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Billy Barty Biography

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Birth Name: Billy Barty
Born: 10/25/1924
Birth Place: Millsboro, Pennsylvania, USA
Death Place: Glendale, California, USA
Died: 12/23/2000

Born William John Bertanzetti in Millsboro, PA on Oct. 25, 1924, Billy Barty was affected by cartilage-hair hypoplasia, a rare form of short-limbed dwarfism that halted his height at 3'9". Despite his condition, Barty was a natural athlete, which led to his first entry into the motion picture business. After his father landed a job as a machinist for Columbia Pictures, Barty's family relocated to Los Angeles. There, he interrupted a location shoot by performing one of his favorite physical tricks - standing on his head and spinning in a circle. Director Jules White was astounded by the performance and gave Barty a bit role in his next picture, "Wedded Blisters" (1927). He was soon cast in minor, often uncredited parts as a living punch line: a baby who escaped from his stroller in "Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933), an infant who became a pig in "Alice in Wonderland" (1934), Eddie Cantor, after being miniaturized in a steam room in "Roman Scandals" (1935), and a boy who gnawed on Fredric March's ankle in "Nothing Sacred" (1937). In addition to these features, Barty enjoyed a long-running stint as Mickey Rooney's little brother in Columbia's "Mickey McGuire" shorts (1927-1934) and later re-teamed with Rooney to play Mustard-Seed in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1935).

At the age of 11, Barty toured the country in a vaudeville act with his sisters, both of whom were normal-sized. Though vaudeville was largely in wane at this time, the act proved popular enough to run until 1942, after which Barty left the business to study journalism at Los Angeles City College. There, he also served as the sports editor and public relations director for the school's newspaper while enjoying an incredible run as a football and basketball player, as well as a track and field competitor. After graduation, he found work as a reporter, but the relatively low pay sent him back to show business. He worked the nightclub circuit in Los Angeles before teaming up with comic musician Spike Jones in 1952. His tenure with Jones' City Slickers provided him with one of the best spotlights for his diverse talents, which included not only singing and drumming, but also impersonations, most notably an overripe take on Liberace that frequently brought down the house during the band's appearances on variety shows. Barty also appeared as "the bottom half of Elvis Presley" by covering himself in a normal-size pair of pants to parody strict TV standards about Presley's gyrating pelvis.

Barty returned to acting in the late '50s, where he showed a talent for character parts that, more often than not, had little or nothing to do with his size. He was Babby, a pool hall informant in several episodes of "Peter Gunn" (NBC/ABC, 1958-1961), and played it straight in episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (NBC, 1955-1962), "Thriller" (NBC, 1960-62) and other series. But his most important work of the decade was unquestionably the founding of the Little People of America organization, which Barty launched in 1957 in order to aid individuals afflicted by dwarfism and their families. The organization, which began with just 21 members, would grow to an international entity with over 6,800 affiliated individuals.

In the 1960s, Barty worked steadily in features, including the Elvis Presley vehicles "Roustabout" (1964) and "Harum Scarum" (1965), while starring on his own popular weekly series, "Billy Barty's Bigtop" (KTTV) which broadcast throughout Southern California. In addition to featuring Three Stooges shorts, the series also showcased little people actors as real, three-dimensional human beings rather than fantasy figures or carnival acts. In the early 1970s, Barty worked regularly for children's television producers Sid and Marty Krofft, for whom he played various costumed characters on their surreal programs, including the sea monster Sigmund" in "Sigmund and the Sea Monsters" (NBC, 1973-75). Barty also appeared out of costume as mad scientist Jay Robinson's sidekick in the Kroffts' "Dr. Shrinker" (ABC, 1976). In 1978, he served as the live-action model for the hobbits Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee in Ralph Bakshi's animated "Lord of the Rings."

That same year, Barty enjoyed the most substantial role of his career in "The Day of the Locust" (1975) as Abe Kusich, an irascible, foul-mouthed dwarf performer whose abrasive, often racist behavior challenged audiences' perception of little people actors. Critically acclaimed for his turn, Barty soon moved into character roles in pictures like "W.C. and Me" (1976) and "Foul Play" (1978) - the latter of which offered him a slapstick tour de force as an aggressive Bible salesman dispatched by a hysterical Goldie Hawn. In 1981, he played an aggressive Nazi spy in the Chevy Chase misfire "Under the Rainbow" (1981), a comedy based on rumors of the dwarf actors' off-screen misbehavior during the making of "The Wizard of Oz" (1939).

Television dominated Barty's output in the 1980s, though there were several notable exceptions. He was the dwarf hero Screwball in Ridley Scott's epic fantasy "Legend" (1985), then moved into more villainous territory for a musical adaption of "Rumplestiltskin" (1987) produced by Golan-Globus. That same year, he played the inventor of a "cosmic key" that allowed for travel through time and space in "Masters of the Universe" (1987), a live-action fantasy based on the popular toy line and animated television series. His lengthy career was then paid appropriate tribute in Ron Howard's sprawling action-fantasy "Willow" (1988), for which he played the high priest of a race of hobbit-like little people. However, the decade ended on a sour note for Barty when he was sued by the writers of a Los Angeles-based sketch comedy series called "Short Ribbs" (KDOC, 1989) for unpaid fees. He lost both cases in small claims court, and was forced to endure demoralizing, pun-driven headlines based on his height.

In 1990, Barty served as a member of the board that drafted the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990, which prevented discrimination based on disability. He also continued to act throughout the 1990s, again largely on television, with occasional forays to features like Mel Brooks' "Life Stinks" (1991) and the direct-to-video "Extreme Adventures of Super Dave" (2000). The latter proved to be his final full-length screen appearance, as Barty succumbed to heart failure on Dec. 23, 2000 following a two-week hospitalization for lung and heart problems. At the time, he was working on his autobiography, which remained unpublished, though a retrospective book, Within Reach: An Inspirational Journey into the Life, Legacy and Influence of Billy Barty, was published by his nephew, Michael Copeland, in 2002.

By Paul Gaita