Herve Villechaize, who became famous as the elfin Tattoo on the television series “Fantasy Island,” died Saturday of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, police and friends said. He was 50.
Villechaize, who stood 3-foot-11, shot himself about 3 a.m. Saturday on the back-yard patio of his North Hollywood house, according to his publicist, Sandy Brokaw. In recent years, Brokaw said, Villechaize had become increasingly despondent about numerous health problems that had plagued him throughout his life.
“Even back in ‘Fantasy Island’ days, he never felt good,” Brokaw said. “He had respiratory troubles, gastrointestinal troubles. In the past three years, his health got progressively worse. If you wake up every day and you just feel awful, you just give up. He was tired of the struggle.”
Brokaw described the French-born actor as a “complex man” who overcame significant obstacles in forging his career. When he landed the role of Tattoo in the 1977 pilot for “Fantasy Island,” he “was living in his car,” Brokaw said.
Twice divorced, Villechaize was living most of the time with his girlfriend of several years, who was at the home when he killed himself, Brokaw said.
Villechaize was best known for his line during the opening of each show when he pointed skyward to the aircraft bringing guests to Fantasy Island and shouted: “The plane! The plane!”
Villechaize played the role of Tattoo from 1978 to 1983, quitting over a salary dispute a year before the show’s cancellation. But his trademark utterance had become so ingrained in the contemporary culture that last year an ad agency hired him to star in a doughnut commercial during which he points behind the counter and says: “The plain, the plain.”
In the last couple of years, he had done a Coors beer commercial and appeared as a guest on an episode of the “Larry Sanders Show.”
Ricardo Montalban, who portrayed Villechaize’s boss on “Fantasy Island,” issued a statement. “I considered his contribution to ‘Fantasy Island’ as one of the keys to the tremendous success that the show enjoyed.”
Villechaize initially studied to be a painter, but switched to acting after moving to New York. He worked in supporting roles onstage and in films in the 1960s and ‘70s before landing “Fantasy Island.”
As Tattoo, he would loyally stand by as Mr. Rourke, played by Montalban, waxed on about the nature of each guest’s desired fantasy.
Since leaving “Fantasy Island,” Villechaize had little acting work and numerous legal problems.
In 1985, he paid a $425 fine after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of possessing a loaded handgun in public--he had been arrested for acting disruptively at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank. A year later he was arrested for allegedly kicking and threatening a 6-foot-3 man who tried to serve him with legal papers in a civil action brought by his ex-wife.
In 1988, his Burbank landlord sued him for $3,300 in unpaid rent. (He agreed to move out in exchange for not having to pay the back rent.)
Reflecting on Villechaize’s difficulties in getting work since “Fantasy Island,” Brokaw said: “I felt sad I couldn’t do as much for him in the past few years. . . . I was delighted to be part of his life.”
Publicist Sandy Brokaw noted to the Associated Press: “We were trying to do a remake of ‘Fantasy Island’ and we weren’t able to put it together.”