Billy Barty

The world's most famous little-person actor talks to The Onion.

Seven decades of show business have given proto-little person Billy Barty the opportunity to play everything from a Nazi spy to a baby to an evil scientist; work alongside everyone from Elvis Presley to Ronald Reagan; and champion the cause of America's million and a half little people by founding the Little People of America and his own Billy Barty Foundation. Barty has appeared in countless films as a character actor, from Legend (1986) and Willow (1988) to A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) and Presley's Harum Scarum (1965). The great man recently took the time to talk with The Onion about the ramifications of dwarfism, his careers in baseball and Vaudeville, quality children's television, and his celebrity golf tournament.

The Onion: So, what's new?

Billy Barty: What's new? Well, my surgery's new, but I'm getting over that.

O: Your knee, right?

BB: Yeah, right, yeah.

O: Hurt it?

BB: No, no, just a matter of... What can I say? Time carries on, and it just deteriorated to where I had to get some new things put in, and they did some fiddling. So far, it's pretty good. It's just going to take a little time and patience. I had it done about three years ago, but then my ligaments and tendons were weak, so they knew something was going to happen, and it did happen, so they took care of it. I had an artificial tendon put in, a ligament put in, my Achilles tendon fused to the knee... So I'm just recuperating and working on my 25th annual golf tournament, which is coming up Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 in Palm Springs.

O: Do you golf yourself?

BB: I used to, yeah. I was a good 21 handicap. I wasn't long, but I was down the middle. [Laughs.] And I guess I'm closer to the ground, so I one-putted a lot. That's why I like to play in scrambles.

O: Is it invitational? Who gets invited?

BB: Well, we have lot of little people, a lot of celebrities, and we have a lot of, you know, paying players. This year, featured in our dinner awards show Saturday night is Donald O'Connor. We have a 15-piece orchestra, and it's quite a production... We have a Friday-night party, and all our ribs are furnished by my good friend... You ever been in Cincinnati?

O: Just once.

BB: You ever eaten at the Montgomery Inn? Ribs? You must have heard of them. Well, they're one of our major sponsors, The Montgomery Inn. My friend Teddy Gregory furnishes us with enough ribs to feed 300 people. And being that we're having it on Halloween, we're having a big Halloween party. All the ribs are being dressed up.

O: Are you a big eater?

BB: No, no... I used to be, but that's when I was exercising more. I'm just an average eater, for a little person. I eat when I'm hungry these days, and that's about it. Although some little people eat a lot! An awful lot. Anyway, that's one of the things we're working on now, besides all the other functions that we do with the Billy Barty Foundation.

O: Tell me about the Billy Barty Foundation.

BB: Well, right! There's a lot of little people out there; there are considered to be about 1.5 million people of short stature in the United States, and what my foundation does is help with scholarships—we give away about 20 a year—and give medical advice and psychological support. Anyone can call and ask for information on the foundation and the tournament, which is celebrating its anniversary this year. It's unusual in that a lot of them don't last 25 years. We started out with a little one-day tournament in Azusa, California, and now we're in Palm Springs for three days, playing at the Desert Dunes.

O: That's a famous course.

BB: Yeah! Very nice! We have a great turnout. We give nice service, too. And the money goes for a real good cause. So that's one of the things I'm working on, besides working with the Little People of America, which you know I started 40 years ago, in 1957. That's international now, and we still have a lot of work to do. We're still trying to educate the public that all the little people aren't in circuses. They have legitimate professions, anything from doctors to lawyers to geneticists, you name it. So that's an interesting project; I'm quite involved in that.

O: When we called to set up this interview, you were off counseling someone who had just had a baby who was a little person.

BB: Oh, yeah! It was quite a wonderful thing, 'cause a lot of people who give birth, you know, they're scared. Frightened. One out of 12,000 people born will be a little person. You know Steve Reed, a relief pitcher for the Colorado Rockies? He and his wife gave birth to a dwarf child. It was beautiful thing; I just fell in love with this baby. It's a certain type of dwarfism we know about, so between the Billy Barty Foundation and the Little People of America, we gave them the right doctors to go to and the right people to see, and he was completely thrilled. Then I told him how to pitch against the Dodgers, and he was a relieving winner.

