Friday, April 19, 2024

Angelo Rossitto – Hollywood Newsagent, Pop Culture Icon and Acting Titan

Born Angelo Salvatore Rossitto in February 1908, his humble beginnings led to a sixty-year acting career and an indelible imprint on popular culture…yet few know his name. One of five children, his parents had settled in Omaha, Nebraska after relocating from Sicily, Angelo was born with dwarfism, growing to only 2’11, though he became one of Hollywood’s most established and reliable dwarf actors.

Angelo moved to Hollywood as silent films were still booming, though he was realistic about his chances of becoming an actor, instead running a newsstand at various pitches across Hollywood, from downtown to Hollywood Boulevard, with a stint outside Columbia’s Studios. It was perhaps his working-class upbringing that led him to return to his job selling newspapers throughout his career, conscious that any acting work could dry up overnight…or maybe he had a perfect view of actors falling on hard times.

Angelo came to the attention of acting superstar of the day, John Barrymore, at a party and it was he who got him a role in the romantic action film, ‘The Beloved Rogue’ (1927), also starring Conrad Veidt. The part of Beppo the dwarf was never going to be a breakthrough role, though in some ways it could be argued that this is precisely what happened. Silents demanded expressive performances and arresting imagery and with Angelo living at the heart of Movieland, he quickly became the go-to guy for parts requiring a small actor.

A slew of film appearances followed through the rest of the decade: as a Chinese dwarf in ‘Old San Francisco’ (1927), inevitably also starring Warner Oland; opposite Lon Chaney in ‘While the City Sleeps’ (1927); as a viking dwarf in 1928’s unusual colour silent, ‘The Viking’; a much larger (or at least more memorable) role in Benjamin Christensen‘s excellent ‘Seven Footprints to Satan’ in 1929, and as a costumed creature in the early sound effort, ‘The Mysterious Island (1929). He did better than many at the time in getting his name on the credits of films, but inevitably there were several where he remained uncredited.

It will be of little surprise to learn that Angelo featured prominently as Angeleno in Tod Browning‘s ‘Freaks’ (1932). His size meant that he fit in perfectly with the folk of the sideshow, whilst his acting chops elevated him to several stages above shock and awe sensationalism. Along with Harry and Daisy Earles and Johnny Eck, Angelo was given a more substantial role than many, culminating in his ecstatic cry of ‘We’ll make her one of us! A loving cup! A loving cup!” before the chorus of ‘One of us, one of us!” is conducted by Angelo from the tabletop. Less quoted is one of his other, powerful lines: ““If you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.”

With this appearance alone, Angelo had cemented his place in cinema history – the instigator of one of the most arresting scenes in black and white…and possibly any film, yet Angelo was not a gimmick – he was an actor. His roles over the next sixty years only occasionally reflected this. He followed ‘Freaks’ with a film which was one enormous gimmick, ‘Tarzan the Ape Man’, whilst also in 1932 he appeared uncredited in Cecil B. DeMille’s Roman epic, ‘The Sign of the Cross’ alongside Charles Laughton and Fredric March. Sweeping historical majesty it may have been but Angelo was left with the role of ‘impaled pygmy’. This strange dichotomy is symptomatic of Rossitto’s acting career – respected and disposable in equal measure.

It could be argued that Angelo was born at exactly the right time to make the most of his stature, both in the amounts of work he was given and the opportunities to work with some of the legends of cinema – from the Barrymore dynasty to Bela Lugosi; the Chaneys to Laurel and Hardy (in ‘Babes in Toyland’, 1934), there are few who enjoyed such a lengthy Hollywood career who could also boast appearing alongside such acting titans. And yet, he still had no qualms over appearing in 1938’s ‘Child Bride’ a film still considered shocking…as it’s still shocking. His ready availability meant that he was occasionally called upon to be a body double for Shirley Temple.

As a pig in ‘Babes in Toyland’

Although another one to tell the grandkids about, he appeared in something of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, though it was in a different medium that he lives on in a slightly more significant role. It was in his day job as a newspaper seller – at this point, he was hawking the corner of Wilcox Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard – that author Nathanael West watched him go about his day and saw him as a perfect part of his fictionalised Hollywood tapestry, ‘Day of the Locust’, published in 1939, and wrote him in as one of the characters.

This heralded not a boom time but a distinctly patchy decade ahead but one which started in extraordinary fashion. In 1941, Rossitto campaigned to become mayor of Los Angeles. Angie – his preferred name – stood on a platform which looked to solve Hollywood’s late-night transport problems and congestion ( (“Four blocks in 14 minutes, I can crawl on my hands and knees faster than that!“) and the launch of a municipal lottery. Though no doubt running as an opportunity to lampoon the political situation at the time, his speech is oddly touching: “My hands may be small but they’ll be untied’. It didn’t work and he finished in send to last place.

Listen to Angie’s slick election speech here

On-screen, Rossitto is excellent alongside Lugosi in ‘Spooks Run Wild’ (1941) and ‘The Corpse Vanishes’ (1942) and has a small but very memorable part in the first filmed version of ‘Hellzapoppin’ the same year. The rest of the decade is something of a washout – roles as pygmies (which American B-movie directors seemed obsessed with), foreign henchmen and uncredited background characters were the order of the day, punctuated only by the opportunity to appear in Harold Lloyd’s final film, ‘The Sin of Harold Diddlebock’ and another chance to work with Cecil B. DeMille in ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1949).

