Sacha Gervasi’s HBO film chronicles a wild encounter with Hervé Villechaize, just days before the Fantasy Island actor committed suicide in 1993.
In 1993, Sacha Gervasi was working as a journalist in London when he received what would become the strangest—and most meaningful—assignment of his life: an interview with Hervé Villechaize. Gervasi was supposed to crank out a 500-word “Where Are They Now?”–style blurb about the French actor, perhaps best known for playing evil henchman Nick Nack in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun. But it had been about a decade since Villechaize was fired from his last high-profile job—the TV series Fantasy Island,where he played sidekick Tattoo—after demanding equal pay to his co-star, Ricardo Montalbán. And aside from the occasional Geraldo appearance or odd Dunkin’ Donuts commercial, Villechaize’s career had dried up.
Gervasi did not expect much from the interview.
The reporter dutifully flew to Los Angeles, and met Villechaize for what was supposed to be a quick conversation at a West Hollywood restaurant. Gervasi ran through his questions and collected a few quotes, before packing up his recorder and notebook—eager to get to a more exciting interview on his itinerary. But Villechaize was not finished talking.“I had seen some rapid movement [out of the corner of my eye],” remembered Gervasi during a conversation about My Dinner with Hervé, a touching tribute to his misunderstood interview subject starring Peter Dinklage as Villechaize and Jamie Dornan as Gervasi’s proxy. The film, written and directed by Gervasi, premieres October 20—twenty-five years after Gervasi was rushing to leave that fateful interview.
When Gervasi turned around, having packed his bag, “Hervé was standing there pointing a lock knife at my throat. He said, ‘Listen, you’ve written the story before you got here. You just wanted Tattoo stories and Man with the Golden Gun stories. So I’ve told you all the bullshit. Do you want to hear the real story of my life?’”
Gervasi had not given Villechaize’s story much thought. But, recalled Gervasi, “There was something about the look in his eye which was so intriguing and compelling and strange. When he pulled the knife, obviously it was a sort of coup de théâtre—about getting my attention. It was about puncturing this sort of bubble of judgment that I had walked in with. . . . To suddenly be presented with this living and breathing human being who was just fully aware of his being stereotyped by the press as a punch line was quite something.”
“There was an almost medieval intolerance for people who were different at that time,” said Gervasi of Villechaize’s coming-of-age years in 1950s France. “His brother, Patrick, told me that [Hervé] would walk down the street and just be kicked in the head for being different.” After a promising start as a painter—he became the youngest artist to have his work shown in the Museum of Paris—Villechaize changed course at his father’s suggestion.
“His father said, ‘Go where the freaks go. Go to New York,’” explained Gervasi. “So he was sent there and became a part of that burgeoning avant-garde sort of Greenwich Village theater culture. He became a character. He would wear a poncho and smoke cigarillos—and based his new persona on the Man with No Name, having learned English watching Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood and John Wayne on TV. As he was telling me this story, I was thinking. ‘My god, there’s so much more to him than this punch line of [his Fantasy Island character’s tag line] ‘Da plane! Da plane!’ . . . He is a tremendously complex, contradictory, brave, crazy, hilarious, wonderful, dangerous person. He was the most original person I think I’d ever met, so I promised him that I would one day tell his story.”
Gervasi returned to London with 12 hours’ worth of cassette tapes from his time with Villechaize. About a week later—on Sunday, September 4, 1993, at around 5:36 P.M.—the phone in Gervasi’s Clapham flat rang.
“It was Kathy Self, who was Hervé’s real-life girlfriend. She called to say that Hervé had committed suicide just a few hours before,” said Gervasi. “I spontaneously got incredibly emotional. I started listening back to the tapes and I realized that he knew he was going to do it. For some random reason, he just grabbed onto whatever journalist passed by and poured his guts out to me in literally the final week of his life. He’d entrusted me with his story and, in effect, I was his suicide note.”
Taking his promise seriously, Gervasi wrote a piece that he felt properly honored Villechaize—a complex human whom Hollywood essentially dismissed as a punch line or sight gag. When the paper watered down his draft, Gervasi decided to tell Villechaize’s story in another medium—and wrote his first script, a 34-page screenplay about his evening with the actor.
After seeing Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent and onstage in Richard III, Gervasi became convinced that “Peter was the only actor who could play the part of Hervé.” After Gervais shared his story with Dinklage about 15 years ago, the actor agreed to star—and My Dinner with Hervé became their joint passion project. A few years ago, the duo was finally about to give up on getting My Dinner with Hervé made. But Dinklage’s Game of Thrones stardom ended up being the currency they needed, and HBO agreed to make the movie.
The filmmaking process was strange for Gervasi—who insisted on filming the final scenes inside the Universal Sheraton, the actual hotel where Gervasi and Villechaize had their last meeting.
“You can imagine how surreal it was to be sitting on the steps in the actual place where the meeting with Hervé had happened,” said Gervasi. “I’m looking at my two actors, one portraying a version of me and Peter Dinklage playing Hervé, exactly where it happened.” Though the film is slightly dramatized—Dinklage and Dornan’s characters spend one raucous evening together instead of three meetings—Gervasi insists that the final 20 or 30 minutes of the film, including the goodbye between reporter and interview subject, play out just as they did in real life.
“He tugged at my sleeve and he pulled me down so that our faces were side by side,” recalled Gervasi. “He looked me in the eye. He had such pain and defiance with tears in his eyes and he said, ‘Tell them, I regret nothing.’”
And in My Dinner with Hervé, Gervasi conveys that exact message.