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Game Of Thrones Was A Big Win For Portrayal Of Little People

May 21, 2019

When was the last time America’s most talked-about pop culture epic had a 4-foot-4-inch hero?

Precisely never. Which is why “Game of Thrones,” which ended its sensational eight-year run Sunday, was a watershed — for all of us, certainly, but particularly for the population that (mostly) prefers to be known as little people.

“It really helps people in the dwarf community in a positive way,” says Tony Soares, former Hoboken, New Jersey, city council president, who has worked in advertising and real estate.

“I was just listening to people down the hall in the office, the other day, talking about Tyrion Lannister, and they were talking about how great he is,” Soares says. “And there was never a discussion about Peter Dinklage as a dwarf.”

Tyrion Lannister, played by Dinklage in a role that has made him an international star, was arguably the show’s hero, its brains, and its moral compass. In a series with more than 50 major roles, he was more or less the central character. In the opening credits, Dinklage is the first name listed. Ask most people who their favorite “GoT” character is, they’ll tell you Tyrion.

“We’re all rooting for that character,” says Mark Povinelli, president of Little People of America, a 62-year-old organization based in California. “I think everyone is. But we have a vested interest.”

Dinklage, and his character, have been a game-changer for the entertainment industry’s depiction of dwarfism, and the opportunities it may open for actors of small stature.

Dinklage, the actor named People magazine’s “sexiest man alive,” subject of Esquire and GQ cover stories, is a new kind of small-statured star, unlike the Hervé Villechaizes and Verne Troyers of years past. Having made his bones in films like “Living in Oblivion” (1995) and “The Station Agent” (2003), he shot to the stratosphere in “Game of Thrones,” beginning in 2011, for which he won three Emmys and the world’s affection.

Here was a little person who was not a sidekick, not a jester, not pathetic or grotesque or a novelty. Tyrion is a character of great dignity, played by an actor of great dignity.

“Someone said to me, they knew this was really different when they saw average-size kids dressing up as Tyrion for Halloween,” says Cara Egan, a heath insurance administrator from Collingswood, New Jersey.

In “Game of Thrones,” Tyrion’s size is mostly beside the point. Though occasionally, he talks about his difficulties making his way in the world, and the audience comes to realize that his brains — and his basic decency — are partly a byproduct of the way people have treated him. For small-statured viewers, starved of anyone in movies or TV to identify with, he was a revelation.

“I was always watching the show, following the story line, waiting for what (Tyrion) is going to say this week that’s going to blow my mind,” Egan says. “When he’s saying look, it’s hard for me to be a dwarf, and these are the things I have to do, he’s not asking for pity. He’s saying, Look at what I have done, and recognize me and recognize the work I’ve put into this. That’s like every dwarf I know. That’s what we want. We want to be recognized for our work, our talents, our personality. We don’t want to be noticed for our size.”

Not a stellar record

Hollywood, and TV’s, record of dealing with little people is not much more distinguished than its record with African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, gay people, and all the other “others.”

At best, they could be whimsical fantasy characters, like the Munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz,” or the Oompa-Loompas of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Otherwise, they might be a kind of dirty joke, like the characters Billy Barty — probably Hollywood’s first dwarf star — played in the 1930s. If a bunch of chorus girls, in a crazy production number, were costumed in metal gowns and halter tops, Barty was the leering little guy with the can opener.

At worst, little people were treated almost literally like sideshow attractions — as they were in 1938’s “The Terror of Tiny Town,” billed as an “all-midget” Western (“midget” is considered an offensive term).

“It’s so rare to see someone with dwarfism as having a fully dimensional character,” says Povinelli, himself a stage, screen and TV actor (“Water for Elephants,” “Mirror Mirror,” “Boardwalk Empire”).

“So often, in the entertainment industry, we are painted — as well as many people with disabilities — in two ways,” Povinelli says. “One is disability porn — where we’re some helpless creature that some average-height person needs to save. Or we’re some villain, mad about their height and can’t get over it, and therefore lashes out at everyone. There’s very little middle ground.”

Actors like Barty, back in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, had to play the hand they were dealt. He eventually got to prove his mettle as an actor,  playing non-stereotyped characters in films like 1975’s “Day of the Locust.”  But meanwhile, Barty parlayed his notoriety into something worthwhile, when he used his fame and clout in 1957 to create Little People of America, an organization that works to improve the lives of little people through education, advocacy, and social support. It now has 8,000 members nationwide.

“He took his fame, whatever way he cultivated it — whether you find it, in this era, a little less than idea — and used it to connect to little people all over the country, and change their lives,” Povinelli says.

Now Dinklage has taken another great leap forward, and little people — just like viewers everywhere — are thrilled. The only downside, says Povinelli: passers-by keep mistaking him, and every other small person, for Dinklage.

“There’s only one of us, apparently, because we all get mistaken for Peter Dinklage,” he says.

This has, in fact, happened repeatedly to Soares when he’s gone to Hollywood as part of his advertising work. Playwright David Mamet mistook him for Dinklage. So, he says, did Jill St. John and husband Robert Wagner. “Jill and I think you’re fabulous,” Wagner said. When Soares introduced himself and pointed out their mistake, she said, ‘Tony, we think you’re fabulous anyway.’ It was pretty funny.”

Actually, that’s a bit of a step up, Soares says.

“Many of us used to be confused with Verne Troyer,” he says. “Now, when people think I’m Peter Dinklage, I’m not offended. If you’re an average-sized man and people think you’re Bradley Cooper, you’re not going to get upset. If they think you’re John Candy, that’s a different story.”

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