Little People With Big Roles

There comes a day in every dwarf actor's life when it's time to put down the elf suit.

The call goes out every Christmas for little people to play Santa's helpers. That's steady work, an actor's best friend. But for dwarf performers it's a mixed blessing.

"I'm looking for parts that let me develop my craft," said Danny Woodburn, 37, who regularly appeared on Seinfeld as Kramer's hot-headed pal Mickey. He'll next be seen in the Robin Williams comedy Death to Smoochy.

In the early days of his career, Woodburn appeared as a dancing druid in a 1992 Spinal Tap reunion show. "I'll only play an elf now if it's a real guy who puts on an elf suit to make money," he said.

These days, Hollywood has a high demand for little people. With the success of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, scads of fantasy films are in development. It was a major blow when average-sized actors were cast as Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Still, many dwarfs are sending out their resumes — hoping to be the next Mini-Me.

Yeah, Baby! Verne's a Star

Verne Troyer was one of 50 dwarfs in the Harry Potter movie, and he's back this summer as Mini-Me in the third Austin Powers flick. He's being heavily promoted in the coming attractions — confirming his big box-office appeal.

"What you are seeing is a little person who has stepped forward as a major selling point to a big film," said Phil Fondacaro, a 3-foot, 6-inch Hollywood veteran. "And if that's rare, we have to hope we'll see it again and again."

Troyer's screen time has been expanded in the new film. He'll also play a second role in the film — a swinging Mini-Austin who's chased by rabid fans like a dwarf Elvis. That's not the meaty role some little people are yearning for, but Troyer's making headway.

'I Was a Furry Ewok'

Fondacaro, 43, recalls his own work in the Star Wars series.

"Back in the day, I was an Ewok — and that was something," he said. "You're putting on a furry suit and prosthetics — and nobody knows who you are."

But there were benefits: "At least you could say to your colleagues, 'I'm working with George Lucas.'"

A more significant role in Willow led to various TV appearances — and chances to act. Fondacaro is especially proud of his portrayal of a dwarf father with an average-sized son in Touched by an Angel.

"That's me. I'm not an Ewok. I'm a dwarf who has average-sized children," Fondacaro says. "That's a situation a lot of little people face. That's real life."

Bittersweet Munchkin Memories

Any actor will tell you a good role doesn't come along every day, and little people have had a brutal history in Hollywood. In the early days, little people were hardly treated better than performing animals.

When The Wizard of Oz was being made, show business impresario Leo "Papa" Singer acted as agent for most of the Munchkins and took a whopping 50 percent commission. Munchkins still grouse that they were paid $50 a week for their work on The Wizard of Oz — less than half what Toto the dog was bringing home.

"That's a lot of dog biscuits. Toto must have had a good agent," former Munchkin Jerry Maren, 81, told The Wolf Files last year. "That mutt should have been working for scraps."

With a half-century of screen credits, Maren has played Buster Brown and the Hamburglar in commercials. He also served as a stand-in for Jerry Mathers on Leave It to Beaver. He's had minor roles in more than 50 films, including a part as chimpanzee baby in the original Planet of the Apes.

"It's a rough business and you have to keep busy," he said. "It's a different world than what it used to be. But it's show business. It's never easy."

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.