Male Hollywood stars don't stand as tall as we imagine

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It's fitting, in a way, that Jon Stewart will host Sunday's Academy Awards.

Not only is he bright, funny and good-looking, but at 5 feet, 7 inches, he's two inches shorter than the average American male.

And in Hollywood, that puts him in good company.

   
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Hollywood may not exactly be the land of Lilliput, but it does seem to be a place where official heights are enhanced every bit as much as egos, salaries and selected body parts.

It's not so much that famous movie stars are a lot shorter than the average American. It's more that many actors -- particularly male stars -- are shorter than they would like you to believe.

Ralph Keyes, a Yellow Springs, Ohio, author, developed a theory about this when he was writing his 1980 book, "The Height of Your Life."

"Here's the deal as I finally figured it out," Keyes said. "Entertainment in general is a haven for smaller guys. I think you have to be able to present yourself and be expressive to be an actor, but if you grow up average size or taller, then you don't grow up with such a need to be forceful or expressive.

"I think that's why so many of our actors are smaller guys. It's no fun being a smaller guy and being given short shrift, so you want people to know that you may be small, but you're not weak."

Movies, in particular, are "a nirvana for smaller people," Keyes said, "because if the camera's on you and there's nothing beside you to be measured against, the person watching has no way of knowing how tall you really are."

Frank DeCaro, host of a daily talk show on Sirius Satellite Radio, agrees.

"I think that an actor's job is to get people to see what you want them to see as opposed to what is really there," DeCaro said. "So it would seem that men who are not particularly tall can certainly rise to the occasion.

"I think the camera is very kind to people who are not particularly tall and much thinner than you could possibly imagine. People with a toned swimmer's build look amazing on camera."

DeCaro, who is 5-feet-8, worked for several years on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," and so he can testify that Stewart is indeed an inch shorter than he is.

He's also had his picture taken with many other celebrities, giving him a sense of who is surprisingly tall -- and who is surprisingly not.

Penn Jillette, of the Penn and Teller comedy team, "is a redwood," DeCaro said. "It's shocking how tall he is. He could call Shaq shorty, that's how tall he is."

(Truth disclaimer: Penn Jillette is 6 feet 6 inches tall, while Shaquille O'Neal is, conservatively, 7-feet-1.)

On the other end of the scale, DeCaro said, "I was amazed when I was in the same room as Sylvester Stallone -- he's not very tall at all. Not that I'd want to take him on, but he's shorter than I am."

Screenwriter William Goldman has a story about that.

In his 2000 book, "Which Lie Did I Tell? -- More Adventures in the Screen Trade," Goldman ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Princess Bride") made a confession.

"I am hopelessly smitten with finding out the truth about how tall performers are," he wrote. "Especially male performers. Most especially male action performers."

"Most movie stars are short," wrote Goldman, who is 6-feet-1. "Stars' stumpiness is the beginning of my obsession. But when you throw action stars into the blend, guys who slay legions, well, it's just too yummy for me to resist."

Which is why Goldman dropped everything he was doing one day at the Cannes Film Festival when he heard that Stallone was about to enter the pool at a hotel where they were staying.

Stallone, now 59, has talked recently about starring in a Rocky VI sequel. He is listed on two Web sites as being either 5-feet-10 or 5-feet-9.

The pool opportunity excited Goldman, he wrote, because "you see, stars have lifts in their boots -- why else, pray tell, do you think they wear them all the time? They have lifts in their shoes, their loafers, their slippers. I know one who has lifts in his socks."

Based on his discreet face-to-face in the pool, Goldman said, he now knows that Stallone is "67 inches (5-feet-7), dripping wet."

It's not just insider screenwriters who obsess over celebrity heights, though.

The Web site Celebheights.com" shows there's a legion of people out there who are willing to spend time and energy debating the stars' stature, and there's always someone willing to organize a forum for them on the Internet.

Headed by the motto "In the land of Hollywood Pygmies, the elevator-shoed Dwarf is King," the site has compiled 3,449 celebrities' heights and attracted 26,154 visitor comments.

One recent entry zeroes in on a favorite target: action star and Oprah couch jumper Tom Cruise.

Linking visitors to a photo of a diminutive Cruise shaking hands with Japanese baseball star Alex Cabrera, a writer asks: "What do you reckon ... did Tom forget to wear something that day? He certainly looks no more than 5-feet-7 standing beside that 6-feet-1 guy, even accounting for a slight slope in Alex's favour. He just doesn't look the 5-feet-9-or-10 some people have him listed at ..."

Celebheights.com is run by a man named Rob who describes himself as a multimedia worker based in Glasgow, Scotland. In an e-mail, Rob said movie actors seem larger than life partly because directors "frame them to appear as tall as possible and purposely cast them with shorter co-stars."

On the other hand, after assembling more than 3,000 height records, Rob has concluded that actors are taller than many cynics might believe.

"As a group, the average height of actors ... is 5-feet-10 for males and 5-feet-5 for females ... and the average height of best actor winners [in the Academy Awards] is 5-feet-11 and of best actresses is 5-feet-5 1/2 inches.

Steven Goldsmith, a 5-foot-2 New Jersey resident who runs a Web site to support short people, said his problem with Hollywood is that shorter actors -- with the notable exception of Cruise -- almost never get to play the leads in action films or romantic comedies.

"One of the main complaints short men have is that they don't have a lot of romantic possibilities," said Goldsmith. "That's also the way it's portrayed in movies and on TV." Short actors "either don't have a relationship or they tend to have one-night stands."

Complicating this whole picture is that Americans aren't as tall as some might assume. The average American male is only 5 feet, 9 1/2 inches tall, and the average female is just 5 feet 4 inches.

For decades, Americans were easily the tallest people in the world, fueled by their wealth and nutrition. But that began to change around 1955, and today, the tallest average populations are in northern Europe.

The leading nation? The Netherlands, where the men now average 6-feet-1 and the women 5-feet-8.

This year's Oscar nominees bracket the U.S. averages, according to Celebheights.com. The best actor nominees range from Joaquin Phoenix at 5-feet-8 to Health Ledger at 6-feet-1. The best actress nominees go from tiny Judi Dench at 5-feet-1 to statuesque Charlize Theron at 5-feet-9 1/2.

Whether any of those heights is accurate remains the big question.

Final case in point: The Terminator himself, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Internet Movie Data Base lists Schwarzenegger at 6-feet-2. Celebheights.com has him at 6 feet even. Anecdotal reports often claim less.

The Internet seems to offer one way out of the fog, because it contains a candid photo of the governor standing next to a man of exactly the same height -- chiropractor Bob Cox of Omaha, Neb.

Cox was glad to get on the phone. If you could just tell us your height, Mr. Cox, the mystery of the Schwarzenegger stature would be solved.

"Well, you know," he said hesitantly, "the governor is pretty careful of his reputation when he lets his picture be taken like that.

"I guess I'm just not comfortable telling you my height. Have a nice day."


Mark Roth can be reached at mroth@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-1130


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