His name may not be familiar. And his face often has been hidden. But for baby boomers, just mention Cousin Itt in “The Addams Family” or Twiki in “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” and in kicks the “Oh, yeah, I remember him” factor.
Those are just two of the roles Felix Silla, a “little person” at 3 feet, 1 inch, has played in his career as an actor and stuntman.
Now 70 years old, Silla, a three-year Las Vegas resident, works part time with jobs as a leprechaun for St. Patrick’s Day events and at conventions for science fiction fans.
In the meantime, he spends time with friends and family, including his wife, Sue, who also is a little person, and his two daughters, Diana and Bonnie, and son, Michael, who are all three of normal height. He also has three granddaughters, Rachel, Lacey and Haley, all tall.
Despite being born in a time when little people often were hidden away, Silla has used his lack of height to his advantage.
Born in 1937 in a village outside of Rome, Silla came to the United States in 1955 at age 18 and found work with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a bareback rider and trapeze artist. He didn’t speak English at the time, but learned the language of his adopted country while traveling around the United States for the next seven years.
But when the circus completed its run in Los Angeles, Silla decided to stay. He worked for the public relations company that publicized the circus when it put up its tents in Southern California.
Silla’s career took another turn when his employers suggested he audition as a double for a child actor in the movie “A Ticklish Affair,” a film that co-starred Carolyn Jones, an actress who would figure later in his career.
The following year, Silla found himself in the cast of the TV series “The Addams Family,” a macabre comedy based on the Charles Addams cartoons. It would go on to become a cult classic and eventually have a second life on movie screens in 1991.
His audition was just as mysterious as Cousin Itt.
He walked in and the producer and director took one look at him and said, “That’s Itt!”
They told him to come to work on Monday. Only when he arrived on the set did they reveal that he would be covered by hair and sport a cool set of sunglasses. And he didn’t have to say a word.
Which was a good thing, since Silla’s command of English still was a bit shaky.
“It was a job,” says Silla, as he reminisced about his life in show business.
“They were great people to work with,” he says of the cast that included John Astin, who played Gomez, and Carolyn Jones as Astin’s wife, Morticia.
Also in the cast was Jackie Coogan playing Uncle Fester.
Silla says Coogan had a habit of falling asleep on the set every day and his snoring would interrupt filming.
“They used to slap him on the head to wake him up,” Silla says. “They would send him to his dressing room until his next scene.”
And one day comedian Bob Hope visited the set and spotted Silla in his costume. “There goes Frankie Lane’s toupee,” Hope said, referring to the popular singer of the day.
Silla didn’t recognize Hope’s voice and only later learned that he had been on the set.
“I didn’t realize it was going to be such a famous show, that people would be talking about it more than 40 years later,” Silla says.
When “The Addams Family” first aired, it was one of two half-hour sitcoms with a twisted cast. The other was “The Munsters,” and in one episode Silla even doubled for the child actor who played Eddie Munster.
Silla also worked frequently as a stand-in for child actors on other shows, including Ron Howard on “The Andy Griffith Show” and Clint Howard on an episode of “Bonanza.” He also played a leprechaun on the hit western’s “Hoss and the Leprechaun” episode.
Silla’s circus skills also paid off in the movies and television. He worked as a stuntman on Steven Spielberg’s “1941,” and was a double for Drew Barrymore in “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” in the Halloween trick or treating scene. Silla was employed because, by law, Barrymore only could work a certain number of hours a day and wasn’t available for the nighttime scene.
Silla continued working for Spielberg in “Poltergeist” — he was a stunt double for the boy who gets yanked through a window by a tree — and doubled for the character Short Round in the rafting scene in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
It seemed that every time Silla worked with Spielberg, he had to deal with some close calls, such as being electrocuted — a cable hooked to him in the “Poltergeist” scene kept shocking him — or drowned — the raft he was riding in for the “Indiana Jones” scene flipped over in the middle of the river.
“I’m hanging on for dear life,” Silla remembers. “I was told if anything happened to pull on the strap on the life preserver and it would inflate. I kept pulling and pulling on the strap with the raft on top of me. But it didn’t inflate. I wondered when they were going to get me out. I thought I was going to die.”
He was rescued, but “I had dreams about that for months,” Silla says.
Still, he has nothing but praise for Spielberg. “He is a great man. He’s a genius. I used to sit and talk to him on the set every morning.”
Working with Spielberg didn’t hurt in getting other jobs, either, such as with Spielberg’s friend, George Lucas, when he made the “Star Wars” sequel, “Return of the Jedi.” Silla was an Ewok in the flying scenes.
“Lucas is kind of shy,” Silla says. “He would say hello, but he was not one to talk to you.”
“The ’60s were the good old days,” Silla says. “It was really nice to go to work. In those days they were worried about the final product. Now it’s ‘Hurry up, hurry up.’ “
Silla continued to work throughout the 1970s and 1980s. One of his biggest roles was as Twiki the robot on “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.”
He remembers the costume, which was made of fiberglass, as being very hot on the set. “I couldn’t sit or walk up or down stairs. Gil Gerard (who was Buck Rogers) used to pick me up to put me on the spaceship. Cousin Itt wasn’t that bad, at least I could breathe.”
Silla worked with other little people on other films and TV shows, such as “Under the Rainbow,” a movie that Silla remembers mostly for the number of drugged-up actors on the set.
But he also made a longtime friend in 1987 on director Mel Brooks’ science fiction movie send-up “Spaceballs.” That’s where Silla met Antonio Hoyos, who came to the United States from Colombia and also worked in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He lives in Las Vegas and works in “The World’s Greatest Magic Show” at the Greek Isles.
They frequently get together for lunch and reminisce about the old days in Hollywood.
They played Dinks in “Spaceballs,” roles that required them to pop up out of tunnels in the sand. “We’re supposed to come up from the hole with our eyes open,” Silla laughs. “No way, man. Can’t do that. Yeah, sure.”
Hoyos remembers one of the film’s stars, the late John Candy, always teasing Brooks. “We had a lot of fun working on that. It was a good experience,” he says.
These days, the two get booked for quick jobs, such as Little Elvis or for St. Patrick’s Day at a local strip club.
“Sometimes,” Hoyos says, “we call each other and play jokes. We like to have fun. We are two people we can relate to. He’s fun, he knows a lot of jokes.”
Hoyos says people are curious about little people. “After the show, I have a lot of people who want to touch me to see if I’m real. Humans are equal in all shapes and forms. We look in the mirror and we know who we are.”
“The movie industry has been good to me,” Silla says. “I’ve lived a great life.”
Silla’s only beef is that Hollywood “never uses little people in roles as a lawyer. We’re people, too.”EDITOR’S NOTE: “Looking Back” is an occasional series about showbiz veterans living in Las Vegas.