October 06, 1986 12:00 PM

You can take the measure of David Rappaport, the engaging star of CBS’s The Wizard, by two stories he tells about himself. The first is set in his native London 27 years ago when, as an 8-year-old with a musical bent, he used to please his mother by playing the accordion in nursing homes. Then one day he found himself in a “home” where several “little people” were institutionalized. “There was nothing wrong with them,” says Rappaport. “They weren’t ill. They were there just because they were little. It had a chilling effect on me. I’ve never forgotten it.”

The second story is more recent. Emerging from his L.A. apartment at 5:30 on the morning after his new series premiered, on his way to another day’s shooting, he ran into a slightly sozzled young woman sitting on the curb. She glanced at Rappaport, who has been 3’11” tall since he was 8, and squealed: “You’re the wizard!”

Never in his 35 years has anyone ever suggested that Rappaport would end like the lost people of his first tale, shunted away because of their dwarfism. Neither would anyone have predicted that his condition and talent combined would one day lead him to be recognized by inebriated strangers on a foreign street.

Reviews of The Wizard, in which Rappaport plays a jovial genius toy-maker who occasionally designs projects for the government, have been mixed; but almost all have singled out the star as the show’s one unalloyed treasure. Rappaport intends to keep his profile high. “As John Lennon said, ‘The only thing you can’t hide is when you’re crippled inside.’ Well, I see a lot of normal-looking people in Hollywood who are so crippled you wouldn’t believe it. If you don’t give up, you can turn anything to your advantage. I’m much more widely known than if I were six feet tall.”

The son of normal-size parents—Mark, now deceased, was a teacher, and Dinah, 64, a charity fund raiser—David suffers from achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism that allows the trunk to grow while stunting the arms and legs. “It never stopped me from doing anything,” says David. “I suppose if I’d wanted to play soccer, it would have gotten in the way. But it has never been a problem.”

Besides the accordion, Rappaport took up the drums early and played semiprofessionally while working for his psychology degree at the University of Bristol. He also got his first taste of the theater, acting in a student comedy review that eventually played professionally in London. Graduation was followed by a 1975 marriage to his college girlfriend, Jane, who is of conventional height and works as a midwife. A son, Joe, was born a year later. In 1977, after working briefly as a schoolteacher, Rappaport quit to devote himself full-time to a theatrical career. “It was the worst possible time to become an actor,” he says. “I had a wife and a kid. But it seemed now or never, so I went with it.”

Since then he’s made his mark on stage, TV and film, especially as a guide in 1981’s Time Bandits. Rappaport was approached about playing R2D2 in the original Star Wars. He refused, “and it became well known in England that I didn’t do robots.”

It was while promoting a more flesh-and-blood role in a 1985 film, The Bride, that Rappaport became popular in America. His poise on the talk-show circuit led to breakfast meetings, guest shots on series and eventually to The Wizard, the first show in TV history to star a dwarf. “David will be the next Mr. T,” predicts his Wizard co-star, Doug (The Fall Guy) Barr, who plays the hero’s bodyguard. “He has that kind of uniqueness. But what I like about him most is that he can never block my light.”

Notwithstanding such quips, Barr and his wife are welcome visitors to Rappaport’s duplex apartment, where he currently entertains alone. He and Jane were amicably divorced in December. “She was always going off to deliver babies while I was going off to act,” says David. “We had to make diary appointments to see each other.” Rappaport plays host on holidays to Joe, now 10, skateboard-struck and a bit taller than his father.

Driving a VW Rabbit that’s equipped with extended pedals and cushioned seats, Rappaport manages to lead an active social life. He’s become something of a club regular at celeb-rich Tramps and occasionally lunches with Rosanna Arquette, whom he met backstage at a Sting concert. All in all, it’s a life not too different from that of any other actor with his own series. “I know there are people who look at me and immediately think ‘handicapped,’ ” says Rappaport. “But being small hasn’t stopped me from doing anything I’ve ever wanted to do. The only problem I have is with elevator buttons.”

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