Page 2 - Tom Weaver's interview with Phoebe Dorin
Dunn's real name was Gary Miller. What was the matter with that name?
I don't know why he didn't use it. I don't know the origin of "Michael Dunn." When I met him, he was Michael Dunn. And kids used to follow him down the street after the nightclub act. Kids are wonderful, they just say what they're thinking and they're much more honest about how they related to Michael than older people. They'd say, "What are you? Are you a little man or are you a little boy?" and he would explain what he was.
He was a dwarf, correct?
He was not a dwarf. He had a bone disease which was a form of arthritis, the most severe form you could have. It's called achondroplasia. [Charles Proteus] Steinmetz, the electrical genius, has the same thing, and so did Toulouse-Lautrec. At a very early age there's a fall or an accident, and after that the bones do not grow. You can be normal 'til three or four years old, and then it will present itself. The sad thing was that Michael's parents did not have other children because they thought it was hereditary when in fact it was congenital. It was very sad. That was the disease that he had, and he was told that he would die around the same age that those people died, because there was nowhere for his internal organs to grow. They were cramped. And eventually they would simply give out because they didn't have the room they needed. Michael knew he was going die very early on. He was so bright --you can't lie to someone who knows more medical research than you do.
Did you ever meet his parents?
Oh, God, I knew them very well. Fred and Jewel Miller were the most wonderful people --they did more for that kid! I don't know if Michael would have been as adventurous and as much of a role model as he was without them. They let him do everything. They just said to themselves, "If he's gonna die, he's gonna die. He gonna go swimming, he's gonna drive a car, he's gonna do everything. To give him less of a life would be tragic." His parents were fabulous. I wish I'd had parents as wonderful and as loving and as warm. They were in his corner the whole way.
Where did they live?
They lived in Livonia, Michigan. I went to visit them once with him there. And then they moved to Florida when they retired.
"For a while when I wasn't working I drove everybody crazy, so a friend conned me into sculpting." -quote from Life Magazine
How did he get to be as smart as
he was? Was he self-educated?
Michael had a 185 IQ and was a college graduate. He was one of the most brilliant people you'd ever meet in your life. Very incongruous, that little body and this vast, brilliant mind. He would read three books a day. He wanted to be a doctor, and people would carry on about wanting him to be an opera singer --people who had heard him sing in college and everywhere. Michael was like this little genius. This strange little genius, but this genius! And I started him sculpting --he had these incredible hands. His hands were not only normal, they were almost bigger than normal. One day I asked him, "Have you ever worked with clay?" He said no. I said, "Well, you have such an appreciation for the arts. I want to start you sculpting." And he became quite a little sculptor [laughs]! That became a fabulous hobby for him, a very wonderful creative outlet.
Michael was terribly bright and terribly talented, and could have done anything with his life. But he wanted the attention and he wanted to be in show business, I think because it was his validation. It was his way of saying to the world, "You see? Everybody has to love me, because I am really not this way. I am everything that everyone else is, and my fame proves it." And of course it never happens that way. Success, I think, made Michael more lonely, because his life didn't change in the way that he thought it would. I think he thought --as a lot of people do --"When I'm rich and famous and everyone knows who Michael Dunn is, then I won't be a little person any more." I know that sounds crazy but, somewhere inside, one always feels that, once success comes, "I won't be lonely any more," "I won't be ugly any more," "I won't be ostracized any more." But success can only bring you success, it's not a one-on-one relationship with anybody --that requires a whole different kind of work. I think that was Michael's biggest disappointment: Success didn't change anything where he wanted it to change.
You talked to him about this stuff, or could you just "tell"?
Oh, he talked to me about all that stuff. We were best friends for years. We were never lovers, we were never boyfriend and girlfriend. We were just best friends. He was like a soul mate.
You're five feet tall.
Yes [laughs]! There was a little person and another little person!
In one of his interviews, Dunn said that a woman once took him into her lap
and stroked him like a child --and he got so angry, he bit her!
Michael used to tell that story, but I don't know if it ever really happened. And if it did happen, don't think he bit her very hard --he might have bitten her to show her who was boss! But he was so kind, I can't imagine him biting anybody. However, I did see women relate to him like a child --that's what I meant before when I talked about children being more honest about what they felt about him. The minute he began to be famous, no one ever treated him that way because they all knew who he was. But before they knew who he was, I would see women treat him like a little boy --not like a child but like a little boy, even though he was ten times more bright than they were. He would become very offended and very hurt. He was very easily wounded by that. A couple of times, I heard him set people straight. But I never saw him do anything as mean as biting anyone. It's a terrific story [laughs] but I never saw any grown woman pick him up, put him on her lap and stroke him like a little kid because Michael was a man. He was not a crippled little boy, he never pretended to be a little boy. And didn't have a little voice, he had a really strong voice and he was a very strong person. There were women, though, that did condescend and talk to him as though he were less than [a man] or as though he had a handicap, as though he was deformed. And that used to hurt him terribly.
