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Thursday, 23 December, 1999, 08:31 GMT
Star Wars to Snow White: The life of a dwarf actor
Any other star of four of the most successful Hollywood films of all time might baulk at the prospect of taking a supporting role in provincial theatre. But Kenny Baker accepts pantomime as the lot of the dwarf actor.
You'd be excused for not recognising the 65-year-old star's name, or even his face, but as the "droid" R2-D2, he has featured in every one of the lucrative Star Wars films.
Though boasting a global following of sci-fi fans, the 3ft 8ins actor is taking to the stage in Birmingham Hippodrome's production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
"I do enjoy doing pantomime at Christmas," said the pensioner. "If I didn't do it I'd feel as though I was missing something."
He is so keen on the show that he wishes it were on all year round: "It would give a lot of little people a lot more work," he said.
Baker began his career in cabaret and variety and was kept too busy to even consider pantomime.
"That all went out the window. When TV came in it closed a lot of theatres. Even the 'ice' shows melted away."
Hi-ho silver lining
Today the opportunities for dwarf actors are strictly limited, prompting their number to dwindle. Few dwarfs are now willing to risk 11 months of insecurity for a month of "Hi-ho".
"They're just ordinary people, just with short arms and legs," Baker said. "They've got ordinary jobs and don't want to come into showbiz for six to ten weeks."
With more than 20 productions of Snow White competing in the UK, casting directors have found it difficult to find 140 dwarfs to lift shovel, pick and walking stick. There have been reports of continental dwarf actors being drafted in for the UK's pantomimes.
Baker said there are some British dwarfs who are happy to work for the panto season and return to their normal careers in January.
"They come out of the woodwork on occasion, and you think, 'I wonder what they do?' One guy was a gynaecologist."
The dearth of suitable actors often drives producers to desperate measures.
"They don't always use dwarfs, unfortunately. They shouldn't be allowed to do that! How dare they do Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and not have dwarfs!"
He decried the casting of children in the famous roles. One production particularly sticks in his mind. "The dwarfs were bigger than Snow White! Absolutely ridiculous! The kids must be disillusioned to see that on stage."
Baker said a vicious circle has developed, where the lack of opportunities has discouraged young hopefuls.
"There just aren't many little guys who are good actors, they don't get the training, they don't go to Rada. There just aren't the parts for dwarfs, and if you like it or not, you're typecast as a dwarf."
With film roles in Mona Lisa, The Elephant Man and Amadeus, as well as a part opposite Dame Kiri Te Kanawa at the Royal Opera House, Baker has managed to break the mould.
As Fidgit in Terry Gilliam's 1981 fantasy film Time Bandits, Baker was offered a rare chance to really sink his teeth into a character.
The movie also catapulted fellow dwarf David Rappaport to international fame.
"He was a good little actor and went to America on the strength of Time Bandits."
Baker blames Rappaport's suicide on Hollywood's indifference to serious dwarf actors: "Poor David couldn't cope with it."
Although Star Wars has been the saviour of Baker's career, he freely admits the R2-D2 role barely stretched his acting skills.
"With a robot you've got no eyebrows and no arms to express yourself with. I just had to wobble the thing about and move the head and that was about all I could really do.
"It was all down to George Lucas's good editing and putting sounds and whistles in the right places which gave R2-D2 a character."
Working with the likes of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, Baker said the making the first three films was like "a family show, a home from home".
The star also reprised his role in last summer's prequel, The Phantom Menace, and hopes to work on the remaining films in the series.
"They just lift the lid, put me in, put the lid back on and I'm ready to go. They might put somebody else in the next film, but if they get the right person for the job they usually stick with them. I hope."
Though keen to get back to the "galaxy far, far away", Baker would draw the line at playing an "ewok" - the cuddly warriors from 1983's Return of the Jedi.
"You were a round ball of rubber covered with fur. It looked good, but it was horrible to work inside. Within five minutes you were overheating and you couldn't see because the eyes steamed up."
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs runs at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 15 January, 2000
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