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Heights of success

Actor and comedian Greg Davies. Photo: Focal Point Optics
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Actors are imbued with the same gifts of expression and interpretation regardless of their physical stature, and have the same training on offer to them. So it seems odd that tall performers often find it hard to land acting work.

Richard Smith, 52, trained as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic in the mid-1990s but found it virtually impossible to get acting work, partly, he believes, because he is 6ft tall. Now a successful performance poet appearing regularly on BBC Radio 4, Smith, whose acting name was Richard Fleming, has penned a poem about the large number of short actors in the industry.

Entitled The Lilliput Conspiracy, the tongue-in-cheek piece includes the cheeky lines: “Dustin Hoffman – short arse; Tim Roth – garden gnome; Tom Cruise – bouncing weather dwarf; Sylvester Stallone – surreptitious user of fruit boxes; James Dean – fond of Cuban heels.” Later, he jokes: “Knock knock – who’s there? Al Pacino. Al Pacino who? Al Pacino who cannae reach the doorbell.”

Richard Smith as his character Elvis McGonagall
Richard Smith as his character Elvis McGonagall

Smith, a former world champion performance poet, who performs under the name of Elvis McGonagall, says: “My wife Helen [Braunholtz] is 5ft 11in, and she has also found it hard to get leading roles. Casting directors do not want the female lead to be taller than the man. Generally, actors on TV and in films have small bodies and big heads. It may be it works better for the camera. Certainly, if one cast member was a lot taller than the others it could look strange, unless the plot was about that.”

It is not strictly true that Hollywood uses no tall actors. James Cromwell, who starred in The Green Mile, is 6ft 7in, The Shawshank Redemption star Tim Robbins is 6ft 5in, while Jurassic Park’s Jeff Goldblum is 6ft 4in, as is Full Metal Jacket star Matthew Modine. However, much of the work for very tall male actors is in action movies, where a large man looks natural.

It is even harder for tall women. Drama graduate Sadie Hemmings, who is 6ft 2in, achieved a 2:1 BA (hons) degree in drama and theatre arts at Royal Holloway university in Surrey, but realised, while doing the course, that she was unlikely to get much acting work.

“At university and school, I always played men,” she says. “I was never given female parts. I was advised that it would be very difficult for me to get professional roles, though no one discouraged me from trying.”

Hemmings ended up specialising in theatre make-up, and now acts for enjoyment in the Brighton drop-in drama group Working Toward Performance. She believes casting directors do not like female leads to be looking down on men. “It is the social norm that the man should be taller than the woman,” she says.

And as Smith points out in his satiric poem, there are an extraordinary number of successful short actors. Danny DeVito is only 5ft, Dudley Moore was just 5ft 2in, Michael J Fox and Richard Dreyfuss are both 5ft 4in, Jack Black is 5ft 6in, and Tom Cruise, Robin Williams and Al Pacino are all 5ft 7in.

David Jason, one of British television’s biggest stars with lead roles in Only Fools and Horses, A Touch of Frost and The Darling Buds of May under his belt, is only 5ft 6in. The Office and Extras star Ricky Gervais is just 5ft 7.5in – although his co-writer and performer Stephen Merchant is exceptionally tall at 6ft 7in – and Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe (see feature, page 24) is around 5ft 5in tall.

With so many short male leads, it is not surprising taller actresses struggle to get parts. However, a few have slipped through the net. Comedy performer Miranda Hart is 6ft 1in and works well onscreen with co-star Sarah Hadland, who is almost a foot shorter than her. The difference in height between the pair is effectively employed for comic effect.

Hollywood star Brigitte Nielsen is also 6ft 1in – and has even starred in a film entitled She’s Too Tall – as is Janet McTeer. Kill Bill star Uma Thurman is 6ft, as are Brooke Shields, Geena Davis and Saffron Burrows. Nicole Kidman and Sigourney Weaver are both 5ft 11in, while Tilda Swinton is just half an inch shorter.

However, Hemmings says being medium height – around 5ft 4in for a woman – provides the best chance of gaining professional roles. “The people from my school and university who have made it onto TV are around that height,” she says.

Author Tom Quinn, who has written about theatre in his bestseller London’s Strangest Tales, says: “Very tall actors tend to play character parts. For instance, the baddie Jaws in the James Bond films The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker was played by Richard Kiel, who is 7ft 1.5in – a height he grew to thanks to a hormonal condition called acromegaly.”

Sometimes height is useful in films to establish the difference between characters. In The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey, very tall doubles were used to stand in for Ian McKellen as Gandalf to produce the desired contrast between the wizard character and the diminutive hobbits.

In the comedy TV show The Inbetweeners, Greg Davies, who is 6ft 8in, plays an authority figure, the teacher Mr Gilbert, to produce a stark contrast with his shorter, puerile students. Davies, who has also starred with Helen Baxendale in the BBC sitcom Cuckoo, shows that comedy can be the answer for the very tall actor. His height shows no sign of hampering his career, which goes from strength to strength.

Perhaps the reality is that celebrity status conquers all. If a very tall actor has one big success, others will follow. For instance, Stephen Fry, who is almost 6ft 5in, has had a glittering career in film and TV with starring drama and comedy roles.

“It is important to get a fast break when you start acting,” says Smith, who is now getting TV work as a performer on programmes including BBC1’s The One Show. “You need momentum on your side to keep the parts coming. I find it hard to talk about this subject without being ‘height-ist’. Perhaps a lot of short actors succeed because they are exceptionally determined. But any successful showbusiness career involves quite a lot of luck, which can help anyone, regardless of their height.”

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