Hervé Villechaize, most familiar for his turn on “Fantasy Island” before his premature death, is an unlikely biopic subject. As the assistant Tattoo on the TV drama, Villechaize was treated as if his short stature made him a supernatural freak. His cultural impact has been an accented catchphrase (“De plane!”) and his status as a widely known, and generally patronized, little person. It’s a story that seems too sad, and too sadly marginal, to entice viewers.
“My Dinner With Hervé,” HBO’s film about a late-in-life Villechaize, isn’t quite a reclamation project. It doesn’t do enough to center his story, focusing instead on how the star changed a journalist’s life. But it will begin to make you see Villechaize in a new light, not least because of Peter Dinklage’s performance. Dinklage inhabits the late actor’s unique diction and the ballistic energy he brought to his performances and, later, to annihilating himself. It’s a turn that’s sensitively calibrated despite its mania.
That mania builds over time. First, Dinklage’s Hervé enters the story through a side door. Journalist Danny Tate (Jamie Dornan) visits Los Angeles to interview Gore Vidal and gets assigned a quick check-in with the fallen actor while there. It’s meant as a brief grotesque to pad out a magazine, but Hervé is so hungry for company that he monopolizes Danny for hours, making the Vidal interview an impossibility. Danny can’t help being drawn to Hervé out of some combination of sympathy, journalistic curiosity and vicarious thrill. As an alcoholic in recovery, he sees in Hervé a mirror for his appetites.
The story Danny uncovers through an interview that barely requires questions — the freewheeling subject needs little inducement to tell his story — is less “Where is he now?” than “How did he get here?” We see Hervé’s youth, his breakout in the Bond film “The Man With the Golden Gun” and his time on Aaron Spelling’s soap, in which his lifelong craving to be understood curdles into resentment at not being treated like the star he knows he is. (Andy Garcia, as Ricardo Montalbán, frustrated in his attempts to help, provides a painful glimpse at the support Hervé spurned.) The contrast between star and character couldn’t be more marked. Dinklage’s casting on “Game of Thrones” seems a landmark in comparison — creating a character in fantasy who was bolstered by his own desires, rather than a neutered assistant. Much of that has to do with Dinklage’s Emmy-winning performance, which allows him to act out all the emotions felt by a person who’s treated as unworthy, emotions Hervé kept bottled up until they exploded.
Dinklage, even before “Thrones,” has enjoyed boundless career opportunities, thanks in part to an ever-incrementally-improving Hollywood that found itself ready to embrace his talent. That he isn’t quite able to turn Hervé into a fully rounded character is the fault of the film, written and directed by Sacha Gervasi and based on his own experience with Villechaize. The protagonist of “Hervé” isn’t Hervé but Danny. Using the actor’s broken-down charisma, flashing throughout an endless interview, to refract Danny’s journey and give him greater confidence misses the real story. Dinklage’s rise, as Tyrion Lannister on “Thrones” and elsewhere, proves there is a hunger for three-dimensional depictions of people who look like Villechaize and like Dinklage. The movie ought to have given Villechaize pride of place in his own tale, allowing him not to teach a lesson but to live his extraordinary life. But Hervé, despite his willingness to speak, remains elusive even now.
“My Dinner With Hervé.” HBO, Sat., Oct. 20.
Cast: Peter Dinklage, Jamie Dornan, David Strathairn, Andy Garcia, Mireille Enos, Harriet Walter, Oona Chaplin.
Executive Producers: Steven Zaillian, Richard Middleton, Ross Katz, Jessica de Rothschild