“Of all the midgets, Billy Curtis was the handsomest and had the most style. He was flashily dressed and he smoked cigars. He was quite arrogant. He looked down on the others because he had a degree of success in vaudeville.” – Charlie Schram, M-G-M makeup man, describing Curtis on the set of The Wizard Of Oz (1939). Curtis, in an uncredited role, played the “Munchkin City Father.”
His most famous film role, however, was as the hero of a B movie cult classic The Terror of Tiny Town (1938).
“When I was first offered the role of the sheriff they didn’t want to pay my established salary. Then we were all directed like we were children. Small, in the minds of stupid people, is kiddie stuff. So first they try to exploit little people. Then they patronize you. And when the picture comes out, then the audience laughs at you. Why? Not because we were low budget, because most westerns then were Bs. Because we rode ponies. What would a person my size ride – a stallion? I played the good guy who put the bad guy behind bars at the end – just like John Wayne. And I kissed the pretty girl – just like he did. So what the hell’s so funny?” — Billy Curtis
The day before the release of The Terror of Tiny Town, Curtis made headlines in what he would later call his “Big Mistake:”
TOY HUSBAND REBELS
Midget Will Request Divorce From Bouncer-Wife
Billy Curtis Complains That His Mate Treated Him “Like a Doll.”
HOLLYWOOD, June 20 – (U.P.) – Billy Curtis, the “world’s handsomest midget,” rebelled today at being called the “toy husband” of Lois De Fee; the attractive giant who takes him on her lap when they’re together, and said he would sue for divorce.
Curtis is the three feet eleven inches tall. His wife is six feet four.
“She treated me like a doll,” complains Curtis. “I was afraid she’d put ribbons in my hair.”
Wife on Way to Reno.
The midget retained a lawyer and said he would file for divorce this week. The grounds will be incompatibility. He understands his wife is en route to Reno, Nev., also divorce court bound.
Curtis‘ wife, an attractive and shapely brunette, weights about 190 pounds. She specialized as a lady bouncer in night clubs where she tosses out rowdy males. They were married Jan. 19 in Miami, Fla.
“It was love,” said Curtis. “Most of those marriages between midgets and big people are for publicity. But ours wasn’t.”
Prefers Big Girls.
“Our size didn’t make any difference; except that I always leaned toward big girls, and she to little men. She used to be married to a jockey.
“It was all fine until we got married. Then I was more like her little child than her husband – just a toy husband, that’s what I was. I didn’t like sitting on her lap and being treated like her baby when I was married to her.”
In 1939, he told the judge in Divorce Court that De Fee had married him as a publicity stunt. “She told me she married me to win a bet,” he added. It was further disclosed that De Fee was launching a new career as a stripper when she met Curtis. Their marriage was annuled in 1941.
In between acting film and television gigs, Curtis organized little people live shows for wrestling and baseball events. He also claimed to have been the first little person stand-in for child actors.
In 1948, he remarried and had two children. But life was never easy.
One of his stand-out performances was “Mordecai” in Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973). That same year, he starred in the film Little Cigars.
“My best part in years. There aren’t many good ones for little people. Certainly not in Westerns.” — Billy Curtis on his work in High Plains Drifter (1973).
Curtis became an advocate for equality, working with Billy Barty to pressure the Screen Actors Guild in the early 1970s to allow little people to have full union membership and voting privileges. Prior to that time, little people operated on “waivers.”
He passed in November 1988 at the age of 79.