Playing a tortured soul
The heartbreaking story of Herve Villechaize is drenched in tragedy and poignancy. Jane Mulkerrins reports.
Standing just 1.17 metres (3 feet, 10 inches) tall, French-born actor and painter Herve Villechaize learnt English by watching John Wayne films on television, and became famous for playing Bond villain Nick Nack alongside Roger Moore in The Man with the Golden Gun, and Tattoo on the 1970s television series Fantasy Island.
But his fortunes constantly rose and fell – he spent four years living in his car in Hollywood between jobs, and later gained a reputation for drinking and womanising.
In 1993, aged 50, he killed himself at his North Hollywood home.
A lightly fictionalised version of his final days is now retold in the HBO film, My Dinner with Herve,
starring Peter Dinklage as the titular actor, and Jamie Dornan as journalist Danny Tate.
The film is written and directed by
Sacha Gervasi, the British journalistturned-screenwriter on whom Tate is based. It was Gervasi to whom Villechaize gave his last, deeply personal and intimate interview that inspired the film, just days before he took his own life.
In the film, Tate and Villechaize spend one, long, intense evening together.
‘‘In reality, it was three days over the course of a week,’’ says Gervasi, who was on assignment in LA, ostensibly to interview the stars of Beverly Hills 90210. The interview with Villechaize was an aside.
After threatening him with a knife (he carried one on him at all times, so he would never again come off second in a street fight), Villechaize offered to tell Gervasi ‘‘the real story’’.
‘‘He poured out his heart to me,’’ recalls Gervasi. ‘‘He told me everything about his complex upbringing, the experimental treatments to try to make him grow – it was heartbreaking.
‘‘He had a tremendously complicated relationship with his mother. He said: ‘She loved me, but she couldn’t bear the fact that her body had produced this quote-unquote freak’.’’
His father, meanwhile, took him around the world – including Great Ormond Street Hospital in
‘‘There was an enormous, almost medieval intolerance towards little people. People would just kick him in the head and beat him up.’’
London, and the Mayo Clinic in America – trying every radical, and often painful and invasive procedure, to try to help him grow.
And, growing up in France, ‘‘there was an enormous, almost medieval intolerance towards little people,’’ says Gervasi.
‘‘Herve would be walking down the street, and people would just kick him in the head and beat him up.’’
Little wonder, then, that he left for America, and became part of New York’s downtown theatre scene, a place where difference was celebrated. Then, however, he decamped to Hollywood, chasing his dream of becoming a famous actor.
Gervasi recognises what he calls ‘‘the meta connection’’ within the film.
‘‘The most famous dwarf in the world, on the biggest TV show in the world now [Dinklage, Game of Thrones], is playing the most famous dwarf in the world on the biggest TV show in the world, then [Villechaize, Fantasy Island]. But I think part of the reason Peter wanted to play this story is because Herve’s life is a cautionary tale.’’
‘‘He was a very intelligent, very artistically driven gentleman, and an incredible painter,’’ says Dinklage.
‘‘But fame got the better of him. This fame balloon floated by, and he followed it, and it derailed him from what was important.’’
Villechaize played into his dwarfism, wearing T-shirts with the logo ‘‘Bionic dwarf’’, getting to the punchline before anyone else could. Dinklage is a very different actor.
‘‘With Peter, the fact that he’s a little person is the third thing he wants you to know about him, after the fact that he’s a great actor, and devastatingly handsome and charismatic,’’ says Gervasi.
Dinklage has never been willing to play into his dwarfism as Villechaize did.
‘‘I’m not judging people who do. People need to work, people need to pay the bills, but it’s just not something that interested me. I’d rather do s .... y office jobs,’’ he shrugs.
‘‘Herve had a more open philosophy – he was OK playing Nick Nack, and other characters that were written for his size. Tyrion [Lannister, his
character in Game of Thrones] was written for my size, but he broke the walls of that and became a much more complicated person.’’
He recalls a particular moment on set for My Dinner with Herve.
‘‘The guy playing Roger Moore was shoving me into this suitcase, which was a scene from The
Man with the Golden Gun, and I thought, I wonder if Herve was OK with this?
‘‘He had a great sense of humour – as do I, about myself – but there was a touch of humiliation about it, and I thought, I really don’t know if he was OK with this.’’
The theme is also, says Gervasi, about judgment.
‘‘People would look at Herve and just think, he’s this 3 foot 10 freakish Fellini-esque creature. And Danny begins in cynicism and judgment too, which is gradually stripped away by the emotional reality of his encounter with Herve.’’
And Tate simultaneously confronts the reality of his own demons. ‘‘Broken people are often the most interesting characters,’’ says Dornan. ‘‘I think we’re all a bit broken or damaged in some way – I certainly am – and that’s what makes all these characters relatable.’’
Herve Villechaize was best known for his role in The Man With The Golden Gun .He is played by Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage.