Verne Troyer's death underlines the reality of depression among people with dwarfism
The Instagram post announcing the passing away of Verne Troyer, the diminutive actor who appeared as Mini-Me in the 'Austin Powers' series, has underlined a serious issue that many comedians and people with dwarfism face.
The cause of death was not stated, but the Instagram caption said, "Depression and suicide are very serious issues. You never know what kind of battle someone is going through inside. Be kind to one another. And always know, it’s never too late to reach out to someone for help."
Verne was popular for his turn as Mini Me, Dr Evil's sidekick in the second and third Austin Powers movies: 'Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me' and 'Austin Powers in Goldmember'.
His character served as a replica of Dr Evil and portrayed his 2 feet 4 inches stature as that of a biddable pet. A funny one, straitjacketed perhaps in the characters reserved for dwarves on the silver screen, and where they are never allowed to have a humane presence.
Looking at Troyer's roles, the above mentioned statement can be affirmed. “I shall call him … Mini-Me!” This was how Verne Troyer was introduced in Austin Powers by Dr Evil.
Troyer started his career in 1993 when he was contacted by a former president of Little People of America because of his "certain size" to serve as a stunt double for the infant character "Baby Bink" in 'Baby's Day Out'.
He went on to work as a stunt double and also got some minor comedic roles in several films of the 1990s, including Dunston Checks In, Jingle All the Way, Men in Black, and My Giant.
His big break came when Troyer met the director of Austin Powers, Jay Roach, and impressed Mike Myers, co-starring as Dr Evil, so that they removed the part of his character dying in the script of the movie.
However, not many were impressed by his role, especially many in the dwarf community.
"I have dwarfism. I was 13 when Verne Troyer hit our screens as Mini-Me in Austin Powers sequel The Spy Who Shagged Me. The character was a compound of stereotypes of people with dwarfism. He was hypersexual, unintelligent and aggressive," writes Eugene Grant for The Guardian.
"I imagine few who watched it know that in the past aristocrats and monarchs often “kept” dwarf people like this – abusing, ridiculing, and, sometimes, even killing them," Eugene adds citing that films have turned violence to dwarves as a spectacle of comedy.
The backlash for Troyer was inevitable and while he became renowned in Hollywood for comedic roles as dwarves, he was disliked by many from his own community for allowing himself to be used for Hollywood trope.
The son of a factory worker and repair technician, Troyer was working for Sprint in customer service when he received an offer to be in Hollywood.
"In 1993, I was working for Sprint in customer service, and a friend of mine who was the president of LPA – Little People of America – got a phone call from the producers of Baby’s Day Out, and they were wondering if there was anyone close to a stand-in size," Troyer told Hollywood Chicago.
"I guess they searched worldwide and couldn’t find anyone. I sent in my picture, and they flew me out to Hollywood to meet with them. Two days later, they offered me the job, and I quit my job at Sprint."
He did what he had to do and his career began an upward trajectory. The 49-year-old was the goblin Griphook in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and he also played the role of Percy in Terry Gilliam's fantasy film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
But throughout his journey he wasn't known as an actor but rather identified as the character he played on screen.
Even my headline mentions Mini Me. But he was a tremendous actor, he indeed was.
He tried his best to prove it to the world that he was more than just Dr Evil's replica doing the pinky-to-the-lip pose.
"I can play the leading man. I can play the action hero, maybe in just a different way. I look at it as, you know, if you set your mind to it, you can do it," Troyer once said.
In the middle phase of his career, he said; "I've done approximately 15 films, and most of the things I've done have either been stunt or costume work."
In a 2012 interview with Hollywood Chicago, he said, "I’m trying to be a serious actor, and I’m actually rehearsing ‘The Glass Menagerie’ in the mirror. It’s funny, but it’s also touching. I think it’s available online, just type in ‘Bit Players.’
Besides being an actor and a stuntsman, he was extremely fond of football and video games. He was also crowned the Homecoming King in his high school. It would be safe to say that we know this through his reality TV presence, which sort of humanized him.
He was a cast member for 'The Surreal Life', which he termed "garbage". He was also a contestant for the sixth series of the British 'Celebrity Big Brother.' The actor also hosted his own YouTube channel.
Maybe it was this dissatisfaction with the roles he was getting that led to his struggle with alcohol, about which he opened up on social media only last year.
Earlier this month, Troyer was hospitalized for a reported poisoning. The actor's friend who had called the police, allegedly told the cops that he was "extremely upset, drunk and suicidal". He had been placed on an involuntary psychiatric hold. He was also being treated for possible alcohol poisoning.
Prior to the last post on his Instagram regarding his death, a post read, "Asking you to keep Verne in your thoughts and prayers," a person connected to Troyer wrote on Instagram.
"He’s getting the best care possible and is resting comfortably. Appreciate the support from family, friends, and fans around the world."
Depression and suicide are not uncommon in the dwarfism community and Hollywood. Over the years, several actors with dwarfism have killed themselves, including English actor David Rappaport and French-born actor Hervé Villechaize. Reports have shown that more than a third in the dwarfism community have experienced loneliness and isolation.
In an article titled 'Little People, Big Depression,' Rebecca Cokley reflects on how news of Rappaport’s passing affected her as a young girl and remembers her own friends with dwarfism who died too young.
“I don’t think that a majority of my community are depressed because they’re little people,” she writes. “However I have no doubt that society’s objectification of little people adds insult to injury (literally) and can push folks over the edge,” she adds.
Troyer’s height was due to achondroplasia dwarfism and he once said that his parents “never treated me any different than my other average-sized siblings. I used to have to carry wood, feed the cows and pigs and farm animals.”
He told Hollywood Chicago, "I grew up in a family that are average size, and I grew up with parents who didn’t treat me any different. I never looked at my size as a handicap, I felt like I fit in at school – I was even elected Homecoming King. I don’t know what it’s like to be tall, so this is normal for me. It’s you guys who are abnormal."
In 2004 Treyor reportedly married model Genevieve Gallen, but the union lasted for only a matter of months. He was dating American actress, Brittney Powell and was in a live-in relationship with her when he died.
Troyer's career in Hollywood lasted for about two decades and he came onto the screen when people with dwarfism were starting to get into cinemas, even if the roles were stereotypical.
It had to begin somewhere and Troyer was the one who initiated the role with humor. He made people laugh, because that is what he liked to do.
"What I really enjoy the most is seeing what the crowd likes. I enjoy making people laugh."
It has been said that people with that kind of passion often are the most depressed of all. Comedians including Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman, Stephen Fry, Spike Jones, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor and Ellen DeGeneres have battled depression and mental illness.
Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud theorized that comedians often tell jokes as a kind of relief system from some kind of anxiety. More recently, an often-quoted study from 1975 theorized that humor can leave the comedian with a feeling of control over a situation in which they would otherwise be powerless. Think of Ellen DeGeneres who found her first comedic gig with 'Phone call to God' after the tragic death of her girlfriend.
Humor is anger and humor is sadness and actors and comedians have worn it as a shield but sometimes it takes a toll. Troyer's death announcement on Instagram written by his family member read, "Verne was also a fighter when it came to his own battles. Over the years he’s struggled and won, struggled and won, struggled and fought some more, but unfortunately, this time was too much."
The 49-year-old who was also one of the shortest men in the world will always be remembered as Mini Me because no one can play his replica while he played someone else's. In his words "There's nobody else that can double me - except for a doll." (Laughs)