Hervé Villechaize’s Short Life of Torment and Fantasy
Initially, the star found his sidekick “absolutely delightful”. But the camaraderie didn’t last. By the end of their time together on Fantasy Island, Ricardo Montalbán and Hervé Villechaize did not get along. As Villechaize’s fan mail piled up, Montalbán claimed the dwarf actor became “arrogant”; Villechaize, meanwhile, accused Montalbán of being “infatuated with himself”.
Before Fantasy Island’s seventh season went into production, Villechaize began demanding the same pay as Montalbán. Instead, producers fired Villechaize. The French-born star, one of the few disabled celebrities of the era, had built up a huge fan base playing Tattoo, assistant to Montalbán’s mysterious Mr Roarke. With his removal from the hit ABC show, however, Villechaize’s Hollywood career was effectively over.
Paranoid, suffering from sex addiction, and in mental and physical torment, Villechaize would be dead by suicide ten years after Fantasy Island went off the air. The troubled actor and artist had finally self-destructed – undone, ultimately, by demons he had carried with him since childhood.
“Go where the freaks go. Go to New York”
Hervé Villechaize was born on 23rd April 1943 in Paris, during the Nazi occupation of France. One of four brothers, Hervé was the only member of the Villechaize family with dwarfism, and his surgeon father put him through a variety of experimental treatments in hopes of reversing the condition. (One such treatment reportedly involved spinal injections of sheep’s marrow.)
Villechaize never grew beyond 3’11” in height. His stature resulted in extensive bullying in childhood, and a lifetime of being stared at with shock, disdain and amusement. Sacha Gervasi – the journalist who met and interviewed Villechaize in the last week of his life, and who would later write and direct the HBO biopic My Dinner with Hervé – recalls being informed that Hervé “would walk down the street and just be kicked in the head for being different.”
Villechaize found an outlet for his anxieties in the arts, not initially as a performer but as a painter. He went on to study art and photography at the prestigious Beaux-Arts de Paris, and his work was so well thought of that, aged just 18, Villechaize became the youngest artist ever to have his paintings exhibited at the Museum of Paris.
Villechaize was 21 when he left Paris for New York in 1964, reportedly at the advisal of his father: Sacha Gervasi recalls, “His father said, ‘Go where the freaks go. Go to New York.’ So he was sent there and became a part of that burgeoning avant-garde sort of Greenwich Village theatre culture.”
Though he initially pursued work as an artist and photographer, Villechaize’s unique physicality also appealed to experimental theatre directors and filmmakers. It wasn’t long before he headed west to Los Angeles in pursuit of film roles, but like many Hollywood newcomers, he struggled to find acting work at first and had to take other jobs to get by.
Happily for Villechaize, it was thanks to one of his temporary jobs, working behind the counter in a deli, that he was spotted for his 1971 breakthrough film, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Casting director Marion Dougherty remembered that when Villechaize came in for a meeting, he “jumped up on top of the desk and sat puffing away on a huge cigar… [he] was quite a character, and we all liked him at once.”
“He was a sex maniac”
Villechaize made more film appearances including 1973 horror Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, before landing the role that made him: Nick Nack, henchman of Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga in 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun.
The role came at a good time for Villechaize, whose finances were so dire he had been living in his car, whilst working as a rat catcher to make ends meet. Landing a key role in the world’s most popular film franchise was a very big break indeed, and by all accounts Villechaize made no secret of his excitement to be there when cameras rolled in Hong Kong and Thailand.
While Christopher Lee would describe Villechaize as “a delightful man and very professional,” Bond actor Roger Moore gave a slightly different account. Notoriously, Moore once declared of Villechaize, “He was a very small man and he used to touch me and I used to say, ‘Don’t touch me. You are diseased.’ I wasn’t being cruel about his size, it was just that he was a sex maniac.
“He had a lust for ladies [which was] unnatural. When we were in Hong Kong he would find girls in girly clubs and go with a flashlight, saying ‘You, you, not you.'”
When Moore asked Villechaize how many women he had slept with during production on The Man with the Golden Gun, “he told me 35. I told him that did not count as he paid for them, but he said, ‘Sometimes when I pay they refuse.'”
“The plane! The plane!”
Villechaize was married during the making of Golden Gun, to artist Anne Sadowski, though the marriage was strained – not only by Villechaize’s serial infidelities, but also widespread mockery due to the couple’s height difference, which only intensified as Villechaize’s fame increased. The couple would divorce in 1979, by which time Villechaize was already at the height of his fame as Tattoo on Fantasy Island.
Fantasy Island producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg (also responsible for such 70s small screen hits as Starsky & Hutch and Charlie’s Angels) conceived the character of Tattoo with Villechaize in mind. Spelling remarked, “We both thought he was perfect. We wanted a different look and the idea of a three-foot-ten sidekick for Roarke was too irresistible to pass up.”
After starting life as two TV movies in 1977, network ABC ordered a weekly Fantasy Island series, with one caveat: they wanted Villechaize’s Tattoo removed, to be replaced by an attractive female sidekick. Spelling and Goldberg refused, threatening to drop out of the show if the network didn’t approve Villechaize’s casting, and given their proven track record ABC relented.
The regular work came at the right time for Villechaize. At the time the actor lived in what was formerly “a halfway house for drug addicts,” some of whom would still show up knocking on the door, often in the middle of the night. For this reason, Villechaize had taken to answering the door armed with a .44 Magnum handgun. (Prior to finding fame, Villechaize would carry a knife for ‘self-defence’ when outside of his home.)
