Three women in full Friday night Fremont Street finery amble along at Longbar at The D Las Vegas and halt abruptly when George Bell passes by. They stare at one another and whip out cellphones to record Bell — the back of him, anyway — for the folks back home.
Bell also can stop grown men in their tracks and widen children’s eyes, all because of an unusual metric: He’s 7 feet, 8 inches tall and once was officially the tallest man in America.
Those women weren’t the only ones wowed by Bell during a recent evening at Longbar, one of his favorite hangouts. Nearly nonstop, complete strangers ignore their mothers’ admonition that staring is rude and ask him for autographs and selfies.
Bell, a friendly and accommodating guy, agrees to every single request.
“If it bothered me, I wouldn’t be here.” he says, smiling. “This is just every day with me.”
An ordinary life
In 2007, the Guinness Book of World Records named Bell the tallest living man in the U.S. He held that title until 2010, when he was supplanted by someone a mere one-third inch taller. (A Guinness spokeswoman says that record since has been retired and is no longer being monitored.)
Bell has lived in Las Vegas for three years; he figured this is a good place to pursue an entertainment career. Eventually, he hopes to add to a list of credits that includes AMC’s “Freakshow,” FX’s “American Horror Story” and the role of an alien during the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Besides, the weather in Las Vegas “is nice, and I’m getting older,” adds Bell, who is 62 but looks 10 years younger. “There’s a little bit of arthritis going on.”
In the meantime, Bell makes appearances at trade shows and conventions. “I’m more an attraction for the company I’m representing and answer questions and take photos,” he explains. “The main thing is just attracting people.”
Bell maintains that his life is no different from that of any other Las Vegan. He lives in a regular-sized apartment and navigates it easily. Doorways require a slight stoop, but they always do. Sitting on the sofa in his cozy living room, his knees jut upward. His not-off-the-rack measurements notwithstanding, he’s a sharp dresser who is comfortable in both his clothing and his skin.
Average baby, un-average man
Bell was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, as “an average baby,” he said. In about the fourth grade, he had a growth spurt, shooting up to more than 5 feet tall. He gained another foot during middle school and hit 7 feet, 6 inches by high school graduation.
It wasn’t about heredity, Bell said neither his four sisters nor his now-deceased brother had gigantism, a medical condition in which the pituitary gland secretes too much growth hormone during childhood. It also can be associated with serious medical issues, most of which Bell has been lucky to avoid. However, he did have surgery at 18 to remove a brain tumor that left him with reduced peripheral vision — even today.
Socially, Bell adapted to his increasing height because he had no choice. He liked basketball, hung out with friends and found acceptance among them. He said he never was bullied.
“People ask me that all the time. It was a great childhood. I was always a very outgoing guy,” he said. “They really adopted me as I was. My teachers … my neighbors and friends I grew up with, they accepted me as George. I never was teased.”
Basketball and law
After high school, Bell attended Morris Brown College in Atlanta, played college basketball at Biola University in California and then toured for about six years with the Harlem Wizards and the Harlem Globetrotters. He began a career in law enforcement in 1985 in North Carolina and continued it in Virginia, finally leaving the law behind in 2014.
Bell’s acting career began accidentally in 1984, when he was cast as an alien for the Summer Olympics closing ceremony. “I got that role because a friend of mine was an alternate, and he didn’t want to do it,” Bell says.
The role had Bell, surrounded by shooting laser effects, appear near a flying saucer atop the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. “I was scared,” he said. “I was standing on the edge, leaning forward and I was, ‘Oh, my God.’ It was a unique experience.”
His most notable acting credits since then include the fourth season of “American Horror Story.” Bell said his very first scene called for him to hold Jessica Lange down on a bed.
“I was nervous because I didn’t want to grab her too tight and didn’t want to bruise her,” he said, though Lange was lovely about the whole thing.
Ironically, he once lost a shot at a reality show about his life because “my life was too perfect.”
“They couldn’t believe my life was as normal as it is,” and that’s “because I’ve made it that way.”
Searching for roles
His height never limited his law enforcement career, but it does affect his chances of landing TV and movie parts. “I’m always looking for roles.”
Bell enjoys a life that he calls “very ordinary.” Divorced, he has a daughter and a grandchild, with another on the way. He hopes to bring an anti-bullying campaign he started in Virginia, Stand Tall Against Bullying, into Las Vegas Valley schools.
He enjoys movies, sporting events and socializing at Longbar, where, even if people don’t know who he is — one autograph seeker came in because somebody said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was there — but they know him when they leave.
“I never believed in (making a hermit of) myself,” Bell said, even if meeting people means answering questions he’s heard hundreds of times before.
“‘How did you ever get so big?’ ” is the most common one, he said. “Then there’s ‘How come you got so tall?’ (and) ‘How do you get in a car?’ ”
Bell has been so tall for so long that adjusting to the physical realities of life is, by now, something he hardly thinks about. People ask whether he ever hits his head on doorways. “I’ve been ducking all my life. It’s not a habit. It’s just normal.”
He’ll answer questions if they’re asked with respect. “I like being around people,” Bell said. “So I like to hang out, and if I do … I get those questions.”
“Most people (react) to me very positively,” he said. The others, he figures, aren’t worth his time.
Bell said he never wished he wasn’t that tall — even as a kid. Life would have been “different, no doubt,” without autograph seekers and “the questions and everything else.” However, “you’ve got to realize … I’m like everybody else, despite the fact of the height.”
Back at Longbar, Bell towers above everybody, looking like a parent chaperoning a herd of kindergartners. A miniskirted woman stands barely taller than Bell’s waist when she poses with him. Just about every encounter opens with a request for a photo and a query about how tall he is, or vice versa.
A tourist from Saginaw, Mich., said she came in “because everybody out there (on Fremont Street) was talking about him. So a bunch of us came in and I said, ‘I’m going to ask for a picture.’ ”
As others follow the same script, Bell becomes the center of an impromptu party that Derek Stevens, co-owner of The D, is happy to host.
“I met George when he walked in the Longbar at The D,” Stevens says. “And, obviously, when George walks in, he makes his presence known.”
Stevens bought Bell a drink, “and we just hit it off,” he said. “I enjoy his personality, and he’s great with people. People come up to the bar, and he’s surrounded by people who want to talk to him or take a picture with him. He’s such a nice guy, he signs whatever people ask him to.”
Contact John Przybys at jprzybys @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.
A bit about George Bell
Height: 7 feet, 8 inches
Weight: 250 pounds
Shoe size: “18 to 19, depending on the style”
Pants: “I can’t go to Walmart. I have tailors I deal with.”
Shirts: No problem, “unless it’s long sleeves”
On navigating a short world: “Whatever I have to do, I just make it, because it’s something I can’t change.”