The Corpse Vanishes

The 50s threatened the same – a cameo in the Vincent Price film ‘The Baron of Arizona’ (one of Sam Fuller‘s first directing gigs) and a limited part in another reunion with DeMille in the spectacular ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ (1952) seemed to point to rather more time spent hawking newspapers, but the rise of the atom-age schlock movie opened the gates to some extraordinary films, if not perhaps award-worthy. ‘Mesa of Lost Women’ (1953); ‘Dementia‘; ‘Jungle Moon Men’ (both 1955); ‘Invasion of the Saucer-men’ (1957: with Rossitto as one of the iconic aliens) gave the actor plenty of time to enjoy himself in front of the camera, as well as ensuring that he remained an active part of the Hollywood system.

So part of the film firmament was Rossitto that he used his profile and worked closely with Billy Barty to help set up Little People of America, an organisation designed to support and defend the rights of individuals and their families affected by dwarfism and short stature. As necessary now as it was then, it boasts more than 7,500 members from around the world.

Though the 1960s still offered Angie film roles (notably 1961’s ‘Confessions of an Opium Eater’ (again opposite Vincent Price) 1962’s ‘The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm’ and 1967’s tune-in and drop-out masterpiece, ‘The Trip’) it was on the small screen that he thrived. From uncredited one-off appearances in ‘Gunsmoke’ and ‘The Fugitive’, he gained increased screen time as the decade progressed, firstly in ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ and later, more iconically, in ‘H.R. Pufnstuf’ as both Clang and Seymore Spider.

Although now comfortably in his sixties, the 1970s would become one of Angie’s busiest periods of activity, though did little to steady the boat in terms of the projects he appeared in. He acted in two notorious Al Adamson films (did he make any that weren’t notorious?) – ‘Brain of Blood’ and ‘Dracula vs. Frankenstein’ (both 1971) and the TV movie, ‘Mongo’s Back in Town’ which boasted Telly Savalas, Sally Field and Martin Sheen yet still remains a must-miss experience. Other films to check out include an uncredited role in ‘The Other‘ (1972), the excellent film of Tom Tryon‘s novel; AIP’s distinctly odd dwarf mob film ‘Little Cigars’ (1973) and ‘Clones’ (1973).

Odder still is his appearance in Harry Hurwitz‘s ‘Adult Fairy Tales’ a financially successful soft-core porn comedy which Angie refused to appear in scenes featuring nudity – perhaps an odd moral stance considering his appearance in ‘Child Bride’. We see Angie deliver his lines then exiting swiftly as his six dwarf comrades fondle Snow White. It’s a mixed blessing that his appearance in 1979’s ‘The Dark’ is so brief – potentially an excellent film messed up at every turn. He can be heard as a voice artist in Ralph Baskshi’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

On TV he was never more in demand – he appeared in every episode of ‘Lidsville’; became a familiar face each week on ‘Baretta’, as well as one-off appearances in Starsky & Hutch’, ‘Kung Fu’ and ‘The Rockford Files’. It would be remiss to overlook Angie’s first plunge into rock folklore, featuring centre stage with trademark newspapers on the cover of Bob Dylan & The Band‘s ‘Basement Tapes in 1975.

There was no escaping the fact that time was catching up with Rossitto. His eyesight was fading and the roles for the more elderly dwarf actor were significantly thinner on the ground. Nevertheless, he can be seen in ‘The Incredible Hulk’ TV series, as well as ‘Simon & Simon’ as we entered the 1980s. On film he managed back-to-back appearances in two eye-popping celluloid experiences, alongside The Village People in ‘Can’t Stop the Music’ and as a monster emerging from an egg in ‘Galaxina‘. He fits perfectly into the 1983 adaptation of Ray Bradbury‘s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, a film which has surprisingly avoided being called a cult classic.

Galaxina

However, it was as his role as Master atop Paul Larsson‘s shoulders in ‘Mad Max 3 Beyond Thunderdome’ (1985) that Rossitto is possibly best known by the wider film-viewing masses. By now, Rossitto was all but blind, though you would scarcely know he was ailing given his exuberant performance. It was something of an Indian summer for the actor – he would again grace an album cover – this time an even more celebrated one – for Tom Waits‘ ‘Swordfishtrombones’, the singer’s entry into the avant-garde. Plastered in white make-up, it perfectly captures the faded but still captivating glamour and majesty of Rossitto, despite coming at a time when many of his peers in the early days of cinema had either died or long since stopped getting phone calls.

In 1987 Angelo appeared in ‘From a Whisper to a Scream’ (Vincent again!)  before one final hurrah, a part in Orson Welles‘ ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ alongside Peter Bogdanovich and John Huston. Only Bogdanovich would live long enough to eventually see the film’s release, years later in 2018. Rossitto didn’t suffer fools and in his latter years, he had little positive to say about the industry. Yet, he made an impression on pop culture few could only dream about. Actor; would-be mayor of LA; paperback legend; album cover superstar; newspaper vendor. Angelo Rossitto died in 1991 at the age of 83.

Daz Lawrence

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *