Cousin Itt looks back on kooky career
Las Vegas – — A saucy redhead strolls into the pizzeria and spots the veteran actor who performed countless TV and film cameos throughout the 1960s and '70s.
"Cousin Itt!" she shrieks.
She drops onto one knee and hugs actor Felix Silla — all 3 feet, 11 inches of him.
It's a rare celebrity sighting in the larger-than-life career of the little Big Man, who inhabits a tiny — if peculiar — niche in TV-land subculture: Silla once played Cousin Itt, the shaggy hairball with sunglasses and a derby on the macabre 1960s sitcom "The Addams Family."
This is a town full of celebrities, on stage or in the audience. But this celebrity flies under the radar, even though his creations are firmly lodged in the memories of baby boomer TV watchers.
Silla was Twiki, the sidekick robot in the series "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century," cavorted with Hoss Cartwright in a "Bonanza" episode called "Hoss and the Leprechauns" and played a man-eating plant on "The Jonathan Winters Show." He was an ewok in "Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi," a young simian in "Planet of the Apes" and doubled for a boyish character in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
Playing Cousin Itt, he admits, might sound "creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, and altogether ooky." But now, looking back at age 77, he wouldn't change a hair on the head of his long career.
Because he was often hidden inside costumes, Silla is rarely recognized for his roles. Realtor Linda Barbado knows him because she sold him a house after he retired here in 2004. He all but disappears in her hug and his voice seems part helium-inflected. In his tiny hands, a Samsung smartphone looks more like Moses' stone tablets.
These days, he spends his time with wife, Sue, also a little person, taking care of the couple's five granddaughters. Every Thursday, he meets with cronies for midday wine and pizza — retired wise guys who include a former stand-up comic, military officer, musician and photographer.
"He's the funniest little guy I know," says one.
"Hey, watch your language," adds another. "We don't use words like 'little' around here."
Silla jokes about his fame. At conventions, he's approached by people puzzled when spotting his character head shots by his side.
"They ask, 'Is that really you?' and I say, 'Of course it's me. What do you think I'm doing here — warming up the chair?' "
Silla spent much of his youth in the circus — until the Ringling Brothers troupe stopped in Los Angeles and he jumped from the three rings to the studios. He recalls the day in the early 1960s when he showed up for a casting call. He didn't know what the role was; he just needed work.
"These two guys sat at a table," he says. "They take one look at me and say, 'You got the job.' And I say, 'That's it? Don't I even need to audition?' They say, 'No, just show up on Monday.' "
The Cousin Itt character, he says, wasn't originally among the work of New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams, on whose work the series is based. "A producer dreamed it up in some nightmare," Silla says.
His on-set instructions were simple: Walk around in a floor-length wig. (Cousin Itt's chatter was dubbed in later.) But the costume was made from real hair: "It was hot and heavy. Like wearing a brick."
It was also a safety hazard. "All the guys on the set smoked," he says. "They just dropped their butts and stepped on them. The producers worried that I might step on a smoldering cigarette and go up in flames. They gave me synthetic hair, which was flame-retardant."
For fans of the series, still in syndication four decades after its last episode aired in 1966, Silla has some Addams Family gossip: Actor John Astin, who played husband Gomez Addams, was originally cast as Lurch, the lumbering butler who often asked, "You rang?"
Ted Cassidy, who eventually played Lurch, was just as quiet off the set as he was on. Actress Carolyn Jones, the black-haired matriarch, Morticia Addams, was actually a blonde. The most bizarre character, Silla recalls, was actor Jackie Coogan as the snickering, bald-headed Uncle Fester: "He fell asleep on the set all the time. I can't tell you how many takes he ruined with his snoring."
Silla tells the tale of the most-famous role he didn't get: He was filming the Indiana Jones movie when director Stephen Spielberg turned to him.
"He puts his right thumb and index finger an inch apart and says, 'You know, Felix, if you were this much smaller I'd cast you as E.T. in the remake.' "
But, like always, Cousin Itt got the last laugh.
"Ha! Where is that film today?" he says. "I'll tell you where. They didn't make it."