Happily, Fantasy Island proved to be a big hit, and a major step forward for Villechaize. While Ricardo Montalbán’s Mr Roarke was the show’s lead, Villechaize was also key to Fantasy Island’s popularity, not least for his catchphrase, “the plane, the plane!” which he would enthusiastically declare each episode when the new crop of guests arrived.
Leaving his early poverty behind him, Villechaize moved onto a 1.5-acre ranch in San Fernando Valley. By this time, he was wearing his appetite for women on his sleeve. In a move which doubtless wouldn’t fly on a network TV production today, the actor hung a sign on the door of his dressing room which read, ‘Sex Instructor – First Lesson Free.’
“I resent being made fun of”
The popularity of Fantasy Island made Villechaize even more of a public figure than he had been in the wake of his Bond success, and with this came tabloid media scrutiny of his personal life. Given Villechaize’s dwarfism, there was lurid interest in the fact that he pursued relationships with women almost twice his height.
This became particularly intense when the actor wed Camille Hagan, a 5’8″ actress 14 years his junior. After meeting on the Fantasy Island set, Villechaize and Hagan were married in 1980, during the show’s third season. Speaking to People at the time of his marriage to Hagan, Villechaize lamented, “If a girl goes out with me, she’s treated like a tramp.”
Hagan herself remarked, “I resent being made fun of… I don’t mind people wanting to know about our marriage. I mind what they make of it.” Despite the couple’s insistence that they were “as normal as anyone,” this marriage would also end in divorce in 1982 – roughly a year before Villechaize was fired from Fantasy Island.
While producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg had initially fought for Villechaize’s casting, tension reportedly built between them as the series went on. Villechaize’s womanising ways were part of this: reportedly the actor was in the habit of propositioning most of the women who worked on the show, which (even in those more permissive times) resulted in a slew of complaints.
Reportedly Villechaize’s rising fame during Fantasy Island had increased his insecurity. He travelled with a bodyguard, and would often carry a gun. This mental anguish was doubtless exacerbated by Villechaize’s physical condition: amongst other ailments, his dwarfism gave him under-sized lungs, which made breathing difficult.
He had also participated in research trials at UCLA, of which he remarked, “I’m not doing it because I want to grow, which is impossible now. I’m doing it to prolong my life. I shouldn’t be as active as I am. I have to take three steps to an average person’s one.”
“He has become a very greedy actor”
In the wake of his divorce from Camille Hagan, Villechaize is said to have grown more despondent, which prompted him to question how well he was being treated by Fantasy Island’s producers. According to People, he earned $4,000 per episode in 1980; this is said to have gone up to $25,000 per episode, a substantial sum but still less than Ricardo Montalbán’s reported per-episode fee of $40,000.
Villechaize was not happy with this. One report at the time noted that the actor “demanded a hefty raise and more time off… producer Aaron Spelling gave in halfway. He agreed to give Herve more time off by writing him out of many episodes.”
Another unnamed script writer was quoted as remarking, “Herve should be darned glad he’s got a co-starring role on TV. There’s not many roles on television for little people like him.”
In his later episodes, Villechaize complained that Tattoo had become “a glorified extra.” His relationship with Ricardo Montalbán suffered: Montalbán remarked that his co-star “has become a very greedy actor” trying to take the producers “for all he can.”
Villechaize, in turn, was quoted as remarking of Montalbán, “he is infatuated with himself, and he’s not a very good actor”. Villechaize would reportedly further remark: “Ricardo Montalbán is proof that, compared with me, quantity is not quality.”
When negotiations began for Fantasy Island’s seventh season, Villechaize demanded that he receive the same money as Montalbán. Instead, ABC fired Villechaize. Christopher Hewett was cast as Lawrence – a new, considerably less colourful assistant to Roarke – for what proved to be the show’s final season.
“I can’t live like this anymore”
In the years that followed, Villechaize’s career faltered. He made sporadic small-scale appearances, earning a fraction of the salary he had commanded on Fantasy Island. His professional woes would seem to have taken on a toll on him personally, and may have impacted his behaviour: one producer who worked with Villechaize on a TV special remarked that he “would grab and grope women on the set… instead of rehearsing and learning his lines, he spent his time ordering around male employees and discomfiting female ones.”
Even in his final months, what little press attention Villechaize could attract typically came only from the more lurid end of the tabloids. A February 1993 edition of the notorious Weekly World News features a gossip column claiming the actor enjoyed ‘[covering] his entire body with chocolate pudding before taking a shower with his girlfriend’ Kathy Self, along with a quote from Self confirming this.
It was rarely noted that Villechaize also worked closely with charitable organisations helping the victims of parental and spousal abuse, as well as efforts to prevent teenage suicide. In a 1983 TV interview, Villechaize admitted to having attempted suicide numerous times throughout his life – and tragically, he would succeed in doing so on 4th September 1993, aged 50.
In a tape recording he left of his final moments, Villechaize told his long-term girlfriend, “Kathy, I can’t live like this anymore. I’ve always been a proud man and always wanted to make you proud of me. You know you made me feel like a giant and that’s how I want you to remember me.”
The actor’s publicist Sandy Brokaw told the Los Angeles Times, “Even back in Fantasy Island days, he never felt good. He had respiratory troubles, gastrointestinal troubles. In the past three years, his health got progressively worse. If you wake up every day and you just feel awful, you just give up. He was tired of the struggle.”
Brokaw noted at the time that attempts to get a Fantasy Island revival off the ground had proved unsuccessful. The series would ultimately be rebooted in 1998 for a single season, with Malcolm McDowell as Mr Roarke, while Michael Peña would play the character in the 2020 Fantasy Island movie. No new version of Villechaize’s Tattoo appeared in these iterations.