"The plane! The plane!" If you were a child of the '70s and '80s, the utterance would immediately conjure up a white-suited Hervé Villechaize shouting the line in the opening credits for the long-running show Fantasy Island. Villechaize's character, Tattoo, was beloved and rendered him the most famous actor with dwarfism in the country. But off-screen, Villechaize's scandalous behaviour – mixed with his failed campaign to obtain the same pay as Fantasy Island frontman Ricardo Montalban — led to his firing from the show, and his eventual tragic downfall.
In the HBO movie My Dinner With Hervé, out 22nd October, Villechaize tells his life story, beyond lurid National Enquirer headlines about him like: "You Haven't Lived Until You've Had a Naked, Chocolate-Covered Dwarf in the Shower With You." Villechaize's story unfurls through a frame narrative: Villechaize, played by Peter Dinklage, promises Danny Tate (Jamie Dornan), a struggling British journalist, the story of a lifetime. Soon after their interview is done and Villechaize ensures his story will be told, he takes his own life.
In fact, the movie's premise is modelled off of Villechaize's real encounter with the journalist Sacha Gervasi in 1993. At the time, a 26-year-old Gervasi was working for Britain's Daily Mail. He pitched a story about discovering the whereabouts of the once-famous Tattoo of Fantasy Island and, when the story was accepted, boarded a plane to L.A. Over the course of the three days they spent together, Gervasi got his story — and did so by erasing all preconceptions and actually listening to Villechaize. "‘I’m a fucking human being," Gervasi recalled Villechaize saying in an interview with Newsweek. "'You’ve heard all the bullshit stories. Do you want to hear the real one?'" Within the week, Villechaize shot himself. “He grabbed on to a random stranger and let it all out," Gervasi said.
Later, Gervasi would turn his experiences with Villechaize into a screenplay, titled My Dinner With Hervé. He shopped the script for 25 years. Dinklage signed on for the part 15 years ago, but it took his Game of Thrones stardom to actually get the movie produced.
But why did it take so long? As Gervasi realised a few minutes into speaking to him, Villechaize makes for a fascinating subject. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Dinklage summed it up aptly: "Hervé lived pretty hard." From the start of the movie, Villechaize proves himself a swashbuckling, wild man who drives around in a white limousine and is brimming with stories. But laced amid this tremendous energy was a lifelong struggle to be taken seriously. Case in point: Even when his co-worker Montalban is speaking about Villechaize in an interview, he refers to him as that "cute little guy."
Villechaize faced adversity for his dwarfism throughout his life. In 1946 Paris, Villechaize’s parents received confirmation that their youngest son, indeed, wouldn’t be like their other children. The 3-year-old Villechaize was diagnosed with an acute thyroid condition that would halt his growth, leaving him at just under four feet when he stopped growing. Villechaize’s father, a doctor and resistance fighter during WWII, was determined to find a solution, and subjected his son to futile – but painful — surgeries and procedures.
Villechaize had artistic talent and, more importantly, the wherewithal to pursue his craft. After studying painting at the Beaux-Arts Museum in Paris, he became the youngest person to have his art displayed at the Museum of Paris. At 21, he moved to the United States and pursued an acting career. Before Fantasy Island, his notable roles included an off-Broadway play alongside Robert DeNiro, and a villain who gets stuffed into a suitcase in the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun. As he grew more famous, Villechaize also developed a reputation as a womaniser.
Tattoo on Fantasy Island was Villechaize's big break. But when the offer came in 1977, Villechaize was officially off the map and living in a car in California. Fantasy Island gave him fame. It gave him riches. It even gave him a wife — he met Donna Camille on set in 1980 and quickly married her. But they divorced in 1981, leaving Villechaize gutted. Around that time, he began to demand more from the show, especially since it was his character's line that people quoted, and his character who made the show famous. When he demanded to receive the same pay as Montalban, ABC fired him. Fantasy Island only lasted a year after his departure.
His career never recovered. Neither did he. Villechaize blew through his $3.6 million fortune and, facing declining health and career prospects, took to drinking. By 1990, he was taking 20 pills a day for pain. As for jobs? He starred in an ad for Dunkin' Donuts mini donuts, saying, "Da plain! Da plain!" as he pointed toward the donut he wanted.
"He lived much longer than anybody expected him too. He was also in a tremendous amount of pain due to his dwarfism, both physical and spiritual, and he just couldn’t take it anymore," Dinklage said to Entertainment Weekly. On September 4, 1993, Villechaize shot himself. In his suicide note addressed to Kathy Self, his common law wife, Villechaize wrote, "You know you made me feel like a giant and that's how I want you to remember me."
Hopefully, Villechaize would be happy to learn that his life gets its due in My Dinner With Hervé, out on Sky Atlantic on 22nd October at 9 p.m Our expectations will be challenged, just as Gervasi's were when he sat across Villechaize in 1993.