Fantasy Island’s diminutive dream-merchant Tattoo is notorious for his roving eye, and off-camera actor Herve Villechaize has played the part too: His dressing-room door carries a sign: “Sex Instructor—First Lesson Free.” Four years ago, however, his eye lighted on statuesque Camille Hagan, one of the sarong-wrapped lovelies who have graced the ersatz Shangri-la, and he tumbled. Courtship followed, and last month they were married. But as viewers know, wishes fulfilled on Fantasy Island often bring their share of heartbreak, and Herve and Camille are learning that difficult lesson in real life.
The 21-inch difference in height between the 3’11” Herve and the 5’8″ Camille triggers gossip and cruel jokes. “I resent being made fun of,” says Camille, 23, a onetime stand-in for Kate Jackson on Charlie’s Angels. Shrugs Herve, 37, “I don’t mind people wanting to know about our marriage. I mind what they make of it.”
More troublesome than the ribald gags are the tabloid rumors that Herve (pronounced air-vay) suffers from storage disease, which often affects dwarfs. Abnormal fatty material collects in their cells and causes severe metabolic disorders. In extreme cases the disease may even result in mental retardation. Though Herve calls himself a midget, he concedes his birth certificate lists him as a dwarf. (A midget is a very small person, a dwarf is abnormally proportioned as well.) “I don’t have the disease,” he insists. “A friend called after reading that I had it, and started crying. I told him, ‘Take it easy. I’m not dead yet.’ ”
Herve is cooperating with a UCLA research clinic in Torrance, Calif, that specializes in the health problems of dwarfs and midgets. “I’m not doing it because I want to grow, which is impossible now,” he says. “I’m doing it to prolong my life. I shouldn’t be as active as I am. I have to take three steps to an average person’s one.” He drives a pickup that is specially equipped for his reach, and buys things like underwear and socks in the children’s department of stores. Most of his clothes are custom-made.
Fame brings its own afflictions. “People don’t mean to hurt me,” Herve observes. Co-star Ricardo Montalban goes further: “Herve has taken abuse for his size,” but adds, “I have great respect, admiration and fondness for him. He is one of the blessings of the show.” Herve’s first marriage ended in divorce after eight years in 1978, partly because of the ridicule he and his 5’4″ artist wife suffered. “If a girl goes out with me,” he complains, “she’s treated like a tramp.” Until he was 21, Villechaize self-consciously refused to be photographed, and for a time he did not like to shave because it meant looking in a mirror. “But I survived,” he says. “I’m handicapped, but I don’t let anything become a big wall.” While filming Fantasy Island, he travels with a bodyguard; at home, he keeps a revolver and a can of Mace for self-defense. Montalban explains: “There are sick people in the world.”
Camille met Herve when Fantasy Island was in the pilot stage. At first she felt ill at ease about his attentions. “We talked, and then Herve walked away,” she recalls. “He returned with a sketch he had drawn—a bird with tears in its eyes—and told me, ‘This is you.’ ” Soon they were going out.
Last April she joined him on a trip to France. “For a lot of men, inviting a woman to dinner or on a trip is a license to take her to bed,” observes Herve. “I told Camille, ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to say yes to everything I ask.’ ” She adds, “We had a little conflict of interest there.” Acknowledges Herve, “We were fighting like cats and dogs.”
But in July, on an L.A.-to-New York flight, Herve proposed. “He had been pumping me about whether I minded this or that about him,” Camille says. “Then he popped the question. I thought, ‘I’m 23, I want a career—can I be a wife?’ I told him yes.”
Villechaize is the youngest of four sons in an otherwise normal-size French family. His father was a surgeon in Toulon. A poor scholar (he quit at 11) but a gifted painter, Herve attended art schools, then emigrated to New York in 1963 and enrolled at the Art Students League. Work as a free-lance photographer led to a 1966 meeting with movie director Conrad Rooks, who was shooting the avant-garde Chappaqua. Quips Herve, “I was asked to play a small part.” That led to other films, Broadway, and even the New York City Opera. Fantasy Island’s producers spotted him in the James Bond thriller The Man with the Golden Gun. For each episode he now reportedly earns $4,000.
To Camille, Fantasy Island was merely another bit part until she met Herve. The daughter of Studio City appliance repair shop owners, she dropped out of Cal State at Northridge and was picking up small roles in TV shows such as Kojak and Skag. “I’m devoted now to his career,” she says. “We each have to make adjustments, but we’re no different from any other married couple—except that usually the husband is taller than the wife.” The height gap aside, what differences remain now that they’ve moved to Herve’s 1.5-acre San Fernando Valley ranch, with its collection of chickens, ducks, horses, dogs, rabbits, an owl and a raccoon? She pauses, as if to say “How shall I put it?” then replies with a smile, “The animals. I’ll help him with them. But he likes the animals better than I do.”