For better or worse, little people have long been associated with show business. Possibly because of their natural ability to attract curiosity, they’ve been cast in circuses and films over the years, with stars ranging from General Tom Thumb of P.T. Barnum days to the large cast of little people in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Little people have been shirking the term Munchkin ever since, just as they’ve been trying to leave behind the word “midget,” now considered an offensive term for what is more acceptably called dwarf, little person or “person of restrictive growth.”
After a spike in the 1990s when little-people stars included Verne Troyer’s Mini-Me, Kid Rock sidekick Joe C and a one-season Fox reality dating show called “The Littlest Groom,” dwarfs are proliferating once more in pop culture.
Reality series such as “Little People, Big World” “The Little Couple” and “Pit Boss” purport to show the real lives of little people on cable TV.
But the coming months will bring two sets of seven dwarfs to the big screen – “Mirror Mirror,” with Julia Roberts, on March 30 and “Snow White and the Huntsman,” with Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron, on June 1, with actors from Ian McShane to Bob Hoskins, shrunk by special effects to play dwarfs. And one of the contestants on “Survivor: One World,” which began Wednesday, is a little person, Leif Manson, 27, a phlebotomist from San Diego, picking up the reality competition traditions of the Charla Faddoul, featured on two seasons of “The Amazing Race.”
“I kind of knew going into the show there was a lot of my shoulders; I had to prove to all these people that I can be here, and I will be here,” Manson said in a phone interview. “I really did have to show them that I was strong enough to be there. And that’s what really mattered the most to them.”
Chelsea Handler, who employs one little person, Chuy Bravo, as sidekick and frequent butt of her jokes on her weeknight talk show on E!, “Chelsea Lately,” also cast another little person as one of the bar employees in her new NBC sitcom based on her earlier years, “Are You There, Chelsea?”
Asked about her affection for little people last week by Rosie O’Donnell (who admitted her own “mild fear or anxiety around little people”) Handler said “I love little people. . . . I want to tackle them.”
“There’s not a lot of job opportunities for those kinds of people,” Handler added. “They need help.”
Mark Povinelli, the Sandy Springs-raised actor who got the bar employee role on “Are You There, Chelsea?” explained it this way: “Chelsea likes to collect things. One of the things she decided she likes to collect is little people — or the idea of different people around her. The positive aspect of it is that there’s a different point of view coming from a little person.”
Povinelli says the role is a breakthrough.
“There’s never been a little person cast as a series regular on a network sitcom before,” he says. The great thing about his character, a confident bartender’s assistant with a fetish for dating much older women, is that “there are jokes about size, but no more than I make in my daily life.”
Having played in “Volpone” at the Shakespeare Theatre, the film version of “Water for Elephants” and Torvald in the Kennedy Center production of “Mabou Mines Dollhouse” in October, Povinelli says, “I don’t know if I was average height I’d be in this business.”
He said he always knew he’d be in show business because “I saw when I go out that I’m basically on stage anyway – everybody looks at me because I’m profoundly different physically. I have no control over it. I found when I went on stage I could finally be in control.”
But there can still be negative aspects – or as Manson of “Survivor” says, “There’s tons of mean people.”
When Peter Dinklage won a Golden Globe for his role in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” last month, he took time to single out a British actor with dwarfism, Martin Henderson, who was paralyzed in October when a drunk in a pub picked him up and threw him.
The specific problems of actors of small stature is the topic of the latest HBO series from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.
“Life’s Too Short,” starting Sunday, follows a fictionalized life of real-life actor Warwick Davis, who, he repeats quite often in the series, appeared in “Return of the Jedi” behind the mask as an Ewok, but was fully seen in another fantasy film that wasn’t nearly as widely known, “Willow.” (Gervais fans will have seen him in an episode of the earlier HBO series “Extras”).
In “Life’s Too Short,” Davis describes himself as the “go-to dwarf” among the acting community. In the show, he runs an agency called “Dwarves for Hire,” though he always seems to take the best role.