From the first time I met Verne we had a connection and he always brought a smile to my face. Verne openly battled depression and alcoholism but his flaws never eclipsed his kindness towards others and his ability to make people laugh.
The first time I worked with Verne I had no idea who he was as it was a magazine feature in anticipation of his break-out role as “Mini-Me” in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me . It was the beginning of a photographic relationship that lasted more than 15 years. The concept for that shoot was to pair the shortest man in the world with one of the tallest, Shaquille O'Neal.
I had my crew crawl through the studio to insure that it was spotless from the perspective of someone under three feet tall making sure to clean the undersides of counters, tables and fixtures. We likewise made sure that the tops of doors, cabinets and everything from Shaq’s perspective was in order.
We were prelighting the set when we heard the door open and saw the shadow of a little person making his way down the curved hallway that led from the reception area to the studio. I intercepted him and vaguely recognized his the 3” 6’ figure from various film roles so naturally I assumed he was Verne. I introduced myself and said “You must be Verne” to which he responded “Nope, I’m his manager. Verne’s just a little fuck”. No stranger to sarcasm I ignored his response and went about the business of setting him up in the lounge area. A few minutes later the door opened again, we all turned expecting to see the hulking 7”1’ Shaquille O'Neal but instead the diminutive 2”8’ figure of Verne Troyer was carefully navigating the two steps that led to the lounge. As it turns out Verne’s manager was Phil Fondacaro, a very accomplished actor in his own right and Phil’s wife, Elena Bertagnolli, a stunning woman of just 4”2’ was Verne’s publicist. The three of them would soon have the reputation as the “biggest little people in Hollywood”.
When Shaq arrived with his infectious smile and attitude we had the mix for a memorable day. As someone who is regularly gawked at for his stature, the shoe was clearly on the other foot as Shaq was almost in disbelief of Verne’s size. The two of them hit it off and immediately started conspiring on a “buddy cop” project together which led to a debate over who could win in a fight between the two of them. Verne turned and asked me if I thought he could “take Shaq”. After careful consideration my advice was…“Go low”.
The project we were shooting was for the magazine’s Holiday issue so predictably the art directors wanted to explore photographing them as Santa and his Elf. In this town virtually any costume imaginable is available at one of the studio wardrobe departments but it was obvious that these outfits wound need to be custom-made, a task that the magazine delegated to me. I immediately made the executive decision to make the Santa suit for Verne and designate Shaq as the Elf. I felt this was not just more visually interesting but perhaps less offensive to little people who were regularly cast as sprites, elves and mythological characters. This decision delighted Shaq and Verne but seemed to infuriate the art director that had flown out from New York for the shoot. After the shoot she insisted on keeping the wardrobe and told me upon her return to NYC that she had “burned the outfits so that no one else would have them”. Needless to say there was an “interesting energy” on the set that day.
In spite of that energy and perhaps because of it, I made a real connection with all of the talent. I soon found myself at the home of Phil and Elena (Verne lived in their guest house) where they hosted well-attended and outrageous parties. There was an impressive population of little people at these gatherings and as a result most of the average sized people spent the evening sitting on the floor or crawling about on their knees as a convenience and a courtesy. It was immediately apparent that Verne had an ability to drink his weight in alcohol and, I feared, the inability not to. Verne was born to an Amish family and raised in a secular home but by the time I met him he had clearly embarked on a personal Rumspringa of sorts that involved excess, particularly with alcohol and women, neither of which typically ended well.
Verne was a very, very sweet guy but his struggles and behavior eventually put Phil and Elena in a position where they were compelled to sever their professional relationship with him which was painful to witness as they had taken him into their home and were as much family as industry mentors. I remember when I got a concerned call from Elena explaining that Verne had moved out and had a new team. It wasn’t the typical Hollywood call to poison my relationship with a former client but rather a sweet, almost motherly intervention to let me know that Verne was drifting and needed people around him who cared for him. She encouraged me to continue working with his new team. Shortly after this conversation I began to see the occasional news clip or reality show excerpt that exploited a very complex, troubled man in a way that made me uncomfortable. Verne was a constant target for the press and the public and unlike most celebrities, at just 32 inches he didn’t have the luxury of creating some anonymity by cloaking his identity and was thus the subject to constant public scrutiny. I don’t pretend to know what his specific demons were nor the daily challenges he faced but based on our conversations I can only assume that his unique combination of social, physical, financial, artistic and personal challenges would be daunting for even the most well-adjusted person, in or out of the public eye.
I maintained relationships with both Verne and his former team and continued to work with Verne on several projects over the years, most were commercial ventures to advertise a movie or product but some were personal projects where I would have an idea and, to his credit, he was always eager to collaborate.
The last job I shot with Verne just a couple of years ago required we meet at his home for wardrobe fittings and meetings. He lived in a modest home in the San Fernando Valley that displayed a few of the trappings one would expect from a successful actor - photos of himself on set with megastars, props from Star Wars and Harry Potter, one of Angus Young’s signature SG guitars (AC/DC was his favorite band), etc.
I had not seen him nor worked with him in a couple of years and immediately noticed a change in his behavior. At our first scheduled meeting he forgot and stood us up. We rescheduled and the next time he was sleeping but eventually made it to he door and was very low key and reserved. He was responsive and sober but lacked the enthusiasm and personality I had come to know. I got the feeling that this print campaign, which he could have just “phoned-in”, was about the biggest thing to happen to him in a while even though he couldn’t really get excited about it. I was concerned. He was listless and seemed depressed but the day fo the shoot he was the consummate professional and went above and beyond by not only putting in a long, energetic day but taking the time to pose with the clients and their family members after the shoot.
In an effort to focus on Verne rather than his stature I tried to photograph him on seamless whenever I could to remove him from spacial comparison and make his size irrelevant to the things around him. Verne was a special man even without his notable height. He worked harder at his craft than most people realize and was a witty, kind and very caring individual who will be sadly missed by those who knew him.