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When regular beats extraordinary

Little people trying to succeed in Hollywood say they simply want a fair shot at standard roles of substance.

August 25, 2004|Judy Chia Hui Hsu | Times Staff Writer

In Hollywood, where hundreds, sometimes thousands, of performers will compete for one role, actor Michael Gogin has been known to walk out of auditions -- over what he sees as issues of taste and fairness.

Take what happened five years ago when the 4-foot, 3-inch actor went for an open call for "Night Stand," a short-lived parody of television talk shows. The script called for him to be a singing, dancing dwarf, a Frank Sinatra type with an outsized masculinity, Gogin says.

"I went back to the producers, and I said, 'You know? I'm really insulted by this,' " he says, describing the role as a demeaning, one-dimensional, over-sexualized caricature of little people [the descriptor preferred by those with dwarfism]. Gogin walked away from the casting call.

Gogin will play elves and leprechauns, as long as they are charming, kid-friendly and beloved -- not evil or demonic, as happened in the horror flick "Leprechaun."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 26, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Warner Bros. executive -- An article in Wednesday's Calendar section about short-statured actors identified Jody Zucker as the WB's chief legal counsel. He is the vice president of legal for Warner Bros. Television.

With 27 years of experience, Gogin feels fortunate that he can pick and choose his parts to avoid stereotypes and worse. He and some of his peers feel so strongly about the casting and parts available for little people that they have been battling since February to form their own committee within the Screen Actors Guild.

Eugene Pidgeon, an actor who is spearheading the effort, explains that the group hopes to raise Hollywood's consciousness so writers, producers and casting directors understand that little people aren't freaks, fantasies or stereotypes but skilled professionals who can and should get to tackle major and serious roles.

But, as with others in Hollywood's talent pool who feel stigmatized or marginalized for reasons as varied as race, gender or sexual orientation, a significant challenge facing short-statured actors is agreeing on key issues and problems and how best to negotiate remedies with the industry.

Pidgeon, 48, who wears his hair long and gazes intensely through gold-rimmed spectacles, speaks with a slight Southern twang as he describes the travails of little people. Ever since the actor saw the WB's "Gilmore Girls" and its mix of eclectic characters, he has labored to get a little person on the show. He's offered himself for the role and even written a treatment to show how he would fit. His yearlong campaign has only resulted in frustration and anger -- emotions he says typify the experiences of the little people when dealing with Hollywood.

Pidgeon barraged the show's representatives with letters.

"It's our job to be open," says "Gilmore Girls" casting director Jamie Rudofsky, "but also to stay with our writer's vision."

In response to his aggressive campaign, which included sending three dozen roses to Rudofsky and her partner, the television station drew a line. WB's chief legal counsel Jody Zucker wrote Pidgeon, asking that all communications go through him.

While Pidgeon hopes still to see a short-statured actor on "Gilmore Girls," the exasperating experience underscores to him that "every one of the dwarf actors [is] not being used to their full potential. That is, until Halloween, leprechauns, St. Patty's Day or Christmas, we, as a general population, are considered an afterthought, as fringe players."

SAG's help in recognizing short-statured actors would be a huge step toward "dismantling the antiquated, prosaic perception of dwarfs in the Hollywood hierarchy." Pidgeon says. "We don't even constitute a blip on the radar screen, and I think that has to change."

He hopes to set up a subcommittee for them, as they now are grouped under the umbrella of people with disabilities within SAG. "If you're not a dwarf, you can't represent dwarfs," Pidgeon says. "If you're not a dwarf, you are not going to understand what we're going through."

Pidgeon wants to see short-statured actors considered for more substantial roles. "If you're going to cast a show, at least be willing to see a dwarf in an audition," he says. "If I don't get a role that's fine, but if I don't get a legitimate opportunity to vie for it, then that's criminal."

"It's not just about seeing dwarfs on screen," he continues. "It's about changing the perception so drastically that you could turn on 'Entertainment Tonight,' and there would be a dwarf correspondent on the red carpet interviewing Paris Hilton, and it wouldn't be freakish. It'd be legitimate."

So why haven't producers, writers or those with casting powers been more expansive about hiring short-statured actors? "I think we all bear some responsibility," says Richard Hicks, president of Casting Society of America. "We all need to look at our perceptions and look at what we can to contribute to the most diverse slate, which, in fact, is the most representative of America as a community."

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