By Jeffrey Felshman
Before getting the role of the mayor of Munch-kinland in the touring company of the Wizard of Oz, Eugene Pidgeon was usually the wrong man in the right place at the right time. He could walk into any Hollywood party without an invitation, but would always be asked, without sarcasm or irony, "Are you one of the Munchkins?" He'd reply, "Do I look like I'm 90?"
In LA a few years back a man ran up to him shouting excitedly, "Say, aren't you the dwarf from Time Bandits"? He wasn't, but he answered, "Yes, I am."
"I thought so. Whatever happened to you?"
"Oh, I've been bouncing around here and there."
Pidgeon didn't know which Time Bandits dwarf the man meant. But that didn't bother him, since he assumed that fans would single him out in a group of dwarfs as the one they must have seen somewhere. Not that he hung out with dwarfs much.
The man turned out to be a casting director, and he gave Pidgeon a part in a Wings Hauser film called Street Asylum.
"They never found out that I wasn't the guy from Time Bandits," Pidgeon says. He still doesn't know who the guy thought he was or what name rolled on the credits. "They made the check out to Eugene Pidgeon."
Pidgeon wasn't an actor. He was a writer and a publicist who'd spent his life bouncing from the depths to the heights and back again. He says that one moment he was at Clinton's first inauguration ("I was closer to Clinton than Jack Nicholson," he recalls), and the next he was lying on the floor in some bar. More often he was on the barroom floor. "There's no place like it," he says.
Somehow he kept working, turning out columns and stories for the Santa Barbara Independent, traveling to Bosnia in 1994, managing punk bands in LA. He says, "I should have been dead about a hundred times by now."
Pidgeon was born 43 years ago in Memphis, Tennessee, into a society family that had already enrolled him in a top prep school. "On the day I was born," he says, "my father drove down the highway asking his God what to do about me." His family thought that maybe he would somehow grow out of his condition if it were overlooked. "They tried to sculpt me into a person who would take his place in the family firm, in Memphis society," he says. "But within that society I was a minority, I didn't fit." He has almost finished a semiautobiographical book about his boyhood titled "The .5 Child."
He hit the road after his father died, in 1985, signing up as a clown with a tiny traveling circus run by a Jesuit priest. "It was a quarter-ring circus," he says. But he couldn't stand being a clown, and after a month he ran away.
He wound up in LA, where he stayed for 12 years. "Los Angeles has that air of orange blossoms wafting through the smog, and I think it's intoxicating in a way unlike anywhere else," he says. "One day you're 50 and you're serving coffee at Chasens and you're still saying you have a script in development--and the horrible part is you believe it. And other people believe you too. So I was looking to leave."
He was seeing a dancer at the time, a woman 20 years his junior. He believed he was in love with her, so he asked her to move with him to New York, where he felt that it wouldn't be so easy for him to bullshit his way through. In 1997 they moved east, but she moved on soon after. He recalls taking the bus one day. "Just as I was going out the back door of the bus, I saw her getting on in the front. I didn't know if it meant anything, but it seemed symbolic."
He was now alone as well as jobless. New York was hardly any change at all. He says he ran through a small inheritance in a couple months of boozing and partying. He would crash A-list parties with $2 in his pocket. He remembers one night Alec Baldwin getting on his knees to talk to him. "So he could look me in the eye, he said."
Pidgeon finally landed a job doing publicity for a company that supposedly rented out archival film footage. "I found out that it was just a cover for a porn-film ring run by this deadbeat dad. They owed me money, which they didn't pay. One night I wound up in the men's room at a Ninth Avenue bar, head on the floor and praying to the halogen light. It was boring. It was time to sober up."
He went back to Memphis and spent time with his family. While there he realized, "I'd spent my life ignoring my size, trying to be invisible. If I didn't think about being a dwarf, didn't consider my body, no one else would either."
His brother persuaded him to try New York again. "He said you have been through the fire, and you have these gifts. You have to accept them."
Pidgeon went back on New Year's Day 1998 with no idea of what he was going to do. He was broke and had no place to live. Three days later he picked up a theater paper and spotted a casting call for a touring company of the Wizard of Oz. "I turned right to the page with the ad. They were looking to cast the tin man, and I just went right over. I had no resume, no head shots, nothing prepared. And they loved me. They cast me as the coroner on the spot. Originally Mickey Rooney was going to be the mayor of Munchkinland, but then that changed and I was cast. It was destiny. Kismet."
The past year touring with the company has been the happiest of his life, he says. The show just closed a two-week stand at the Rosemont Theatre. The money is great, the adulation from the audience is wonderful, the other players are friends. "There are perks that come with the job," he says. "I've given keys to the city to several mayors. I travel all over, and I tell people I can fix parking tickets." He laughs. "I'm 43 and I'm four foot three, so this must be my year."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Eugene Zakusilo.