Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Life & Death of David Rappaport

David Rappaport was unquestionably one of Britain’s greatest actors of the 70s and 80s. Intelligent, witty, debonair and at home playing both good guys and bad, that there isn’t a physical tribute to him is scandalous. From the stage to hit television shows on both sides of the Atlantic to blockbuster movies, it was impossible to ignore him and when he spoke – he commanded your attention. In interviews, he was funny and erudite – away from the limelight, he suffered silently, unable to cope with the world around him and the thoughts which haunted him. Rappaport was a towering talent, wrapped in a 3’11” frame.

David Rappaport was born to orthodox Jewish parents, Mark and Diana, in Islington, North London, in 1951. His father had worked as a taxi driver until, at the age of 50, he sent himself to university, got a degree and became a teacher. In the 1950s, Islington was still pretty rough. With a solid Jewish and multicultural presence, life was largely what you made it, and it wasn’t unusual to see tradesmen develop successful businesses from scratch – though changing careers so markedly would certainly have been out of the ordinary.

David’s parents were both of standard height and it was only when he was around five years old that they took him to see doctors to find out why he had seemingly stopped growing. The diagnosis was achondroplasia, a condition from which 80% of cases occur in children from parents of average height. As with most medical conditions, symptoms range from case to case, with David most obviously affected by dwarfism. With shortened limbs, hands and fingers, David would not grow taller than 3’11” (he occasionally downgraded this in interviews) but did not suffer as markedly with mobility as some with the condition. Doctors recommended he attend a special school, as much for social reasons as any physical requirements, but his parents were insistent he attend a state school and live as normal a life as possible.

It is important to understand exactly what the implication of dwarfism meant for David and his parents. Mark Rappaport was born in 1916, a time when freak shows would still be a component of travelling circuses, and even residencies at the likes of Blackpool Tower. There would almost certainly have been ‘little people’ at such attractions, not necessarily named acts but certainly adding to the displays of unusual-looking people. It was not unusual for those with dwarfism to be rejected by their parents and find themselves in orphanages, or, shockingly, mental asylums.

To have achondroplasia was, pun not intended, a big deal. It was not on a par with being the kid who wore glasses, the fat girl or even the child limping from the effects of polio. This was something which made your life different from everyone else’s and which wasn’t going to be a situation which rectified itself at a later age. Dwarfism was something which limited you to a life or self-ridicule or one lived in the shadows.

It wasn’t until he was seven that his parents explained to David what the situation was. His friends now towered above him but he was academically strong and had a solid social circle.

However, kids will be kids and inevitably there was bullying and an understanding from David that there was nothing he could do in regards to how tall he was and so to get anywhere in life, he would have to take risks. The combination of his size and his intellect made even his friends suspicious, threatened by someone whom they couldn’t easily evaluate. Music became a refuge – flute; violin; accordion; drums. Even in adulthood, he was attempting to learn to play the double bass, a feat even he found a step too far.

On leaving school, he attended Bristol University, studying psychology. He helped to pay his way through his student years by playing drums in local bands, from jazz to rock. He took his first acting roles in the university drama department but just as importantly, learned to understand people’s attitudes and to read their true intentions. After obtaining his degree, he hitchhiked across Ireland and America – a nerve-wracking experience for the best of us. Returning to London, he settled down, becoming a primary school teacher, a job he kept for a decade. He also married Jane, a girlfriend from university, who would become mother to his only child, Joe. Both of standard height, David was still the odd man out.

One of the benefits of his size was that there would always be acting roles for him – not necessarily big roles, nor ones which did anything to portray him as anything but an oddity, but nevertheless, enough to keep busy. Very early screen roles saw him as background fodder – the well-received (but now seemingly lost) TV series, ‘Arthur of the Britons’ starring Oliver Tobias (best known for 1978’s ‘The Stud’) and the even more obscure ‘Turkish Delight’, a Dutch feature film starring Rutger Hauer and directed by Paul Verhoeven, years later, of course, to make ‘Robocop’ and ‘Starship Troopers’. Both released in 1973, it was another four years before a stage role helped to kickstart his acting career.

