AS TATTOO, RICARDO MONTALBAN’S IMPISH aide-de-camp on the ABC series Fantasy Island, Hervé Villechaize left an indelible impression. Viewers weren’t just intrigued by his appearance—a sly cherub. They also loved his trademark line, uttered each week as new guest stars flew in to have their dreams fulfilled. The 3’11” Villechaize, in his white suit, would point excitedly to the sky and shout, in his gravelly French accent, “De plane! De plane!”
Villechaize’s own fantasies, however, were a good deal darker than those of the visitors. Frequently suicidal, they were fueled by despair over his dwarfism and recent poor health, including a series of minor strokes and a near fatal bout with pneumonia in 1992. “I dread not to see tomorrow,” he wrote in a 1983 proposal for his never published autobiography. “I dread dying. But I will die. In not too many tomorrows.”
On Sept. 4, Villechaize’s bleak sense of destiny was fulfilled. The previous evening, the 50-year-old actor and his girlfriend and assistant, Kathy Self, 35, saw The Fugitive in Los Angeles, then dined with friends. When they returned to his North Hollywood home, Self went to bed. At about 3 a.m., Villechaize walked onto the back patio, aimed a gun at his chest and pulled the trigger. A suicide note revealed that, although he “loved everybody,” he could no longer bear his ailments.
Villechaize had long been attracted to guns. In the midst of a 1982 divorce, actress Camille Hagan, Villechaize’s second and last wife, accused Hervé of pushing her into a fireplace and firing a pistol at her on their San Fernando Valley ranch. In 1985 he was arrested and fined $425 after police found a loaded handgun in his suitcase at a Burbank, Calif., hospital where Villechaize, saying he was suffering from stress-related pains, had created a disturbance.
Legal and marital woes aside, “Hervé’s biggest difficulty,” says his first wife, artist Anne Sadowski, “was being trapped in a body that wasn’t doing him any good.” And one that he never accepted. As he wrote in his autobiography proposal, “I never mixed with other people my size.” Says fellow actor Billy Barry, also a dwarf: “He was fighting a battle of denial, and that tears at you.”
The struggle began in early childhood. His father, André, a surgeon who, with his British-born wife, Evelyn, raised Hervé and his three normal-size brothers in Toulon, sought out numerous treatments for him. Recalled Hervé: “I was injected with bone marrow from sheep in Germany; I was studied at the Mayo Clinic in America. Then one day when I was 13, I said, ‘That’s it. I don’t want anything done to me ever again.’ ”
Hervé grew in other ways. A talented artist, he attended the prestigious Beaux-Arts School in Paris at 16. Four years later he moved to New York City to continue his studies but soon began acting in avant-garde films and off-Broadway plays. His movie breakthrough was as Christopher Lee’s sidekick, Nick Nack, in the 1974 James Bond adventure The Man with the Golden Gun. That led to the Fantasy Island series in 1978. After being banished from the hit show five years later in a salary dispute, Villechaize grew despondent as job offers dried up. (One of his last appearances was in a Coors commercial this past summer.) By the end, he desired only to see his life story in print. “I want the world to know what I have done with my life,” he wrote in his book proposal, “with the beauty I have found in life, as well as the ugliness.”
TODD GOLD in Los Angeles and CLAIRE WILSON in Paris