How big a shadow can you cast when you stand 3 feet, 9 inches tall? A giant one, in the case of Billy Barty.
Barty was a comedian to the very end. He could dress up like a pint-sized Liberace, in a silver wig and satin pants, and play a toy piano as shaving cream bubbled from a candelabra. It was an act that brought down the house.
And his gag at Jimmy Stewart’s 1946 bachelor party, when he surprised Stewart in a diaper and called him “Daddy,” is Hollywood legend.
Barty, who was 76 when he died two days before Christmas, was America’s most recognizable little person, a dwarf, magic elf — and sometimes a guy who just happened to be short — in more than 40 films and countless TV appearances.
But more important, Barty changed America. He’s a national hero to dwarfs, forever changing the lives of little people.
Mickey Rooney Honors a Friend
“He was one of the funniest guys I ever worked with, a great friend,” Mickey Rooney told The Wolf Files, speaking from his home in Los Angeles less than three weeks after he underwent multiple bypass heart surgery to treat a blocked artery.
“I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without Billy. He was one of a kind.”
Rooney had only been home from the hospital two days when he paid last respects to Barty at a memorial service Dec. 28 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Los Angeles. Comic Red Buttons and Barty’s 6-foot-tall son Braden delivered the eulogy.
“I had to be there,” said Rooney, who says he is feeling much better since returning home Dec. 26 from the hospital. “Billy had done so much. He had meant so much to so many people. He was so charitable.”
Rooney and Barty appeared in the Mickey McGuire film series in the late ’20s and ’30s. Barty went on to join the Spike Jones comedy band, and starred in dozens of movies, notably Foul Play, Willow and Day of the Locust.
A Little Person Soul Searching
But Barty’s real achievement was getting dwarfs together. Until he founded Little People of America, many dwarfs lived in miserable isolation. Some didn’t even know another dwarf. And many didn’t think it possible to work a normal job, marry and have children.
“Until he founded LPA in 1957, gatherings of Little People were virtually unheard of,” says LPA national president Leroy Bankowski. “We were isolated, often exploited.”
LPA gatherings are now how many dwarfs meet, marry and figure out ways to live normal lives. It’s not so easy using a drive-through automatic teller machine or reaching half of the products in grocery stores when you are shorter than 4 feet tall. But it is possible.
Bankowski, 53, is a 4-foot, 6-inch database manager at Verizon. Like most dwarfs, he is the child of average-sized parents and is the only dwarf in his family. “My three brothers aren’t little people,” he says. “As you can imagine, growing up, I had to do a lot of soul-searching to come to terms with who I am.”
He met his wife Donna, also a little person, at an LPA function and they have been married 26 years.
There are more than 100 forms of dwarfism. The most common form, achondroplasia, is a congenital bone disorder. Such dwarfs have normal-sized torsos but shorter arms and legs.
About one in every 25,000 babies is born with achondroplasia. It is a fluke of nature that occurs more often when the father is older. If a dwarf couple has children, they can pass along the dwarfing gene, but there is a 25 percent chance that the child will grow to a normal size.
Legacy of the Munchkins
As unusual as it might seem, Barty told The Wolf Files in 1999 that The Wizard of Oz served as inspiration for him to form LPA. When the film was made in the late 1930s, casting calls went out throughout the United States for little people to play Munchkins.
“I didn’t work on Oz,” Barty said. “But the people who did realized that it was a significant gathering.”
As Hollywood legend recalls it, the 124 little people who played the Munchkins had been fighting the perception that they ran amok during the filming of The Wizard of Oz, partaking in wild sex orgies and trashing their hotel.
Judy Garland didn’t help matters in the mid-1950s when talk show host Jack Paar asked whether the Munchkins were little kids and she explained, “They were little drunks … they all got smashed every night.”
Working for Sub-Canine Wages
For years, dwarfs fought those accounts. Munchkin Jerry Maren, who portrayed a member of The Lollypop Guild, said: “It’s all a bunch of B.S. People see dwarfs and midgets and they get carried away with their stories to make them funny.”
In The Munchkins of Oz, author Stephen Cox writes that Oz producer Mervyn LeRoy said of the Munchkins, “They had sex orgies in the hotel, and we had to have police on just about every floor.”
Such shenanigans as dwarfs swinging from chandeliers were featured in Chevy Chase’s 1981 flop Under the Rainbow, which was loosely based on events at the Culver City Hotel, where the Munchkins resided. Barty took some heat from other little people for appearing in the flick.
“We couldn’t do stuff like that,” says Maren. “They were working us dawn till dusk, and we really weren’t pulling in enough money for hard-core partying.”
Just to show you the Wizard of Oz pecking order, Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow, pulled down a cool $5,000 a week. Garland made $500 a week. The Munchkins each took home $50 a week. And Toto the dog made $125 a week.
“That’s a lot of dog biscuits. Toto must have had a good agent,” Maren jokes. “That mutt should have been working for scraps.”
Some Munchkins complained that Hollywood treated them no better than animal acts. Show business impresario Leo “Papa” Singer acted as agent for most of the Munchkins and took a whopping 50 percent commission.
But the gathering of little people was a social occasion. Margaret Pellegrini, a 4-foot, 3-inch retired actress who played a Sleepy Head, said, “Many marriages resulted in the film, and I made some lifetime friendships.”
Barty and others realized the value in forming an association. “Billy was well established in the film business and he started organizing picnics. That’s where my wife met him in 1952,” says Bankowski. “He had a vision and an easy way about him. He was a big star and treated us all as friends.”
Only 22 little people attended the first LPA meeting in 1957. Today there are more than 6,000 members.
Seinfeld’s Mickey Pays Tribute
Today, Hollywood actors of short stature treat Barty as a mentor. “I first saw him in Foul Play,” said actor Danny Woodburn, who played Kramer’s hot-tempered, 4-foot-tall buddy Mickey on Seinfeld.
“At that time, I wanted to be a vet … When I met him at LPA and at casting calls years later, he was always a nice guy, supportive, helpful.”
Woodburn has just finished shooting six episodes of Special Unit 2, a TV show for Paramount. He’ll be heading to Toronto to work on a Danny DeVito movie, Death to Smoochey, with Robin Williams and Edward Norton.
“Billy paved the way for others … He didn’t always get the roles he wanted. But he wasn’t confrontational,” Woodburn said.
“He worked within the system and he changed it. There was a time when the only roles for black women were as housekeepers and maids. People like Billy Barty changed things.”
Buck Wolf is a producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is a weekly feature. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.