Dunn refused to play the standard little people roles being offered to people of his height, such as novelty roles, babies and circus midgets. He believed that he was as good as any normal sized actor, and sought to compete for those roles. He believed that being short was not a handicap. As a result, Dunn not only raised the standard for little people actors everywhere, but is still the only little person ever to be nominated for an Oscar.
Known for his extraordinary intelligence, Michael Dunn developed his natural talent for words and music at an early age. Gifted as a writer and musician, Dunn first began acting after transferring to the University of Miami after being injured when he was knocked down a flight of stairs at the University of Michigan. Upon graduation Dunn relocated to New York where he began acting classes at the prestigious Actors Studio. While most little people before him got their roles based on their height, Michael Dunn was America’s first classically trained little person actor. He soon found his way onto the New York stage, but Dunn refused to be typecast in typical little people roles and sought after roles that the regular theater community was going for. He would audition against actors of normal height for the same roles, and as a result of his talent, would often get them. Defying the odds, Dunn became a popular figure on Broadway, even earning a Tony nomination in 1964 for his role in The Ballad of the Sad Café.
It was during this period of his career that Dunn met struggling actress Phoebe Dorin in an off-Broadway production called Two by Saroyan. The two became friendly, and after rehearsals would go to the Plaza Hotel and sit by the fountain and sing. Within time the beautiful girl and the small little man became a fixture on the New York streets, attracting crowds of spectators in the early hours of the morning. It was during one of these nighttime performances that Dunn’s colleague Roddy McDowell made the suggestion that Dunn and Dorin should take their thrown together performances into a night club act. Dunn had already made a couple of small movie appearances, but Dorin was still scraping to get by. Although hesitant at first, the pair made their musical debut at Greenwich Village’s Upstairs at the Duplex Nightclub and was an instant success. Performing show tunes, standards and jazz numbers, what made the show unique was the fact that unlike other acts containing little people, Dunn and Dorin’s show was not a novelty act. There was comedic patter, but Dunn and Dorin’s show was acclaimed for its sophistication.
It was during one of Dunn and Dorin’s performance that television producer Michael Garrison caught the pair. Garrison was producing a new television program called The Wild Wild West which would combine the western and spy genres. Charmed by the pair, Garrison felt that Dunn would make a perfect arch nemesis for heroes James West and Artemis Gordon, played by Robert Conrad and Ross Martin. Upon talking with Dunn, Garrison created the character of Dr. Miguelito Loveless, a diabolical and insane inventor, and for Dorin, Loveless’ lovely companion Antoinette. Giant actor Richard Kiel also joined the pair as Loveless’ servant Voltaire. While wreaking havoc across the old west, Dunn and Dorin would take time out to perform a musical number. Dunn and Dorin made ten appearances over four seasons and became two of the most popular villains on The Wild Wild West. Dunn’s performance on The Wild Weld West made Dunn a popular guest star on a number of popular 60’s era programs. He was cast in the role of Mr. Big, the leader of enemy agent organization CHAOS, in the pilot episode of Get Smart; the villainous Mr. Sin on Burke’s Law; a widowed circus performer on Bonanza; and as Platonian Alexander in the classic Star Trek episode Plato’s Children where he had the odd privilege of riding William Shatner as a horse.
Despite appearances on hit TV series and success on Broadway, Dunn’s greatest achievement came in 1965 when he co-starred in Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools alongside Vivien Leigh, Jose Ferrer and Lee Marvin. As cynical narrator Glockin, Dunn became the character that linked the films various sub-plots together. Once again, the role was not originally intended for a little person but Dunn won the role by means of his talent and not his height. Ship of Fools would be nominated for seven Oscars, including a nomination to Dunn for Best Supporting Actor. He lost the Oscar to Walter Mattheau for his performance in The Fortune Cookie, but Dunn still remains to be the first, and only, little person to ever be nominated for an Academy Award.
In 1966 when Dunn surprised the world when he married a burlesque dancer named Joy Talbot. The small Dunn and his leggy normal sized bride quickly became a newsworthy oddity, but the marriage proved to be a disaster and ended quickly. Soon after his divorce Dunn relocated to Europe where he became a fixture in Italian and British horror films. However, during this period of his life Dunn’s once proud roles were beginning to dry up and he was forced to take the typical roles of assistants and servants that were commonly played by little people in these kinds of films.
It was while making a forgettable film called The Abdication in England that Dunne died in 1973. He was only 38. Rumors surfaced that Dunn had committed suicide but an autopsy proved that he had died from heart failure brought upon by a deadly combination of prescription drugs that he was taking to treat severe arthritis caused by his size. Although his career would prove to be a short one, Dunn became an inspiration to little people worldwide proving that size didn’t matter, and raised the bar for little people performers, proving that despite their size, they could play any sort of part.