For reasons he never discussed with even his closest friends, his marriage ended in divorce. He had also reached the end of his tether with his teaching career, surrounded by people his own size but with whom he had little else in common. It’s entirely feasible he suffered a breakdown of sorts, but had enough inner belief to star alongside Sylvester McCoy in a production of ‘Illumintus!’ at the Liverpool Science Fiction Theatre. The complex, meandering epic, adapted from a trilogy of books, was written by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson and gave Rappaport a significant role as Markoff Chaney. The production was directed by Ken Campbell, known for his renegade productions and easy to spot in his occasional TV roles – Roger in ‘The Anniversary’ episode of Fawlty Towers; Alf Garnett’s neighbour in ‘In Sickness and in Health’ and even Christopher Smith’s 2004 horror film, ‘Creep’. He could have been even more famous had he been successful in his audition to become TV’s seventh Dr Who – a role, not without irony, going to McCoy.

David Rappaport in Illuminatus!, 1977

Moving to London, ‘Illuminatus’ became a melting pot of talent – Chris Langham; Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy all shared the stage with Rappaport – the sets were designed by a young Bill Drummond, much later to become half of The KLF. Rappaport had a thirty-minute soliloquy in each performance, a far cry from the panto roles he was usually faced with. The association with Campbell continued when he joined his anarchic comedy troupe, The Ken Campbell Roadshow, surviving long enough to be featured as part of The Secret Policeman’s Ball in 1979.

Still single, Rappaport’s life away from onstage chaos was no less eyebrow-raising. He had taken up residence in Freston Road in West London. A magnet to waifs, strays and those who simply didn’t fit in ‘normal’ society, the area in Notting Dale had become littered with squats and communes. On Halloween 1977, they rose up collectively and announced their independence from the United Kingdom. If this all sounds very ‘Passport to Pimlico’, you wouldn’t be far wrong. Residents, including Rappaport, adopted the surname ‘Bramley’ so that were there to be eviction notices, they would be protected by law and given housing as if they were a family. Partly a genuine protest at an economy which was noticeably creating a huge chasm between the haves and have-nots, partly an artistic statement, Frestonia, as it became known was organised enough that Rappaport was elected foreign minister.

Television and film roles, though not especially significant in themselves, came in thick and fast: ‘Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries’ (again alongside Rutger Hauer); Ken Loach’s ‘Black Jack’ (also featuring dwarf actors Mike Edmonds and Malcolm Dixon); the little-seen ‘Cuba’, directed by Richard Lester and starring Sean Connery. What was consistent during this period was that Rappaport was appearing alongside all the right people and making a positive impression on those he worked for. His work with Campbell led to recurring roles in ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ and ‘Q9′, Spike Milligan’s dubious comedy series, shows with large audiences. As well as decent viewing figures, they were also shows watched by ‘those in the know’. If you rework that adage about Velvet Underground – that they only sold a few records but every one of the buyers went off to form their own band – we’re in similar territory.

Devised by Clive Doig, ‘Jigsaw’ brought Rappaport in front of an entirely new audience and one which reunited him with, a man who seems to appear around every corner, Sylvester McCoy. Doig was already seen as a trailblazer in children’s television programming. Though, in theory, aimed at four to seven-year-olds, his programmes had enough oddness and presenters who didn’t necessarily fit into the usual cosy requirements that parents and older viewers were also regularly tuning into the likes of ‘Vision On‘. ‘Jigsaw’ was presented most frequently by Adrian Hedley, a mime artist who played a recurring character called Noseybonk, a masked grinning goon whose accompanying theme tune marginally lessened the terror. More appropriately, he would later work as a choreographer on Tobe Hooper’s ‘Life Force’. Other regular faces were future ‘Blue Peter’ presenter, Janet Ellis; madcap inventor Wilf Lunn and eternally youthful broadcasting mainstay, Tommy Boyd.

