“I want most to be treated like a human being.”
Almost from its beginning, Hervé Villechaize’s life was fraught with difficulty, wild ups and downs, and struggle. But even if he did it, unknowingly, he transcended it all to become a fondly remembered figure in the person of his sometimes childlike, but always lovable, television alter ego.
Hervé Jean-Pierre Villechaize was born in Paris on April 23, 1943, to a British-born mother, Evelyn Recchioni. He already had an older brother, Patrick; the boys never learned the identity of their biological father. Evelyn soon married French surgeon André Villechaize, who informally adopted Hervé and Patrick, giving them his surname. Later, she bore her husband two more sons, Jean-Paul and Philippe. Later, the family moved to Toulon, where Hervé grew up.
By the time he was three years old, his father noticed he wasn’t growing properly and had him examined; it turned out that he was suffering from a thyroid condition that resulted in a chronic case of proportionate dwarfism. In the hope of correcting the problem, André sent young Hervé to several clinics, including Minnesota‘s Mayo Clinic; but none of them were able to do anything for the boy. At age 13, Hervé himself put a stop to the fruitless attempts and began to learn to live with the condition.
Early on, he showed stunning talent as an artist. At age 12, he painted his mother’s portrait; by age 16, he was studying at Paris’ Beaux-Arts School. Two years later he became the youngest artist ever to have his work displayed at the Museum of Paris. However, he didn’t feel he could get very far if he remained in France; so at the age of 21, he left for the United States and settled in New York City. There he met another artist, Anne Sadowski, who became his girlfriend and eventually his wife.
He taught himself English by watching television, and pretty soon he himself was involved in the local show business scene. His first film appearance was in 1966 in Chappaqua, though he wasn’t credited; four years later, he married Anne, and at the same time appeared as one of the title characters in an obscure movie called Hen 72-D—The Adventures of Spa and Fon. Most of his work was in avant-garde films from that point on for several years. He had parts in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971); Last Stop and Greaser’s Palace (1972); Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973); Crazy Joe and Seizure (1974), in the latter of which he also contributed some still photography.
But this was spotty work at best, and by 1974 he was already separated from Anne, who had relocated to Paris, and living out of his car. That was when he was hired to play Nick Nack, the sly, somewhat sadistic assistant to Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga in the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun. He turned in a performance that just about stole the show; and while there was another lull between this job and his next, he had nevertheless caught the attention of a certain few people.
When Aaron Spelling, Leonard Goldberg and Gene Levitt were piecing together the treatment and script for the Fantasy Island pilot film, at first Spelling was hoping to snag Orson Welles for the role of Mr. Roarke. However, Welles was either unwilling or unable to fill the part, so Spelling turned to Ricardo Montalbán. When that happened, Roarke’s assistant—originally a pretty young woman—was scrubbed; as Spelling observed, Montalbán’s good looks didn’t need supplementing. So Levitt dreamed up a character called Tattoo and inserted him into the script as Roarke’s assistant.
Spelling, seeing the script, came up with the idea to make Tattoo a little person; Levitt agreed, and Spelling started looking for the right person for the part. It didn’t take long for him to discover Hervé as Nick Nack; Spelling offered him the role of Tattoo, and he agreed with alacrity.
It was the beginning of the most lucrative time in Hervé’s life, although at first it seemed as if his job were in jeopardy. ABC liked the Nielsen ratings the tv movie brought in, but they were balky about Hervé and wanted Spelling to ditch the character for the sequel movie. After some back-and-forth, Spelling laid down the law and said that either Hervé stayed or the movie was a no-go. ABC caved in, and Return to Fantasy Island was aired with the same success as its predecessor, leading a week later to the weekly series.
Though outwardly Hervé was charming and friendly, he always had his dark side; he was constantly plagued by health problems brought on by his size, and he had mood swings that Aaron Spelling later commented on. While he and Montalbán got on quite well and were friends, he tended to keep to himself and sometimes would refuse interviews by creating a sore throat and claiming he had to see the doctor about it.
