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The Spark: Da Plane Truth About Hervé Villechaize

He may have been small of stature, but Hervé Villechaize possessed no shortage of talent or personality. He first made a name for himself as an accomplished artist and photographer, but the world would remember him most for his portrayal of the spunky and excitable Tattoo on ABC's immensely popular television show, "Fantasy Island." His energetic performance won the hearts of audiences everywhere, but the happy-go-lucky effervescence Villechaize projected on-screen belied a darker personal life -- one that would ultimately end in tragedy.

He was born in Paris, France on April 23, 1943, and by the time he was three years old, he had been diagnosed with an acute thyroid condition which caused his proportionate dwarfism (he would never reach four feet in height.) His mother and adoptive father (who happened to be a respected surgeon) brought Hervé to Minnesota's Mayo Clinic in an attempt to find relief for his condition. Despite being subjected to a number of painful surgeries and procedures, a cure was never found and the Villechaizes returned to France.

Because of his condition, Hervé had a difficult time making friends and found comfort in solitary artistic pursuits. He studied photography and painting at the legendary Beaux-Arts School and, at the tender age of 18, became the youngest artist to have his work displayed at the museum. By 1964, in spite of a burgeoning art career in Europe, Villechaize decided to expand his horizons and moved to New York City. He learned English by watching television and was soon supplementing his art career with acting roles in off-Broadway plays and (no pun intended) small films. Money and work, however, grew increasingly sparse over the years and by 1974, he was living in his car and working as a rat-catcher's assistant. His big break was right around the corner, though, and he landed the role of James Bond's nemesis "Nick Nack" in "The Man with the Golden Gun."

The film boosted Villechaize's waning career and brought him to the attention of television producer Aaron Spelling, who wound up casting him opposite Ricardo Montalban in the 1977 movie-of-the-week, "Fantasy Island." The telemovie was hugely successful and ABC promptly followed it up, first with a (not-too-imaginatively-titled) sequel, "Return to Fantasy Island," and then a weekly series. On screen, Villechaize's portrayal of the loveable Tattoo helped to make the show a smash hit and his weekly cry of "Da plane! Da plane!" forever cemented his place in pop culture. Behind the scenes, however, problems began to arise. He was quarrelsome with the show's producers and female cast members repeatedly complained about his alleged advances. He was fired in 1983 over a salary dispute; a move which deeply wounded the actor and angered the show's devoted fans. In his absence, "Fantasy Island" lasted only one more season and Villechaize slowly fell into despair.

Work offers were scarce and he quickly burned through the fortune he had amassed. He gradually became more withdrawn and depressed and, over the next several years, began drinking. This, coupled with the mounting dose of pain pills he consumed daily to cope with his physical condition, led to increasingly unpredictable and violent behavior. Finally, in the early hours of September 4, 1993, Herve Villechaize took his own life. His contribution may have been as diminutive as his build, but his impression on the popular culture continues to be mighty and indelible.

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