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Peter Dinklage Says He Couldn't Have Subjected Himself To What Fantasy Island's Tattoo Did

Peter Dinklage and Jamie Dornan on set. (Photo by Steffan Hill/HBO)
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By Darby Maloney & John Horn with Marialexa Kavanaugh

Before killing himself in 1993, Fantasy Island star Hervé Villechaize gave one last interview. The journalist was Sacha Gervasi, an Englishman sent to L.A. to write a "where are they now"-type story.

What Gervasi actually experienced was something deeper, weirder, and more inspiring. His interview became the basis for the new HBO movie My Dinner with Hervé, which Gervasi wrote and directed.

Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage plays Villechaize in the film, which takes place over the course of one debaucherous night.

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Dinklage and Villechaize both have forms of dwarfism. Unlike Dinklage, the most notable roles of Villechaize's career were often demeaning, caricaturing his height and high-pitched voice. One of the key things that drew Dinklage to the role was their human areas of overlap.

"There's a funny combination in both of us of, for lack of a better word, anger and theatricality," Dinklage said when we spoke with him and Gervasi.

Villechaize rose to fame for his role as Tattoo in popular late '70s TV show Fantasy Island, starring opposite Ricardo Montalban. He'd previously playedNick Nack in the James Bond movie the Man with the Golden Gun. While filming, Dinklage was asked to re-create many of the scenes and stunts from Villechaize's career.

"On a day when we were filming, we did a re-enactment of Roger Moore stuffing Hervé Villechaize into an oversized suitcase, which is the end of the Man with the Golden Gun," Dinklage said. "It was a really bizarre day on set that day, being stuffed into an oversized suitcase. Because I don't think I could ever do that. And that's not a judgement on Hervé's choice to say, 'OK, I will do that.' It's just, it's really just not so nice. It's demeaning. But it's completely acceptable. And that still happens today with people my size."

Peter Dinklage stars as French actor Hervé Villechaize in "My Dinner With Hervé" (Courtesy of HBO)

While he said that he'd never agree to a role if every script page included a nod to his height, Dinklage also acknowledged that no role can totally ignore it.

"You can't pretend it's not part of who I am. I think that's maybe equally not such great writing, as people just completely focusing on the fact that I am," he said. "I have to be happy with who I am at the end of the day. In the eyes of my children."

The physical and emotional injuries Villechaize suffered from doing stunts like the suitcase scene stuck with him all his life, which eventually ended in a suicide.

"Hervé was a very intelligent man, he was a very articulate, very eloquent and urbane, he was incredibly well-educated," Gervasi said. "He was an award-winning artist. He understood the ramifications of these things. But the world as it existed a certain point he was imprisoned by the fact that he had to play the stereotype."

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Making the film was a large commitment -- both Dinklage and Gervasi have been working on the project for more than 14 years. For Gervasi, his deep personal connection to the story made it impossible to abandon.

"So it's just this unbelievable story of this underdog who triumphed against all odds and yet never quite found what he was looking for," Gervasi said. "Over the course of our three meetings, I found myself really connected with him for some reason. I think because at a certain point he was just being so honest. And that really affected me."

Gervasi remembers in vivid detail the evening he got the call about Villechaize's suicide.

"Without thinking, I suddenly started to cry, because I had known in my instinct that something was going on," Gervasi said. "Until that moment it didn't really make sense. I listened back to the tapes and realized that Hervé was planning to do this. He was going to kill himself, and that I just really happened to be some random stranger there who he wanted to pour his heart out to."

Dinklage, Gervasi and Andy Garcia on set (credit: Peter Lovino/HBO)

One undisputable fact was Villechaize's courage.

"If you weren't going to open the door for him, he would knock it down," Dinklage said. "His fame controlled the reason why people turned when they walked into a room. It wasn't because of his size. It was because he was famous. Again, I can't claim to know what was going on in Hervé's head, but I feel that that's what empowered him. That sort of taking control of why people are doing a double-take seeing you."

Having grown up in a family of three boys, the other two of whom were "normal-sized," Villechaize underwent an unending stream of medical treatments -- along with both physical and verbal attacks. The situation got so out of hand that his father eventually sent him to New York City with only a few hundred dollars to his name.

"It was like, 'You're in danger here. You need to go where the freaks go,'" Gervasi explained. "And he was embraced! So he had this kind of defiance and this courage and this relentless need to be taken seriously. And also to be seen and celebrated as he was, which is a really big thing for Hervé. He had an incredible drive -- and obviously it came from pain."

My Dinner With Hervé premieres on HBO this Saturday, Oct. 20.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it on KPCC's The Frame.

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