Still, he carried on. Even while he was making a steady income from “Fantasy Island”, he was doing a few other projects on the side; Hot Tomorrows (1977), following the initial pilot film, and the next year The One and Only, with Henry Winkler. In 1980 he starred in Forbidden Zone and made a guest appearance on the television series “Taxi”; two years later he took on several more acting parts, appearing on “Fall Guy”, and Shelley Duvall’s cable-tv series “Faerie Tale Theatre”, filling the title role in the show’s retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin”. The same year he had a cameo in Airplane II: The Sequel.
He was fiercely protective, too. Hervé always had an affinity with kids, and he felt deeply for those who were persecuted, physically or verbally. He got involved with children’s charities during his days on “Fantasy Island” and opened a halfway house for abused kids. Sometimes he even confronted the abusers himself, venting his fury and outrage at their cruel treatment of their victims.
After his divorce from Anne, in early 1979, he met Donna Camille Hagen on the set of “Fantasy Island”, and they fell in love and were married in 1980. Problems soon developed in the marriage, and within two years they were divorced. By then the crew and producers of “Fantasy Island” were beginning to find him more and more difficult to work with; one solution was an attempt to lighten his workload somewhat by bringing in a second assistant for Roarke during the fifth season. They explained that they were trying to accommodate Hervé’s health issues, for both he and Montalbán had to deal with constant pain during shooting. But Hervé was upset, feeling that the producers were slowly trying to shuffle him off the show. Apparently things were resolved for a while; Julie, the second assistant, lasted only one season, and things were back to normal for season 6.
But toward the end of the year, Hervé decided he could no longer tolerate the discrepancy in his and Ricardo’s respective salaries, and brought his request to the producers: he wanted to make the same money his co-star was earning. The issue went back and forth over the summer hiatus and eventually culminated in Hervé’s dismissal from the series when the dispute couldn’t be resolved. This time he was permanently and completely replaced; Tattoo was out, and Lawrence the butler was in, with no sharing of duties as there had been with Julie two years earlier.
Having lost his job, Hervé found himself on a gradual career downslide. In 1984 he turned up on an episode of “Diff’rent Strokes”; 1988 was a better year, for he made two movies: The Telephone, in which he contributed a voiceover, and Two Moon Junction, starring Sherilyn Fenn. After that he was reduced to guest shots on assorted talk shows; in 1991 he was on Carol Burnett’s second series, and subsequently appeared on “The Howard Stern Show”, “The Larry Sanders Show”, and “The Ben Stiller Show”. He had hoped to have his autobiography published, but was unable to find a publisher interested in the project; and he also hoped for a “Fantasy Island” reunion, which never came to pass either. Famously, he made a commercial for Dunkin Donuts in which he stepped up to the counter and asked for “de plain, de plain” doughnut. His last appearance, in the summer of 1993, was in a Coors beer ad.
For the last several years he had been living with Kathy Self, who acted as his assistant and also became his girlfriend. His health had been declining steadily in that time, and he had to sleep sitting up in order to keep breathing. His internal organs, unlike his body, had grown to the size they would have in the average man, crowding one another inside him and interfering with their proper function. He had had a string of small strokes, and in 1992 he nearly died from a bout with pneumonia. It was his health issues that brought on a case of depression, and as time passed, he decided he could no longer go on as he was.
On September 4, 1993, Hervé and Kathy went out to see Harrison Ford’s The Fugitive, had dinner out, and then went home, where Kathy retired for the night. She was awakened by a gunshot around 3 am and went out to the backyard, where she discovered that Hervé had shot himself with a pistol, using two pillows to muffle the sound. He had been running a tape recorder, which caught the sound of the shot and his mumbled complaints of pain in the aftermath. There was also a suicide note, in which he said that he loved everyone “too much” and wanted Kathy to have all his belongings.
Kathy was by his side when he died at home about 3:10 am. His body was cremated and the ashes scattered off Point Fermin, California. Hervé had left behind no children, but he must have known that, along with Kathy, there were many fans who had first “met” him while watching “Fantasy Island”, who would miss him greatly. To this day Kathy Self continues to protect the memory and legacy of Hervé Villechaize.
Information sources include the Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia websites; People Magazine, September 20, 1993 article by Tom Giatto, Todd Gold, and Claire Wilson; TV Guide Magazine, March 1, 1980 article by Dwight Whitney; Notes from Kathy Self at Morbidly Hollywood website (franksreelreviews dot com slash shorttakes slash tattoo slash tattoo dot htm); and findadeath dot com website.