Music: The huge talent of Michael Dunn
Free Press Music Columnist
Few actors in Hollywood escape the scourge of typecasting, but for those thespians whose body shapes are something other than average, it is especially bad. And yet there sometimes comes a talent so remarkable, it forces audiences and casting directors alike to put aside their lazy prejudices and see a person through new eyes. Nowadays, we can point to Peter Dinklage, who has not only won critical acclaim in his role as Tyrion on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” but who has become something of a sex object by dint of his restless, intelligent performance.
But before Dinklage was even born, there was another actor who turned heads and smashed through casting conventions with his soulful acting talents. Not too many remember the name of Michael Dunn today, but fans of a certain age will recognize the actor by mention of his most famous role: Dr. Miguelito Loveless on the hit CBS series from the 1960s, “The Wild, Wild West.”
Yes, that guy. Michael Dunn (who was born Gary Miller in Oklahoma in 1934) had known he would be a dwarf since he was 4 years old, but it is now believed his fate was sealed in the womb. Diagnosed as having “achondroplasia” during his lifetime, experts now suspect he suffered from a congenital condition known as spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia, a defect disrupting the skeleton’s cartilage production and causing malformation of the limbs, ribcage and spine, as well as painful osteoarthritis. This condition caused Dunn to be a dwarf of disproportionate short stature, meaning his head and chest were roughly normal in size, but other parts of his body were much smaller.
Dunn’s parents were under the impression his condition was hereditary, and for that reason, never had another child. But they lavished love upon their son and convinced him he could do anything he set his mind upon. And, after briefly flirting with a career as a monk, Dunn set his mind upon performing.
When he moved to New York City in 1959, he split his time working as a singer at local folk clubs — first as a solo act and then as a duo with actress Phoebe Dorin — and acting in theatrical productions. He broke into the big-time after being nominated for a Tony Award in 1964 for his role in Edward Albee’s “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe,” and two years later was nominated for an Oscar for Stanley Kramer’s “Ship of Fools,” in which he appeared opposite Lee Marvin and Vivian Leigh. Also in 1965, while appearing at a nightclub with Dorin, Dunn was “discovered” by producer Michael Garrison, who instantly recognized the diminutive actor would be perfect as a villainous foil for the heroic Jim West in the TV series Garrison was then creating for CBS.
You can learn more about Dunn (including the tragic circumstances of his death in 1973, at the age of 39) in a book authored by his cousin, Sherry Kelly, entitled “The Big Life of a Little Man: Michael Dunn Remembered” (available via Amazon or http://www.tatepublishing.com). There is also a small but active Facebook group devoted to remembering his career.
Michael Dunn only stood 3 foot 10 inches, but his talent looms large even now, more than 40 years since his passing.
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog. He also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog: http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog. You may find him on Facebook as well.
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