Billy Curtis, a 4-foot, 2-inch midget who acted in more than 50 films and doubled in several others where he often performed dangerous stunts for child stars, died Wednesday in Dayton, Nev.
Curtis, one of a handful of "little people" who made a comfortable living from films, had retired to Nevada several months ago, ending a career that began on the stages of vaudeville. He was 79 and died of a heart attack.
Curtis, easily recognizable both by his stature and his omnipresent cigar, was the first of two midgets born in a family of six children. He and his younger sister, Mary, capitalized on their smallness and worked up a dance act while Curtis was a student at Northwestern University.
They toured the country as The Curtises until Billy discovered a new facet of the entertainment industry--professional wrestling.
"At one point, I had my own midget wrestling show," he said in a 1968 interview shortly after he finished filming "Planet of the Apes," in which he played one of the simian children.
But like many other midgets, he was lured to Hollywood for such pictures as "Terror of Tiny Town" in 1938 and as one of the Munchkins in 1939's immortal "The Wizard of Oz."
He also worked as a stand-in for Shirley Temple, Margaret O'Brien, Darryl Hickman, Butch Jenkins and other child stars.
Over the years, his films included "Hellzapoppin'," "Saboteur," "April Showers," "Pygmy Island," "Two Tickets to Broadway," "The Conqueror," "The Incredible Shrinking Man," "High Plains Drifter" and "Eating Raoul."
His final appearance was last year in a segment of the "Truth or Consequences" television show.
In 1970, Curtis helped lead a drive to give midgets and dwarfs full membership and voting privileges in the Screen Actors Guild, which earlier had let them work in films under waivers.
Survivors include his wife, Beatrice, three sons, a daughter and six grandchildren.