“I shall call him … Mini-Me!” This was how Verne Troyer was brought on to the screen, and into the world of cult stardom: a world which was part cruel, part affectionate. It was in the 1999 movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Mike Myers’s Dr Evil has just been cloned, and does a convulsive double-take on realising that his double is one-eighth his size. Two-foot-eight Troyer comes on in the Bond-villain quasi-Nehru jacket and impassively does the signature little finger to the lips move – worryingly like a precocious infant. An almost-star was born, although Troyer had begun his screen career in 1994 in the movie Baby’s Day Out when he had been the stunt double for a baby. Troyer repeated the Mini-Me role in the Austin Powers sequel Goldmember, had a small part as a goblin in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – and with dignity and good humour sustained a career in reality television and the professional celebrity industry for almost 20 years.
This career spanned a period in which people of restricted height – Troyer had achondroplasia dwarfism – were starting to be regarded differently in cinema and in pop culture. People with dwarfism had always been treated exploitatively, and cinema from its earliest days adopted the robust circus tradition of using them brashly, unsentimentally, and expected them to behave in the same matter-of-fact way. And for many that was at least better than condescending pity. Tales of the Munchkin actors’ drunken behaviour on the set of The Wizard of Oz became legendary.
Kenny Baker found his weird vocation in playing R2D2 in Star Wars. Felix Silla was an Italian circus clown who had work in comedies and scary movies (an habitual generic combination for actors with dwarfism). Zelda Rubinstein made an impression in Chevy Chase’s 1980 comedy Under the Rainbow, a 30s-period comedy, set at the time of the filming of The Wizard of Oz. British actor David Rappaport had a very similar career, but was given a chance to shine more than usual in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981). But it was Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones star, who has really escaped the patronising prejudice in a very contemporary way. He has stated that “dwarfs are still the butt of jokes. It’s one of the last bastions of acceptable prejudice.” It was a bigotry that his career has repudiated, although Troyer arguably couldn’t match Dinklage’s acting talent.
In a way, Warwick Davis’s career is closer to Troyer’s: he acted in the first Star Wars prequel Phantom Menace and, ironically, replaced him in the Harry Potter franchise, but it was archly playing himself in Ricky Gervais’s TV comedy Extras that made Davis’ name. Davis challenged bigotry with confidence and black comedy, breaking the hush of liberal concern, and that was the same cheerful self-awareness that Troyer tapped into. There is an ongoing debate about the whole idea of “mini-me”: the idea that performers with dwarfism are just being demeaningly represented as comic or horrific miniatures. But Troyer at any rate tackled and subverted that idea — with confidence, with comic gusto and with charm.