Irish star Jamie Dornan stars with "Game of Thrones" star in the tragicomedy life story of the actor who became famous as Tattoo in "Fantasy Island."
You may not know Herve Villechaize by name, but you know his face. He was the three foot eleven inches tall actor who played Tattoo in the escapist TV hit "Fantasy Island", and before that, he was the evil henchman Nick Nack in the classic James Bond film "The Man With The Golden Gun."
This month his strange, tragicomic life story is compassionately told by actors Peter Dinklage and Jamie Dornan in the new HBO movie "My Dinner With Herve."
People never got tired of asking Villechaize to recreate the catchphrase that made him world famous on the hit TV show Fantasy Island. Say it, they would plead with the actor, and if he was in a good mood he'd oblige: “The plane! The plane!” he'd shout and they'd applaud delightedly.
In "My Dinner With Herve" actor Peter Dinklage, 49, (best known for his recurring role as Tyrion in "Game of Thrones") plays Herve and Jamie Dornan, 36, plays Danny Tate, the real-life journalist who meets the former superstar actor for an interview near the end of his life (and his tether).
Dornan's character Danny is facing life challenges of his own. Off the booze for 31 days and eager to be reconciled to his estranged wife and child, he's desperate to ensure his story becomes a smash hit.
But it turns out that by that he means his interview with Gore Vidal, the legendary novelist, not Herve. In fact, it soon becomes apparent that Herve, if his story runs at all, will be a 500 word comedy piece in the Where Are They Now vein, not a serious profile of a serious actor.
But Danny gets more than he bargained for when he finally runs into the diminutive French man, now 50 years old, still tooling around Hollywood in a chauffeur driven limo, living a champagne lifestyle, even as his credit cards are starting to bounce.
What the film shows us is that when they meet each man is at the end of their ropes, although neither yet knows that about the other. Herve is aggressive, inappropriate and provocative and Danny is rubbed raw by his sarcastic attacks.
In fact, the first meeting between the interviewer and subject is so confrontational that it looks like it will also be the last one. Herve mistrusts the handsome young Irish man and withholds what he most wants to talk about. Danny in turn is frustrated by all the obvious hedging and dodging and it looks like their encounter is going nowhere.
But soon the two men are brought together again by circumstances and this time the story that Herve sat on finally emerges. Actually, it explodes. Herve takes Danny on a wild ride through the strip bars and back streets of Los Angeles, sharing tantalizing glimpses of his prior life as an out of control superstar between new bouts of his new life as an out of control has been.
Born and raised in Paris, France to the English-born Evelyn and French-born surgeon Andre Villechaize, Herve was the youngest of four sons and was relentlessly bullied at school for his untreatable condition. It would be consoling to say that this is the tale of a man rising up to the challenges that fate has brought him, but that was not Villechaize's story or this movie.
Villechaize had a condition medically described as proportionate dwarfism, allegedly due to an endocrine disorder. His father was a French surgeon who made many heartfelt but ultimately futile attempts to cure the condition.
Early on Villechaize took comfort in his discovery of painting, for which he showed real talent. In 1961 he became the youngest artist ever to have his work displayed in the Museum of Paris. But in 1964 he left France for the United States where he taught himself English by watching television.
Everyone in America had a television he soon realized, a dream box where those behind the screen seemed able to be able to remake their lives in any way they like. He was hypnotized by it. Soon he was trading his art career for acting lessons and his appeal to the top agent at William Morris to represent him is the stuff of legend, and reenacted in the new film.
Herve burst into the agents office with a dagger in his hand, as his captive audience started reaching for the hand gun hidden under his desk. In these scenes, Dinklage is both hilarious and heartbreaking as a man who is desperate to live his dreams. He makes you understand how Herve climbed the ladder to success through the sheer force of his own will.
Dornan is also very good as the rudderless journo who is one stop short of ruination himself. Just a month off the drink, his will to succeed is sorely tested by the chaotic circumstances that he finds himself in, especially on his first big foreign assignment to the United States.
My Dinner With Herve steals up on you slowly as an expertly crafted, character driven piece that depends on its two charismatic leads to drive the admittedly thin plot. Luckily Dinklage and Dornan remind us why they have become superstars in the first place in their very different but equally charismatic careers.
The film also shows us how Herve remembers his parents attendance at his first big break, the premiere of his starring role in a Bond film. They were proud of me, he tells Danny. For the first time, I saw and felt that they were proud of me. But later the scene is revisited and the truth slowly emerges. Neither parent has seen their son for at least ten years and when they do catch the screening they are appalled, not delighted, by his film success.
So beneath every scene in this film lies an arresting sadness that ebbs and flows through each scene. We revisit the great loves of Herves life and the challenges he faces to make them last. We also see how violent some men become toward him, provoked by his size and by his romantic success with women.
Director Sacha Gervasi (who is also the screenwriter) doesn't make it easy on the audience or his actors, because the camera follows Dinklage through every high and low point of his extraordinary career. At the heigh of his fame on Fantasy Island, we watch him lose the run of himself, drunk on easy money, access, booze and promiscuity.
Dornan also shows us his versatility as an actor by playing a hard edged role where he is neither good guy nor bad, at least at first. In fact, the film makes us wonder if his character will ever make good on his assignment and indeed his life, when it becomes increasingly clear he has no real emotional support to speak of and no real friends to steady his course.
Both of these men are teetering on the edge of disaster throughout the film, but Danny pulls himself back at the last moment, unable to save his marriage but determined to save himself.
Sadly, that was not the case for the real life Herve, who surrendered to his demons just days after his final interview. His decision won the real life Danny a major book contract, but as this sadly sweet film reminds us even the biggest success can be both fleeting and fatal.