Their big break

For little people in Hollywood, it has been a long road from the carnival sideshow to respectability

August 10, 2006|By TOM DUNKEL | TOM DUNKEL,SUN REPORTER

Acting parts don't get much meatier than this.

Two Burger King commercials now airing nationwide feature the goings-on inside a make-believe hamburger warehouse. It's presided over by a gruff foreman -- who winds up getting a giant patty dropped on him by a vengeful forklift driver.

These TV spots are noteworthy, if not historic, for reasons that go beyond the fact they contain a rare act of hamburger violence.

First, all the warehouse workers are dwarfs, nowadays commonly known as "little people."

Secondly, they walk, talk and dress just like ... you! Not the moral equivalent of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, but some say a small, important step forward in equal treatment.

"I personally have worked with little people before. They often get cast not in a good light," says Rob Reilly, a vice president at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the Miami ad agency known for its offbeat Burger King campaigns. "These were real acting roles."

To generate some supplemental buzz, Crispin Porter created a tongue-in-cheek Web site (stack ersunion.com) and "limited edition" warehouse action figures. Nothing screams mainstream louder than an action figure, even if it's just a guy wielding a blowtorch to melt Double Whopper cheese.

To the taller majority population, this may not seem a big deal. But little people, once relegated to carnival sideshows and novelty acts, are appearing with greater frequency in the media, often depicting normal, even heroic, characters.

Is it a slicker, more subtle form of image exploitation? Or a social revolution in the making, the beginning of the end of size discrimination?

In this summer's blockbuster movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Martin Klebba once again plays the smallest, but one of the scrappiest, members of Capt. Jack Sparrow's motley crew. Little People, Big World, an acclaimed reality series from Silver Spring-based Discovery Communications, is starting its second season on The Learning Channel. It follows the Roloffs, an Oregon family of six in which parents Matt and Amy are dwarfs, but three of their four children are average size.

Irvine Welsh, the Scottish novelist known for the book and film Trainspotting, co-wrote the play Babylon Heights, about the behind-the-scenes travails of the Munchkins cast in the original Wizard of Oz. It premiered in San Francisco in June. In addition, a touring production of Ibsen's A Doll's House, cast entirely with little people, is bound for Los Angeles.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous presence is Verne Troyer, the campy "Mini-Me" villain of Austin Powers movie fame, currently in commercials for DirecTV and for IBM's PowerBook laptop, the latter pairing him with 7-foot-5 pro basketball star Yao Ming. Troyer is in negotiations with VH1 to star in another reality series, Life Is Too Short, with two dwarf friends.

"Does this mean that we've broken barriers or that we're chic and nothing more than a trend?" says Gary Arnold, a spokesman for Little People of America, an advocacy group founded in 1957 by Billy Barty, a dwarf actor who had a long career in television and film. "It's going to be a different answer for everyone in every situation. But it's good we're asking that question."

Bob Garfield, editor at large for Advertising Age, acknowledges that some sort of sensibility shift has taken place, but he isn't ready to raise the media-trend flag yet.

"The question," he says, "is what trumped the political correctness that would seem to forbid making fun of little people?"

Garfield gives credit to Troyer's "Mini-Me" spoof and to actor Danny Woodburn for his well-rounded, recurring role as Kramer's dwarf pal in the TV series Seinfeld. It's no coincidence that Woodburn was tapped to portray Vin, the Burger King warehouse foreman.

The proverbial key factor is whether an audience laughs with you or at you, whether they watch or gawk. Fred Gill, nicknamed "Two Foot Fred" though in truth he stands 3-foot-2, has become something of a folk hero in Nashville, Tenn., by virtue of his cameos in several country music videos, including Gretchen Wilson's All Jacked Up. He also tours with Kenny Alphin and John Rich, a.k.a. Big & Rich, as part of their "MusikMafia" extended family.

"I'm one of the guys," says Gill, 32, who sells Two Foot Fred T-shirts and a line of Two Foot Fred spices and is taking acting lessons in hopes of going completely Hollywood. "I kind of embellish what this whole [MusikMafia] thing is about. It's about uniqueness and finding your own way."

The term dwarfism generally applies to anyone who, for medical reasons, is less than 4 feet, 10 inches tall; a condition that affects roughly 1 in 10,000 people. It's arguably the most intractable form of social estrangement: You never fit in; the world is built to somebody else's scale.

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