Was he really a Capuchin brother in a Detroit monastery at one point, as he
That I don't know. I know he studied religion at one time.
One old article about Dunn said that, at birth, he had dislocated hips, and
they plagued him all his life.
Mm-hmm. Michael was in pain most of the time. He had a tremendous amount of pain, physically.
They also say his legs were very weak and he had steel ankle braces.
The lower half of his body was the part that was not developed. He was all chest --alll chest. That's why he had such a tremendous singing voice. He had a normal lung span and incredible chest cavity and upper body strength. But the lower half of his body was where this arthritic condition [affected him], it stunted his bones and stunted his legs very much like Toulouse-Lautrec. He had a lot of problems. In the nightclub act, we originally worked on two little stools, and to watch Michael try to climb up on a stool was painful! That's why it wouldn't work --people would go, "Oh, dear, is he gonna make it?" But the little library steps were easy, you never saw Michael sweat it. He did have a lot of health problems, though --a lot of health problems --because of the bones, which were very weak. And he had those special shoes made that I talked to you about, the ones he was wearing the day I first saw him, because he couldn't walk in normal shoes. He had to have them molded to his feet. I imagine he did have ankle braces from time to time, and I think he wore a back brace at one point, too. It's like someone with rheumatoid arthritis --it can get much worse and it can get better and then it can get worse again. And of course they didn't have the medicine, they didn't have the knowledge of it at that time.
Michael did something that I thought was extraordinary, that most people don't know about: When Mike became famous, he became a role model for a lot of kids who were born with the disease he had. They would write to him and tell him how lonely they were and they wanted to die and blah blah blah, and he would write to them and he would even go to see some of them on his own hook. And talk to them and befriend them and champion them. I really felt it was a wonderful thing. That wasn't very widely publicized, but he did do that.
Did you ever visit any of these kids with him?
No, but I knew of them. Michael would also read me the letters he got from these kids' mothers. A lot of the mothers did a lot of things wrong, and so Michael would talk to the parents too. Michael was very lucky to have had very liberal, very understanding, loving parents who knew that to shelter a child like that, to sequester the child, was the worst thing you can do for him.
One of his old magazine interviews ended rather abruptly because you showed
up to take him to a tailor.
Oh, I remember that --he had to go to the tailor's because he didn't have a suit to wear for the nightclub act. He was only three-foot-whatever and he couldn't wear a little boy's suit because he wasn't a little boy --the chest cavity and everything. And he couldn't look like a little boy, he was a sophisticated man. Of course there were no men's clothes that fit him, so we had to go to a tailor and everything had to be made to order. His shirts had to be made to order, his pants, his suits.
This is a terrible story, but in retrospect it's a wonderful story: Even though we were getting famous doing our act, we were still making 40 bucks a week. I was helping out (I was working as a waitress) and we were putting all of our money into the rehearsal studio. One night after the show, we went to a party somewhere uptown and we had all the stuff from our act in Michael's car. When we got back to the car, the car had been broken into and everything we owned was gone. Everything we owned. I had one beautiful dress for the nightclub act --gone. His suits --gone. Now, who in God's name could have worn those suits?! We sat on the curb and we cried. And then we just started to laugh. I said, "Michael, who is the robber? Was it the midget robber? What in the world is he gonna do with your suits and your shirts?" It was really funny but it was terrible --we had no clothes! And Michael's suit at the tailor cost about $250! But Jan Wallman helped us. I think we wore black sweaters and black pants and did the nightclub act that way.
He had a car in New York?
Michael was a terrific driver. He had the pedals built up. Even the car had to be specially fitted for him! When he would open the car door and get out, people's mouths would drop open because, sitting in the seat, he looked like a tall person. And then this little guy would get out [laughs]!
You also appeared with Dunn on a lot of TV shows like Mike Douglas and The
We appeared with the nightclub act. Then we'd sit on the panel and we'd talk. It was lots of fun. (continued)
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Interview © 2000 - 2002 Tom Weaver