Every week between 1977 and 1983, TV audiences tuned in to watch actor Ricardo Montalban bring narrative wish fulfillment into people’s homes with the whimsical TV drama Fantasy Island. But more popular than Montalban was the man whose shouts of “the plane! the plane!” became the series’ immortal catchphrase. French actor Hervé Villechaize was the first time many had ever seen a disabled character on a television show. His unique look made him memorable, simultaneously embraced and mocked in equal measure. Growing up disabled myself, I never watched Fantasy Island but I knew of Villechaize, himself one of several little people to capture the public consciousness, alongside Billy Barty and the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz. The arrival of Blumhouse’s horror remake of the ABC series necessitates a discussion about Villechaize’s legacy and our public tendency to erase what little progress we’ve made with regards to disability in media.
Villechaize was a complicated figure who saw success during an era where disability onscreen was uncommon. He was raised in Paris where his father, acclaimed French surgeon André Villechaize, tried in vain to cure his son’s dwarfism. At just 18, Villechaize became the shortest artist to have his artwork displayed in the Museum of Paris; he studied art at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He moved to the U.S. in 1964 and started building up credits in film and television, culminating with a role in the 1974 James Bond feature, The Man With the Golden Gun. A fortuitous meeting with super-producer Aaron Spelling got Villechaize the role of Tattoo on Fantasy Island that would make him, or at least his character, a household name.
Disability in media by the late-1970s was still a rarity. Blind singers like Ray Charles and Jose Feliciano were prominent, as well as the aforementioned Billy Barty, himself a regular character actor of film and television going back to the 1930s. But Villechaize stood apart from his predecessors because Tattoo was never coded as disabled from inception. He was a character, first and foremost. In a landscape where disabled performers, and little people especially, were swathed in makeup or played otherworldly creatures, seeing Tattoo, in his slick white tuxedo on television screens every week, was near revolutionary. Yet the media and audiences remained mired in the belief that Tattoo, and Villechaize by extension, was a novelty.
Because Villechaize was only in his mid-30s and one of the only physically disabled actors working on a weekly series, tabloids were fascinated by how the actor went about his day-to-day life. Public interest in Villechaize’s life grew to alarming proportions, to the point that he routinely traveled with a bodyguard. When he married actress Camille Hagen, whom he met while filming the pilot for Fantasy Island, numerous articles questioned how an average-sized woman and a dwarf (Villechaize preferred to call himself a midget) would work out, though these pieces often had more prurient interests. It was something the actor knew about, blaming the demise of his first marriage on criticism of his disability: “If a girl goes out with me she’s treated as a tramp,” he noted in a 1980 interview with People magazine. Coverage of Villechaize’s sex life has haunted his legacy ever since. As recently as 2015, James Bond actor Roger Moore, who worked with Villechaize on The Man With the Golden Gun, called him a “sex maniac” because he regularly solicited prostitutes. In that same article, Moore went on to call Villechaize “diseased,” not because he was disabled, but for having what Moore considered an “unnatural” lust for women.
Villechaize’s sex life became part of the oddity and reputation that swirled around him. And while he regularly bemoaned the interest everyone had in it he, himself, indulged it in ways that are highly troubling to see today. Where reporters saw cheekiness in his dressing room sign listing “Sex Instructor—First Lesson Free,” they ignored what a post-#MeToo audience would see today as alarming behavior. In People’s portrait of Villechaize’s marriage to Hagen, the 23-year-old actress says she initially felt ill at ease with the 37-year-old actor’s attention; the article’s framing implies that it was due to their height difference. Later in the article, Hagen mentions she and Villechaize had a “conflict of interest” regarding his claims that she did not have to agree to everything he asked. What he asked of her, exactly, is not stated but Villechaize reveals “We were fighting like cats and dogs” because of it. Where People’s article focuses on their sexual logistics, one can’t help but notice Hagen was uncomfortable with something regarding her husband, whom she would divorce in 1982.
While we’ve seen those accused of sexual misdeeds utilize disability, either real or fabricated, to garner sympathy, Villechaize’s case is unique. He was known to regularly proposition women on the set of Fantasy Island and engage in workplace behavior that would be considered harassment. But more often than not, criticism centered on Villechaize having a sexual appetite at all. Sexuality and disability are still taboo topics, on and off-screen, and Villechaize shows that several things can be true at the same time: that one can be disabled and a bad person, but that one can also be disabled and criticized for engaging in things able-bodied people do regularly. When a male star revels in his sexual conquests, it’s proof of his virility; when Villechaize did so, he was “diseased” and “unnatural” (common terms that have been lobbed at the disabled since time immemorial, regardless of intent).
Ironically, Villechaize’s suicide at the age of 50 is the one topic of media coverage in which his disability often did not factor in, and it should have. Those who hear his name today often chalk him up as another Hollywood actor who couldn’t make it after his success waned, despite Villechaize regularly working even after Fantasy Island was canceled in 1984 (just one year after he was fired for demanding to be paid as much as his co-star, Ricardo Montalban). But Villechaize regularly worked with doctors and hospitals to chart his dwarfism in the hopes of prolonging his life; in his final days, he was in near constant pain and struggling to live. His suicide cannot be simplified or pinpointed to Hollywood’s erasure and distaste for actors with disabilities.
Still, erasure looks to be part of Villechaize’s legacy today with the release of Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island wherein his character is little more than a reference: a literal tattoo of the name “Tattoo” on the chest of an able-bodied actor. This continues Hollywood’s legacy of erasing what few opportunities might exist for a disabled performer, whether that’s Villechaize’s character or, in another recent example, Disney turning Winnie the Pooh author A.A Milne’s disabled daughter into an able-bodied caricature.
Villechaize was problematic and so is his persona. To many little people and those in the disabled community, including Peter Dinklage who played Villechaize in the 2018 biopic My Dinner with Hervé, Villechaize is a stereotype; a man who, most egregiously, didn’t do anything to further disabled representation. But at the same time, Villechaize’s infamy cannot be ignored. The title Fantasy Island doesn’t conjure up images of Ricardo Montalban, or the remake’s star Michael Peña, in a white tuxedo. Audiences know Villechaize and his plane, and that’s important. Where disabled actors make up less than 5 percent of disabled roles, Villechaize is a forefather. And to erase him from the narrative, both in Blumhouse’s remake and in the history of disabled representation, is just as egregious.
We must be willing to confront disability, both from the standpoint of actors and their at times inappropriate conduct, to how the media and audiences remain unnaturally enthralled by the logistics of living disabled.