Billy Curtis: From “Tiny Town” to “The Twilight Zone”

Billy Curtis (Luigi Curto, 1909-1988) may have the most impressive resume of screen credits of any professional little person of his time. As it happens, I saw him just yesterday in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), in which he played a member of a traveling sideshow that picks up hero Bob Cummings as he flees both police and Nazi spies across the heartland of America. Curtis’s roles over a 50 year career ranged from leading parts to walk-ons. We’ve been so tardy in giving him his due here on Travalanche, it occurs to me, because he never performed in sideshows, and the variety entertainment world has always been our starting place.

Curtis was from Springfield, Massachusetts. A pituitary dwarf (4’2″ in adulthood) he initially chose to have nothing to do with show business, opting instead to work as a shoe salesman. Shirley Booth was said to have encouraged him to try out for a role with a stock company that was performing nearby and this provided his entree to the stage. In 1934, he was cast as a little boy in the original Broadway production of Anything Goes (he was 25 at the time).

As luck would have it, Hollywood would soon have great demand for small statured actors in coming years, and Billy Curtis worked constantly. You can see him in The Terror of Tiny Town (1938), The Wizard of Oz (1939, voiced by Pinto Colvig), Maisie Was a Lady (1941), Meet John Doe (1941), Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941) and Ghost Catchers (1944), Saboteur (1942), My Gal Sal (1942), the Texas Guinan bio-pic Incendiary Blonde (1944), Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates Come Home (1947), April Showers (1948), Jiggs and Maggie in Court (1948), Pgymy Island (1950), Two Tickets to Broadway (1950), Superman and the Mole Men (1951), Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952), Gorilla at Large (1954), Martin and Lewis’s 3 Ring Circus (1954), The Court Jester (1955), Friendly Persuasion (1956), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), Two on a Guillotine (1965), John Goldfarb Please Come Home (1965), Harlow (1965), Lennie Weinrib’s Out of Sight (1966), Planet of the Apes (1968), The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), The Comic (1969), Hello Dolly (1969), Evil Roy Slade (1972), High Plains Drifter (1983), Eating Raoul (1982), and dozens of others. He was actually one of the stars of Little Cigars (1973), a caper film about a gang of little people. His TV credits included The Red Skelton Hour, The Jack Benny Program, The Danny Thomas Show, My Three Sons, Batman, The Monkees, Get Smart, and Bewitched. He was also known for playing Mayor McCheese in McDonald’s ads, and for even competing? performing? as a professional wrestler. His last on-camera performance was on the Twilight Zone reboot in 1986.

For related reading, please check out Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People in Vaudeville.