Some actors can't avoid being typecast. Many of them try hard to break through the typecasting, but Michael Dunn knew better. There was one type he was always called upon to play, and he always played it brilliantly.
Dunn was a dwarf. He stood 3' 10" as an adult, and weighed under 80 pounds. But that didn't stop him from having a very successful acting career -- so much so that, next to Billy Barty, he was the actor people first thought of when the script called for a little person.
By all accounts, Dunn was highly intelligent, and it shows in his acting. He always seemed to bring something interesting to his roles and was never content with just phoning in a performance. Dunn decided quite early on not to let his small stature affect his career.
After trying college and toying with joining a monastery, Dunn moved to New York and started getting small roles* in the theater. He had some success with a cabaret show (Dunn was a fine singer) and got the attention of TV casting directors.
I first saw him when he appeared in the pilot episode of Get Smart as Mr. Big. But his most notable role was a few years later, when he played Jim West's arch enemy, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, in The Wild, Wild West.
Loveless was one of television's great villains. He was a mad scientist, but not one who chewed the scenery at all costs. Loveless was a cultured man who generally spoke softly and commandingly, but who always seemed to have more going on than the script warranted. Dunn was front and center, a screen presence that made him dominate the scenes he was in.
A little later, Dunn appeared in his best-known role -- the appearance of Alexander in the Star Trek episode, "Plato's Stepchildren."** Once again, it is a find performance, with Dunn holding his own against Shatner's bravura style.
There was also the TV movie Goodnight, My Love, an attempt at a Raymond Chandleresque hard-boiled detective story, with Dunn as the partner of Richard Boone. It was an intriguing pair-up -- the hulking Boone and the tiny Dunn. Dunn drove the car, and there was a nice little scene where they left it with valet parking, and the driver had to fit into the seat and pedals modified for Dunn, making a small but significant point about accessibility long before it became the law. The movie was made as a potential pilot for a TV series, but was never picked up.
Dunn continued to work up until his premature death. His physical condition caused heart problems, and he died of it at the age of 38.
His legacy is important, though. He was one of the first little person actors to insist on being treated with dignity, and was an inspiration that led to various shorter people to try their luck with acting. But he also deserves to be remember because he was a damn fine actor.
*I refuse to say it.
* Best known for the Kirk-Uhura interracial kiss.