O: You do a lot of good work.

BB: That and my one-man show, which I'm putting together for the stage. Ninety minutes, showing anywhere, in any theaters we can book. I'll probably be ready to get back within the month, and we have a very good show, I think. It's a musical comedy, and it's going to be interesting. Who knows? We might be up there, in your area! [Laughs.] That was great, traveling around doing Vaudeville. I did that from when I was about four years old until I was about 17. That was working, in the early days.

O: You've been working in movies since you were about 10, haven't you?

BB: Three! I'll be celebrating my 70th year coming up. Seventy years in the entertainment business, except for about five years when I got out of it to go to college. I'm writing my autobiography still. We haven't gone out searching for publishers yet. It's gonna be interesting. I've changed my approach to it, but it's gonna be informative, and very, very... Well, I'm writing two books, really, but one of them... Well, I don't want to talk about the other one yet. This one is just, like, Meet Billy Barty. It's very simple. It goes back to when I started, when I was three.

O: You know, I looked it up, and the first movie credit I found for you was in 1934, making you 10 years old or so.

BB: Oh, no no no! Uh-uh. Nope. My first... What was it you got?

O: The one I have here is The Dog Doctor, 1934.

BB: The Dog Doctor! I don't remember that one!

O: Well, they could be wrong...

BB: No no no no! They could be right, sure, whoever they are. The Dog Doctor. Hmmm. But I started in 1927, when I was three, in a movie called Wedded Blisters. Was a two-reeler. That's what they mostly did in those days. Called 'em that 'cause they only used two reels. Yeah.

O: You worked on a lot of movies early on in which you were a kid, a little boy, that sort of thing.

BB: Oh, yeah! I was! I was four years old for eight years. [Laughs.]

O: A career asset, I'm sure.

BB: It was! Definitely. Yeah, it was.

O: Now, in the '40s and '50s, I couldn't find a lot on you.

BB: Well, I didn't do a lot. I went to high school, finished high school in 1942, and went on to L.A. City College after that. Then I went on to L.A. State, which just a couple years ago gave me an honorary doctorate degree in germane letters. Majored in journalism. I was going to be a sportswriter or a sports announcer.

O: Did you ever call any games?

BB: Yeah! I used to announce a lot of the football games at L.A. City College. I did LACC in the first game ever televised in the city of Los Angeles, at the Rose Bowl. That was my big ambition when I went to college. That, and to be a football coach and a basketball coach.

O: Did you ever coach?

BB: Yeah, I coached Little League. I played at L.A. City College in 1945, and I played basketball at L.A. State. I even played semi-pro baseball. [Laughs.]

O: You'd be a pretty hard man to pitch to, I'd imagine.

BB: Definitely! I batted .500! One for two, and I had 45 walks! And seven stolen bases, even.

O: Ever get hit by a pitch?

BB: No.

O: I'd think it would be maddening to find your strike zone.

BB: It is! it is! Like Eddie Gaedel at St. Louis [a little person the St. Louis manager trotted out to protest changes in baseball's strike-zone rules]. But I played ball, and I proved that I could play second base, pitch, and run. Anyway, that's why I didn't get back into the entertainment business until about '47. I did a thing called Three Wise Fools, then one thing led into another, and I did a lot of TV shows. I ended up in 1949 in New York City, as the co-host of a children's show.

O: Was that any fun?

BB: Oh, yeah! Yeah!

O: Well, some people can't stand kids, but they do kids' shows anyway.

BB: Well, I had my own children's show out here for four years, from 1963 to '67. Billy Barty's Big Show. We started out with a little half-hour show once a week, and wound up with an hour-long show that averaged 165 kids. Live, every day.