David appeared alongside McCoy as one of the O-Men – a pair of badly attired superheroes who appeared when someone said a word containing a double-o six times. ‘Candyman‘ for kids. Appearing in series two and three, the pair made a very enjoyable team, regularly breaking the fourth wall and seemingly having a whale of a time. Also around 1980, Rappaport made semi-regular appearances on Saturday morning kid’s programme, ‘Tiswas‘, another show which attracted adults as much as children. From a character called Green Nigel – a play on Blue Peter – to a character called Shades, stomping around kicking over props so that viewers won far more prizes in tasks than they really ought to have, he was made for this kind of absurd, live television extravaganza, where everyone always seemed a hair’s breadth from either swearing or walking off-set. Sylvester McCoy also appeared, OBVIOUSLY.

Mischievous, perhaps, but these roles and appearances hadn’t portrayed as something other dwarf actors often had – evil or stupid. His comic timing was impeccable and he had proven his capability as a straight actor on the stage. Compare this to actors like Michael Dunn, an incredible actor but whose roles were almost always evil mad scientists or shady characters with dark pasts – or even more stereotypically, scene-chewing parts in schlocky horror films (‘The Werewolf of Washington’ and ‘Frankstein’s Castle of Freaks’ combined all of the above). David had not only catapulted himself into widely-seen programmes with diverse audiences but broke to mould for actors of his size to take parts usually reserved for those of average height. Not for him a role with no lines, baking inside a tin can under the desert sun – he turned down the part of R2D2 in ‘Star Wars‘.

Michael Dunn in 1974’s ‘The Mutations’

With all that said, his next role really did play on his size – 1981’s ‘Time Bandits‘. Having re-watched this fairly recently, ‘Time Bandits’ is still a right old mess – it would be with Terry Gilliam directing. Over-long, clunky, neither funny enough nor action-packed enough to be a classic of either field, it endures due to some genuinely spectacular set-pieces and some stand-out performances, none more so than Rappaport as Randall.

The leader of six time-travelling dwarfs, Randall gave Rappaport the opportunity to really give his acting chops a workout, not least as he co-starred alongside heavyweights such as Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm and Sean Connery. Sources suggest that Rappaport wasn’t necessarily the easiest to work with, diving so deeply into his role that he detached himself socially from his dwarf co-stars (among them, Kenny Baker, who didn’t turn down parts so easily). He believed Gilliam had cast him purely for his acting ability and that his stature was more of a coincidence than a deciding factor.

The film was a huge success, particularly in America, and has remained popular to this day with regular reissues on DVD and Blu-Ray, and widely hailed as one of the greatest family-friendly fantasy films ever made. It#s certainly a film which is packed with interesting ideas, but it’s no ‘Labyrinth‘ – another blockbuster Rappaport turned down a part for, refusing to act inside a costume that covered his face. It goes without saying that the role elevated his profile hugely, showing casting directors that he was far more than an acting prop.

At home in England, David had begun to spend time aboard Viv Stanshall’s floating abode, The Old Profanity Showboat, which was moored in Bristol docks. Hosting hundreds of live revues, shows and parties, it was another chance for Rappaport to mix amongst the artistic elite on shared terms. He could often be seen performing stand-up routines. The partying also proved useful practice for another role, Tizer adverts, in which he sang, danced a bit, and extolled the virtues of a fizzy drink – one which I’m still not sure of the intended flavour.

TV work continued to keep Rappaport busy, with his comedy skills regularly given the opportunity to showcase himself – ‘The Goodies’; ‘The Kenny Everett Television Show’; ‘There’s a Lot of it About’ (more Spike Milligan); ‘The Saturday Show’ (a kid’s programme which reprised Rappaport’s old Tiswas character, Shades) and perhaps best remembered, ‘The Young Ones‘. Appearing in two episodes, it once again showed Rappaport as being more cutting-edge than many of his contemporaries, able to fit into the action without necessarily standing out as ‘strange’.

