Billy Barty, the diminutive entertainer who turned the ability to spin on his head into a seven-decade show business career, died Saturday at Glendale Memorial Hospital. He was 76.
The cause of death was heart failure, said his publicist, Bill York. Barty had been hospitalized for heart problems and a lung infection, York said.
In addition to a career that included work in film, vaudeville, radio, television, videos and nightclubs, the 3-foot, 9-inch Barty worked to raise public awareness of the problems of people with dwarfism.
He served on the Los Angeles city and county commissions on disabilities and started two organizations--the Little People of America and the Billy Barty Foundation--that offer support and information on job opportunities, medical care and scholarships to those of short stature.
In October, he received the first Billy Barty humanitarian award, presented at the Long Beach International Film Festival. In September, he participated in the Billy Barty Foundation’s annual golf tournament, which helps fund scholarships and offers help with medical bills associated with dwarfism.
Born William John Bertanzetti in Millsboro, Pa., to average-size parents, Barty came to Los Angeles as a toddler with his family after his father found work as a machinist at Columbia studios.
Shortly after arriving, Barty and his father happened upon a movie crew shooting on a sidewalk near their Hollywood home. It was then that Barty performed a trick his father had taught him.
Barty waded into the movie crew and tugged on the pants leg of director Jules White. He quickly flipped over, stood on his head and began to spin. The maneuver, and Barty’s engaging personality, apparently delighted White, who put him in the film “Wedded Blisters.”
From that day forward, Barty had steady work. He appeared in comedy shorts with Mack Sennett, led the Hollywood Baby Orchestra--made up of child musicians--and appeared in dozens of episodes of the Mickey McGuire comedy shorts, playing the younger brother of star Mickey Rooney.
He also found parts in such Hollywood films as Busby Berkeley’s “Footlight Parade” and “Golddiggers of 1933.”
One of his more memorable scenes came in the 1937 film “Nothing Sacred,” when he bit Fredric March on the leg.
Over the years, his film credits would include serious and comedic parts in such films as “The Day of the Locust,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Tough Guys,” “Under the Rainbow,” “W.C. Fields and Me,” and “Willow.”
The vaudeville circuit beckoned in the 1930s, and he began a seven-year stint with the musical comedy act billed as Billy Barty and His Sisters. He played drums and did impressions while his sisters sang.
Barty tried to break out of show business for a time in the 1940s, returning to Los Angeles to go to college. Hoping to become a sportswriter or broadcaster, he majored in journalism at Los Angeles City College, where he was the sports editor of the college’s award-winning newspaper. He continued his education and graduated from what is now Cal State L.A.
But in the 1950s, he was drawn into television. One of the high points of his career came when he joined Spike Jones and His City Slickers. He toured the United States and Australia with Jones’ band and appeared on several of the zany bandleader’s television programs doing comedy bits and impersonations.
One memorable television sketch had Barty dressed in a silver wig, tails and high-top tennis shoes, portraying the pianist Liberace, who had a popular television show at the time. As Liberace, Barty sang “I’m in the Mood for Love” while playing a miniature piano as shaving cream bubbled from a candelabra, which was Liberace’s standard prop.
He also hosted a children’s television program, “Billy Barty’s Big Show,” for several years and appeared on such programs as “Peter Gunn,” “Get Smart,” “Rawhide” and “Mr. Lucky.” In later years, it was not uncommon to see him on “Barney Miller,” “The Waltons,” “The Golden Girls” and “Frasier.”
He was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in July 1981. He received an honorary doctorate from Cal State L.A. in 1995.
At the time of his death, Barty was completing his autobiography.
Barty is survived by his wife, Shirley; daughter, Lori Nielsen; son, Braden; a granddaughter; and a sister, Deede Morse.
A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 11022 Riverside Drive, North Hollywood.