O: You must have the energy of 10 men.

BB: No, it was fun! It was amazing the respect that the children had for me. 'Cause we're on the same level, practically. They're honest! Their mothers are, "Oh, shut up," but they're, "You're a little man!" And if they say, "You're a midget!," well, I correct them on that one—"I'm a little person!"—and explain it to 'em.

O: You're the proto-little person. You're the most famous little person I can think of. You've worked with everybody: Jerry Lewis, Kirk Douglas...

BB: Busby Berkeley, in Gold Diggers Of 1933. Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell.

O: You were in a couple of Elvis movies.

BB: Yes!

O: What was Elvis like?

BB: He was fantastic. A delight. Friendly, nice, kind, courteous. He was worried about me all the time! He wanted to protect me; he was overprotective on Harum Scarum, 'cause it was a rough deal! There were a lot of physical things going on in that movie. Really, he was a delight.

O: I like the idea of Elvis trying to protect you.

BB: No, he was! [Laughs.] Yeah, that was a thrill! And then, working with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas [in Tough Guys, 1986]... It was a small part—no pun intended—but it was cute, and I was really honored to work with those two guys. Geniuses.

O: Did you get to hang out with them much?

BB: No no no! I just worked a couple of days. Just a cameo. But I've been very fortunate, worked with a lot of news and TV people, too. I even worked with Ronald Reagan! [Laughs.]

O: I would very much like to hear Billy Barty's take on Ronald Reagan.

BB: Oh, he was wonderful! He was wonderful. I even knew him in later years, you know. I've been kind of blessed, I guess.

O: You also worked on the Sid & Marty Krofft kids' shows of the early '70s.

BB: Oh, yeah! They're out again! Dr. Shrinker, The Bugaloos, Sigmund The Sea Monster, H.R. Pufnstuf... Now, those are good children's shows, I think.

O: Are you still working in TV much?

BB: I just did a couple of things recently, like L.A. Heat, which goes over to Europe. I had a featured part in that, but I had to tell them, "Look, I can't walk, 'cause I'm getting ready to go to the hospital," and they said, "Don't worry, we'll let you use your scooter." I said okay, so I drove the scooter all around. I was a crook on a scooter! Anyway, that's what I've done lately. Although I'll tell you, it's a different world in the entertainment business today. But I won't get into that.

O: You can if you want. Although I understand you're a professional...

BB: Well, we gotta get our act together in the entertainment business. We got so much yuch-yuch. Sesame Street and all the friendly, instructive shows, that's one thing. And the Sid & Marty Krofft things are still good, like they were done yesterday, I think. It was a pleasure working for them. I know a lot of people who I really highly respect in the business. One of the greatest entertainers, to me, is Mickey Rooney. He does comedy, he does musicals, he can direct, he can write, he can do a little bit of everything. Mickey and I were in movies together back to 1929. He always pulls this line, he says, "Billy and I almost grew up together." Ba-da-bum! And Donald O'Connor to me is fantastic. Him I've known since he was eight and I was nine. We used to play in Vaudeville together. Those days were fantastic. It's a lot different these days. I read scripts and I can't do 'em. I don't wanna swear, I don't blow up 48 buildings, I don't have sex, I don't say four-letter words. Hey! Whattya gonna do? Besides, everybody probably thinks I'm dead now... Hold on one second... Sorry, that was my nurse. She's very nice. Has nice, you know, earphones! [Laughs.]

O: You know, I'd pay to see a movie called Billy Barty Blows Up 48 Buildings.

BB: You would?

O: Sure. And I think all my friends would, too.

BB: Okay! Write it!

O: You got it!

BB: No, really! Seriously! The main thing is that you keep trying. Who knows? People ask me where I went to learn this stuff. I tell 'em I didn't go nowhere! You may not do it—I mean, it may not work out—but my thinking is that as long as you try, you've done it.

For more information on Billy Barty, his official web site is
www.billybarty.com.

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