1985 – suit jacket sleeves are firmly rolled up and in television and film, everything seemed to be a statement – an attempt at instant iconography; a desperate attempt to be a poster on a wall; a decade incarnate. ‘The Bride‘ attempted to bring every bit of culture together and create an explosion from which cinema-goers may never recover. In fact, the few who went to see it managed to get over it quite well. Directed by Franc Roddam, it was an attempt of sorts to replicate the success he had with 1979’s ‘Quadrophenia‘. Indeed, several of the cast returned, notably Sting playing the part of Frankenstein. He is, bless him, atrocious, though isn’t aided by the eponymous bride, played by Jennifer Beals, who is hopelessly miscast.

Once you’ve come to terms with the fact that yes, that is Quentin Crisp playing a mad doctor, you’re left with a film of literally two halves – one, thoroughly rotten, seeing Sting emote in a castle at the lady monster he was created – one which is largely excellent, the original monster (played by a barnstorming Clancy Brown) roaming the continental countryside with a quick-witted dwarf named Rinaldo (Rappaport). If the film had just consisted of this element, I have little doubt the film would have become something of a classic. A tale of friendship, wayward attitudes and hope, it is sadly swamped by the attempted feminism and codpieces of the main event. Rappaport is exceptional, completely believable as the conniving Rinaldo, forging a relationship with someone even more reviled than himself and with only thoughts of making a better world for each. It exploded like all box office bombs.

Somehow, it didn’t matter. Hollywood came calling. First Spielberg, personally casting him in an episode of ‘Amazing Stories‘.  Then came an appearance in ‘Hardcastle & McCormack‘; back again to England to appear in the Jason Connery -starring ‘Robin of Sherwood‘. And then the big one. ‘The Wizard‘. Never before had a dwarf actor been given a lead role in a major television show. I don’t think there’s even an example of a less than major television show. Made by 20th Century Fox, Rappaport, though flattered, faltered at accepting. The threat of being trapped in a series he didn’t much care for and the fear of rejection on a mass scale loomed large. The role had been written with him in mind and the creators gave Rappaport significant scope for his own input to sweeten the deal. It was enough and he signed on the dotted line.

Rappaport played Simon Mckay, a genius inventor whose talents are seen as both desirable and a threat by evil forces worldwide.  Keen to use his skills for purely philanthropic purposes, McKay spends each episode getting caught up in escapades involving incredibly incompetent gangs led by Hooded Claw-type villains, only to win the day by deploying some preposterously huge remote control thing he had in the carpet bag he lugs around. Rappaport is, alas, not given a stellar cast to support him. Ever present is Douglas Barr, a government agency bodyguard tasked with protecting McKay. He’s fairly awful, his previous claim to fame being the character of Howie in ‘The Fall Guy‘ (or, in other words, the one who wasn’t Lee Majors or Heather Thomas). Also a show regular was Fran Ryan playing McKay’s old friend, matronly Tillie, who looks like the kind of homely woman you’d see on porches in Westerns. In fact, that’s exactly where you’ve seen her – ‘The Long Riders‘; ‘Pale Rider‘; ‘Bonanza’; etc.

The programme was largely the creation of Michael Berk, later to really strike it big with ‘Baywatch‘. ‘The Wizard’ was shown on CBS in America and on channels around the world. It did ok. Not amazing, but ok. It didn’t have the cast of ‘The A-Team‘ and it tended to over-simper in an era when TV craved big cars, big helicopters and big tits. Watching it back now (on YouTube – despite dedicated groups’ best efforts, it’s never had a home release) it’s very much a product of its time, which as we all know, is shorthand for ‘not very good’. Rappaport is excellent, as dynamic physically as he is with the scripts, such as they are, but he has no support and each episode’s threats are too goofy to really engage audiences. There’s a nice running joke where McKay goes for some ‘thinking time’ – actually an excuse to kick a drum kit’s arse and show off his percussion skills.

