A Look at the Roles Little People Played in Hollywood according to Felix Silla

13 Oct

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When the credits roll at the end of a favourite movie or a much loved television program from the late 60’s to early 80’s, don’t blink otherwise the name Felix Silla may get missed. This stunt performer and actor has been in many productions since finding his way into the scene back in 1963. There were not many folks of his small stature who found regular work in the entertainment industry, and he can be counted as one of the few who stuck it out until his decision in 1995 to retire.

In what he experienced in this business, a lot can be said about how little people were treated. Ever since The Wizard of Oz, treatment of these individuals as extras and bit players in productions were not nice. Good or bad, what he experienced can make for a great memoir that looks at an industry that was constantly changing with the times. Before he became a recognized name, he was a performer for Ringling Bros. When he grew tired of touring, he went to work with a company that did publicity for the circus in Los Angeles in the early 60’s. He recalled that one day, a gentleman from MGM visited the office and said that they’re looking for little people to do some work. He suggested that Silla should go down to see what can happen.

“I didn’t have a car back then, so a friend drove me there and I got picked to be the stunt guy for a little boy in a movie which was originally titled Moon Walk and later changed to A Ticklish Affair (1963). That’s how I started in the business,” said Silla.

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This young man did more work as an extra and stunt performer than as a actor. Eventually, the parts where he had speaking roles did slowly trickle in. There was a long standing tradition where it was believed that little people simply belonged in the circus as side-show acts. There were a few movies made in the early days of Hollywood which reinforced the idea. In the horror film tradition, Freaks (1932) took the concept to a dark level and in the Western musical, The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) the idea was treated as a gimmick. Producer Jed Buell was said to be so parsimonious that a member of the crew commented, “If they cut the budget any more, they’ll have to make all the actors midgets.” (Slide, Anthony. Hollywood Unknowns, p.221). Everything in this product was built to scale or miniatures were used.

These folks did not really come into one’s own until after Wizard of Oz (1939) was made and they were recognized by the Screen Extra’s Guild, Both Billy Curtis and Billy Barty were big figures in the industry in the 40’s and 50’s. Barty helped form the Little People of America in 1957 to provide support to individuals with dwarfism and their families. This group’s reach was not just for those living in Hollywood, but also to raise awareness.

“Sometimes they [the producers] wanted to exploit little people for funny things. I don’t like to do things like that — to be made fun of. There’s nothing wrong with me; just because I’m smaller than anybody else, I’m still human. The thing is that there was a time where the producers didn’t have any idea that little people could act.” said Silla.

At least since the late 40’s, little people were used quite often as stand-ins for children because it saved the studios money (Slide, Anthony. Hollywood Unknowns, p.222). This policy has not changed even when Silla came into the scene. He was doubling for a lot of children in the 60’s and 70’s. He recalled, “Everything I’ve done was doing stunt work and doubling for kids because they weren’t allowed to do dangerous work. And now everything has changed. Some of the stunt people are kids doubling for other kids and I think that should be illegal because they are putting little people out of work.”

Interestingly enough, Curtis led a drive in 1970 to give little people full membership in the Screen Actors Guild. The petition worked but in 2007, a report in USA Today revealed that 125 short actors who are members still feel that they are being pigeonholed by producers, directors and screenwriters (1). Since publication of this article, there have been improvements. But for those performers who are still struggling, it’s a different world when compared to what Felix Silla and his peers dealt with. In Silla’s experience, he knew where the work was. There was more demand for little people to work in costume.

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“I worked with Sid and Marty Kroftt in H.R. Pufnstuf. It had many characters and not enough actors to fill the roles. What we did was to run around like chickens with our heads cut off because we had to quickly take off one suit and put on another costume,” Silla remembered. “We used to double up a lot.”

The work on both television and film was good for him. Although some roles did not give him credit, one look at the Internet Movie Database shows he was also in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1977). This man appeared in many memorable television hits of the prior decade, like two episodes in Bewitched (1967-71) and Lidsville (1971).

The work was steady throughout the 70’s and it no doubt helped him land a role in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. He is one half of the creative talent that helped define Twiki, the lovable smarmy robot who became Rogers’ companion. Although Silla had a tough time with the suit — he had issues with how tight-fitting and how impossible it was to really move in the fiberglass outfit — he was a soldier through and through. He feared losing the job on the first day of filming because he could not move to his marks (i.e. walk to where Buck is standing). His field of vision was very limited. Like the Cybermen from Doctor Who, even veteran monster performer Jon Davey recalls that learning where their marks are during rehearsal was very important. When the actor can not see where they are supposed to be or how they are supposed to move, sometimes what happens is that knowing how to be still (he also played one of the Wisperman) is very important. Even Anthony Daniels of C3P0 fame might have stories to tell about life in a suit too!

Buck Rogers and Twiki - press photoAs with most costumed performers on screen, the voice is provided by someone else. Just like Robot from Lost in Space, or Darth Vader in Star Wars Original Trilogy, two people helped give the character life. Silla never got to work closely with Mel Blanc, the prolific voice actor who voiced Twiki. “He was not supposed to a have a voice, and then the producers decided to give him one,” recalled Silla, “The way it worked was that I did all the walking around and motion. The script supervisor read Twiki’s lines and Mel Blanc came in after the filming was done. He sat in front of the screen and did the voice. I only met him one time where he came on the set and we had a picture taken together.”

Neither individual got to see the picture and supposedly, that image is lost. The negative was never given to the proper people for archiving and that meant a lot of memories were lost over the years. That also included a blooper reel that was thought to have been carefully tucked away. Silla said that people went to get that tape so it can be played during an end-of-the-year wrap party and it was nowhere to be found. He assumed somebody stole those tapes and it has never surfaced since.

The next best option is to hear the anecdotes that Silla has when he appears at conventions. They are fond memories for him, and not everyone can claim the fame of being called Frankie Laine‘s toupee (a well known singer of the 60’s) by the legendary Bob Hope on the Addams Family set! Not only has he appeared as a stuntman in successful films like Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, The Planet of the Apes, Poltergeist, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Russians are Coming but also he’s done appearances on television on programs like The Monkees, Jerry Lewis and Red Skelton Show. Very few people will not know that he doubled for Drew Barrymore in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial because of the child labour laws of the time. They are not allowed to work at night and this performer was called in for some evening scenes that needed to be filmed.

53a24ba78e527.preview-620There’s plenty more stories to hear from him with his work with such greats like Lorne Greene. Technically, he spent more time with Dan Blocker when he appeared in Bonanza. Silla recommends watching the episode, “Hoss and the Leprechauns,” which is always broadcasted on Saint Patrick’s Day. The pot of gold is in the fact that Silla knows the who’s who of Hollywood because his career spanned three decades. He’s met 40’s B-movie icon Little Angelo (Angelo Rossitto) and cinematic legend, Clint Eastwood. He also came close to working with two generations of the Band family. Albert Band produced Little Cigars, and his son, Charles is famous for his own series of B-movies like Puppet Master.

“I had a wonderful time in the movie industry,” recalled Silla, “Although it took me a while to get decent jobs, at least we made a decent living.”

And when he comes to Victoria, BC on Halloween weekend for Island Fantasy Convention, there’s no doubt going to be a fair share of Cousin Itt fans coming to meet him. Silla believes that’s the character he’s best remembered for than Twiki. “Gil Gerard and I are going to have a lot of fun talking about our work in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. At our Q&A, I promise you we’re going to share a lot laughs,” said Silla.

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