Trusty Rusty

You might not drop your shopping if you saw him in Tescos, but Rusty Goffe has appeared in some of the biggest films of all time, including Star Wars and Harry Potter. And he has appeared in an incredible 36 productions of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs! Style writer Karen Werner paid him a visit at his home in Leighton Buzzard...

"Play dead for the Queen!" bellows Rusty, and Tommy the Golden Retriever sinks gracefully to the floor and bares his fluffy tummy in return for a chocolate drop.

This truly is a talented household then. On the sofa sit actor Rusty Goffe's two sons, 11-year-old Jack and 15-year-old Ben, currently starring with their dad in this year's glitzy panto in High Wycombe. They are keeping a family tradition alive - it is showbiz veteran Rusty's 36th season as one of the seven dwarves in Snow White and he is still characteristically enthusiastic about the role – and his co-stars.

"Shane Lynch, who pays the prince, is just fabulous," he said. "He comes to our room between shows and plays football in the corridor with the boys. It is a lovely family atmosphere."

This is the second year that Rusty has shared the stage with Anita Dobson and he is bursting with praise for the former Eastenders star.

"I have been in showbusiness for almost 40 years and Anita is one of the greatest actors I have ever worked with in my life," said Rusty. "She is a professional to the end of her fingernails. She plays the Wicked Queen and is evil – but so funny."

Panto is a way of life for Leighton Buzzard's own small film star, but Rusty has also appeared in some of the most memorable movies ever made.

He had three roles in the original Star Wars, played an Oompah Loompah in the classic Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, popped up in two of the Harry Potter movies and has worked on scores of other films too.

Not bad for a guy who, lured by the bright lights of showbiz, left school at 15.

"I lived in Herne Bay as a child and there was a bandstand where talent contests were held," explains Rusty. "I used to get up and play the piano and all the old dears used to say 'bless him' and I would get first prize! I ended up joining the band show on tour and was offered my first panto at 16. It was quite exciting and everything snowballed from there."

Panto work and summer seasons were followed by the call to be an Oompah Loompah, and a five week shoot in Munich. Three months later, cast and crew were still there, putting the finishing touches to the scrumptious film which would delight adults and children for generations.

"Bob Fosse wasn't very happy because he was waiting to get into that studio with Liza Minelli, to shoot Cabaret!" recalls Rusty. "But we were having a great time. I loved it."

At a recent reunion in the States, Rusty caught up with some of the stars of the film and discovered that Charlie is now a cattle vet in upstate New York, Violet Beauregard is a divorced housewife living in Iowa, Verruca Salt is an actress doing voiceovers and the pompous Augustus Gloop is a tax inspector!

There is one thrilling momento of the movie, a prop that would make any child's heart beat faster. I sit, frozen, as Ben is sent on a mission to a secret location upstairs to fetch….the Golden Ticket, the actual Golden Ticket unwrapped by a disbelieving Charlie, the precious, priceless ticket which gave him access to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.

Ben hands the pristine ticket, slightly folded where it hugged that chocolate bar, to his dad, who passes it, perilously close to Tommy the Retriever's nose, to me. Wow. It's a piece of cinematic history, in my hand.

"I have been offered $5,000 for it in America - but to me it's priceless," said Rusty, placing the ticket carefully on the sideboard, out of reach of Tommy's moist nose.

The extravagantly imaginative director Tim Burton is currently working on a remake of the classic film although according to Rusty, there are concepts and ideas from the original which are copywrited, which might make things tricky.

"I have heard they have spent a fortune teaching squirrels to break nuts, like in the original book," said Rusty. "They have decided to just cast one small guy, who's not even a dwarf, and they are cloning him to make thousands of Oompah Loompahs.

"I'll be interested to see how it looks," added Rusty. "It was the appeal of the original little people that made the Oompah Loompahs I think. There were nine guys and one girl – and, sadly, only three of us are left alive."

At the time, in 1970, there were only around seven dwarf actors in the UK but with the birth of Star Wars, scores of small people were drawn to the acting profession.

"George Lucas advertised for Ewoks and Jawars and people stupidly gave up their jobs to go into showbiz," recalls Rusty. "They thought it would be fun, and easy. On the film Willow, 471 dwarf actors were used but now there is just not the work for them. The majority are accidents of birth – they have no formal training – and when they had finished running around in a suit for Star Wars, they found the only thing they could do is be one of the seven (dwarves]."

The stellar success of Star Wars surprised Rusty as much as anyone. He was signed up to play a Jawa and a Gonk Droid but ended up playing a rat-like creature in the caf scene after the original actress overheated in her costume and fainted.

"George Lucas said, 'Rusty, can you put this dress on?' and I did," laughs Rusty. "It was just supposed to be a fun movie on a low budget but it was the right time and the right place. They never knew how big it was going to be – but it took off. That opening scene, everybody remembers it. It was a really good film."

Rusty turned down the chance to be an Ewok in the follow-up, The Empire Strikes Back, as he had secured a part in A History Of The World, Part I, with Mel Brooks. "It was fun to work with him, he is the master," he said.

But Star Wars is still part of his life and he regularly travels to America to guest at Star Wars conventions, with mega stars including Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia. Closer to home, he has appeared at the massive Collectormania event at the centre:mk, signing autographs for thousands of over-excited fans of the sci-fi classic.

Working life is hard for any actor and although Rusty has been lucky enough to find regular acting roles, he has also found time to get involved in running a theatre school in Leighton Buzzard, with his wife Sarah. The couple have seen students go on to great success – one is currently associate choreographer on the Broadway production of The Producers and Rusty and Sarah have been out to New York to see the show. But three years ago, they sold the school and Sarah now teaches on a freelance basis at the famous Italia Conte School in London. Rusty is keeping busy too and has recently been filming an exciting new children's programme for CBBC, called 'Stupid'.

"I play a gremlin butler called Goober," explains Rusty. "His master, King Stupid, makes people do stupid things –walk into lampposts for example! We live in a castle in the sky and I can't be seen in the mortal world, or my tail catches fire! I think it is really going to take off – it is very rude and kids will love it."

It is clear that Rusty loves his job and is passionate about acting. His size has helped him secure parts in some fabulous movies over the years, but does it limit his career too?

"I would like to do a 'normal' role on a movie," he mused. "It doesn't really frustrate me but people do typecast little guys and think we can only do things in masks and costumes.

"I would like to do a more serious role and find a script that didn't look down on the dwarf, one with no hint of the usual jokes. Really, we can see it is a little person – you don't need to ridicule him on film."