Halfway through the 19-episode run, word came through that ‘The Wizard’ was being cancelled. There was a real wave of public support (and from behind the scenes) to get the network to reconsider, but these, as now, were times when ratings were the final word.  It was exactly what Rappaport had feared. He’d relocated to Hollywood, only to find himself stranded. He had spent a decade or more attempting to change people’s perception of what ‘little people’ could achieve. Had he failed? Religion was something of a support but he was still wrecked by events. Appearing regularly on talk shows, the conversation would always come back around to his size, whether well-intended or downright mean (Arsenio Hall spent minutes probing how he had sex with women taller than him).

It’s not that there was no longer any work – TV roles still kept the wolf from the door and in 1987 he was given a recurring role in ‘LA Law‘ as Hamilton Schuyler, a crack defence lawyer. He had friends – he was best man at Hazel O’Connor’s wedding. He himself was engaged to be married. But, as anyone who has suffered from depression knows, internal struggles can only ever be papered over. Depression isn’t sadness. It’s an overwhelming feeling of doom. Looking at other people feels like viewing them through the bottom of a glass – you can see them; you can hear them; but it’s a different reality to your own. The edges around your vision become fuzzy. Your eyes feel heavy in their sockets. There’s a weight – a real, tangible weight bearing down on you and you simply cannot rationalise anything that is happening. It hurts – it genuinely hurts.

On March 4th, 1990, David Rappaport was on a break from filming an episode of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation‘ when he first attempted to kill himself. He was found and resuscitated by police in his car with a hose connected to the exhaust pipe. Friends put it down to fatigue from work.  On May 4th, just weeks before his wedding and on his son’s 14th birthday, he drove up Laurel Canyon and parked up. Other walkers that day recall seeing him – some even chatted briefly with him but he clearly had somewhere to be. In a remote wooded spot near the top of a hill, he laid down, took out a gun and shot himself in the chest. His manager reported him missing some hours later. He was found by a man walking his dog before the police could.

It doesn’t have to be a specific event that leads someone to take such an appalling decision. Your mind can be a curse, naturally-produced chemicals overriding common sense and dulling your eyes and ears to reason. It’s not known if there was a suicide note, so any conclusions are purely conjecture. Was he fearful of his future wife rejecting him? Had he determined that, at the age of 38, his career was already drawing to a close? Had he found that for all his efforts, he was still just a performing dwarf, cast for how he looked instead of how he performed? It could have been any of these things. I suspect it was none of them. This is how depression drains you of any joy and any future. David Rappaport was amazing – someone I’d love to have met. I wish he were still with us.

Daz Lawrence 

13 thoughts on “The Life & Death of David Rappaport

    1. Thanks – personal experience, alas, but I hope it helps to convey how it’s far more than ‘being unhappy’

  1. A terrific read – I’d forgotten all about the O Men until you mentioned them! And also just how much of my childhood Rappaport played a part in. Much missed.

    1. He was everywhere, wasn’t he? It’s far from a complete rundown of his stuff, I’m still finding things myself.

    1. Yes – it seems he did everything he could to be treated as an equal but the headlines of his obituaries at the time show nothing had changed.

  2. An interesting essay about a complex man. However, he was not in Spike Milligan’s Q6 – he was one of the regulars in Spike’s penultimate series for the BBC, Q9, broadcast in 1980.

  3. I too remember him being in quality stuff all through the eighties, great presence, brilliant to watch, a sad loss of a great man RIP

  4. David was my friend and we spent some fun times together. He at one time bought a canal barge and we travelled down from Banbury to Watford where it remained moored until it eventually sank.
    I eventually moved to Los Angeles and we met up again. He was best man at my wedding on Venice Beach.

  5. I was David’s producer on Tiswas and responsible for casting both him and Sylvester McCoy (well, it was obviously more a case of begging them to come and play). David was everything you say and more. A delightful person with an awesome talent. Occasionally his agent would indicate his unavailability through depression, but I remain distraught to this day that it should have all ended so tragically for him. We all simply loved him.

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