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RICHARD KIEL: VOLTAIRE SPEAKS
Did you ever wonder what happened to the limerick-fearing Voltaire, the infantile, body crushing, pituitary gigantic assistant to Dr. Miguelito Loveless? Then why all of a sudden why he was able to talk? These were the kinds of questions that used to bug me as a kid when I was watching THE WILD, WILD WEST. For three episodes, the 7' 2" Richard Kiel played Voltaire with just enough innocence that you'd forget the stereotypic dream for us wee folk that big guys are really gentle giants inside.
Recalled Kiel on his involved, "It was a simple casting process, I didn't know what they were looking for, I assumed for a big actor. It was an interesting story but was just supposed to be a one shot deal but they called me back to do a second one. I didn't speak in either one of those and so I had made my mind up not to do that again unless they included some dialogue. When I was asked back to do a third episode, now I had already worked on other things and there was a BONANZA episode that was written for me that I couldn't do because I was doing THE WILD, WILD WEST, so I was chagrin when I was told at casting that they had no intention of including dialogue. I said that I couldn't do it anymore. I was doing some other show at the same studio and ran into Robert Conrad and he said, "I guess I'll see you in a couple of weeks." I mentioned that, because I asked them to include some dialogue and they said, "Nothing doing," I wouldn't be on the show. Conrad asked me how long would I be on the lot and what sound stage I would be on. By lunchtime my agent told me they were writing the script to include dialogue. I really respected that guy and he was an understanding, unique man."
The one thing that perhaps would be a stretch is the several times that West would beat the crap out of Voltaire, especially at the end of the first episode he did, "The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth." Did it ever bother him that a little guy would always get the better of him and did he get along with Dunn? He warily replies, "I suppose somewhat but that's just the way things were. I did all my own stunts and falls in the shows, tough to double for me. But you know, I was making a living, learning and honing my skills to act. It all helped getting used to that for doing my BOND movies. I got along with Michael okay. But he was in a lot of pain. For a little man he actually had a giant ego. But it was great being on set and hearing him sing with his cabaret partner Phoebe Dorin."
So what's the challenge of playing a character that doesn't speak, and who is so big that when you are on camera, there is no where to hide? Kiel relates, "Well, you sort of become a scene stealer because you really stick out and so it is actually good practice for acting because when I had nothing to say, I had to say everything with my actions and little idiosyncrasies. So for example when Michael and Phoebe were singing and I was there sitting. It can be difficult to just sit there and listen and do nothing. I asked the prop man if he had a leather bag and some liquorice. So while I'm sitting there watching them sing, I take out my little bag and start popping liquorice into my mouth and start tapping my feet. Robert appreciated that stuff. The next day after they saw the rushes, they went in for a close up of the feet tapping and me eating the candy. Those were the things that helped me later when I was Jaws. It was these little idiosyncrasies that my bizarre character more human."
In his second appearance as the mute Voltaire in "The Night the Terror Stalked the Town" where he has to fight two Jim Wests, Kiel again used the liquorice gag, further establishing that the candy was a habit of the character and not the actor. It's just so classic when prior to having Voltaire kill West, Loveless confides in Voltaire, "What I detest about violence is the noise that goes along with it." Voltaire decides to strangle West with a belt. It's also priceless when Loveless ogles Voltaire reading a book, and when he finds out he's reading "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" he gruntingly frowns causing Voltaire to embarrassingly stop reading.
"It was cute the way that Gordon went to West and described Voltaire's return," Kiel recalls, "It was something like, "Who's the biggest, strongest man you know?" West says, "Voltaire." Gordon nods saying, "That's rights and now he can talk." (laughs) I thought they handled that nicely."
And what were Voltaire's first words in "TNot Whirring Death?" "No, I hurt you."
According to Kiel he was never invited back to do another Voltaire again perhaps because he stood up for demanding dialogue or maybe because the studio didn't want him back. However, I point out that they did in fact bring him back to play the character of Demis, in "TNot Simian Terror." Demis was the fourth of a set of quadruplet sons belonging to Senator Buckley but he was different and ran with the gorillas. Once again he was able to get a speaking part unlike his simian friend that only grunted. Kiel laughed, "The guy in the gorilla suit used to be famous but then he was only known for his gorilla characters. It taught me a further lesson about vying for talking parts.
"I really like this story. It's a classic story line, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. I did this film EEGAH, a similar story line, a giant misunderstood monster character. It's also a classic story of prejudice and about someone discarding a child because of physical characteristics and the lesson is that they are all still people. It was a bigger than life characterization but at the same time a metaphor and maybe more than just entertainment."
When I ask if it is something he had to endure as a child he casually replies that for him it was just the opposite. He was the most popular kid in school, had a standup comedy routine poking fun at himself and that he used to belong to a car club called "The Loafers" where they would go around school with the leather jackets and look mean and scary.
One of the show's authentic moments is when Demis sneaks into the old nursery and finds his old wind-up, musical teddy bear, a scene that today sticks out in his mind. "It was like the teddy bear I never had while I was checking out all the things that my brothers had. The representation of the childhood I didn't have. So when I picked up that bear, I needed to have that love of someone giving you that bear, so then I was jealous and angry at my brothers, so when one stepped in at that time I just went crazy. When you deal with human emotions, people can identify with that."
Kiel openly admits that THE WILD, WILD WEST offered him some of his more significant roles in a successful career of more than 60 TV shows and 2 dozen films. His fondest memories of the show?
"From the first show I did, the lead lady Leslie Parrish, I remember she was really nice lady and there was some cat that had kittens on the sound stage and she gathered them up and took the kittens home and then found homes for them all. And when I found out that Bob Conrad had arranged so quickly to have them rewrite the script with lines for me."
In conclusion Kiel wished to say one thing. "I'm not dead." A moment of silence later he continues, "A lot of people think that I have died. Every time a big actor dies like Andre the Giant, Jack Cassidy or the most recent Fred Gywnne, everyone thinks it's me. I'm still alive."
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