Rants & Raves

By Lynne Murray

What do people assume when they see a fat man? An evil genius? An ineffectual schlub? Someone who is annoying or threatening because he takes up too much space? The way that fat actors are cast gives us a hint of some recent stereotypes.

For starters, there are not that many fat actors working in television and films. I have read more than one interview that made a point of the confusion between the subject of this piece, Wayne Knight, who played Newman on Seinfeld and now policeman Don Orville on Third Rock From the Sun, and formerly fat (recently very reduced) Stephen Furst, who played Vir in Babylon 5 and "Flounder" in Animal House. The prejudice is so ingrained that no one who asks the question seems to get that "they all look alike" is the most primitive type of bigotry. It carries the hidden statement that "the guy was fat, that's all I noticed."

This kind of thinking is so common that I was delightfully surprised to see how creatively NBC's Third Rock From the Sun uses Wayne Knight, as the love interest of the conventionally gorgeous Kristen Johnston (who also demonstrates her comic gifts by almost literally exploding the "beautiful bombshell" stereotype in her portrayal of Sally).

As a mild-mannered policeman in a sleepy college town, Knight's Officer Don Orville has Walter Mitty fantasies of heroism. He can scarcely believe his good fortune in finding a beautiful girlfriend who shares his fantasy of himself. Don spouts a line of hard-boiled cop talk that contrasts hilariously with the small law enforcement reality. The joke is that because Sally is a space alien security officer in the guise of a gorgeous young woman, she accepts everything Don says, while he is constantly waiting for her to "wise up" and realize she could find a more conventionally handsome and successful man.

Those who have observed more of Wayne Knight's work on Seinfeld tell me that his character sometimes played the ladies' man in that series. So far, watching it in reruns, I haven't seen an episode like that—and if he did I would be willing to bet that Newman's romantic success would be shown as somehow a humiliation for one of the other characters. Newman appears to be an "anti-hero" in the villainous sense that his purpose in the series is to foil the hero. In the episodes I have seen, Newman is shown primarily as an anti-social, opportunistic, and unbalanced postal worker, who gets his kicks from eating, sleeping and making trouble for Jerry Seinfeld.

Recently Knight has portrayed "The Flu Bug" in a witty ad campaign for an anti-flu prescription drug. Knight plays The Flu Bug as a persistent, annoying, unwanted guest, who barges into people's homes and settles down for an extended stay, making everyone miserable and sadistically laughing at his host's discomfort when they offer up tepid remedies such as soup. There is a definite parallel with the intrusive Newman character, who was more irritating than dangerous, but who enjoyed being a thorn in the hero's side.

Another notable Knight role that illuminated the negative stereotype of the fat man was the conniving "dinosaur bait" computer programmer Dennis Nedry in Jurassic Park. From his computer desk heaped with empty junk food wrappers, to his foolish endangering of everyone's lives by turning off the security systems during his daring theft, Nedry embodies every cliché of the bumbling fat villain. The character is not even allowed the dignity of his evil intelligence, but dies a buffoon due to ignorantly underestimating his dinosaur rivals. The only character who comes off worse in Jurassic Park is the lawyer. Lawyers and fat men—the guys you love to hate.

Unlike lawyers, who at least are villianized because of shark-like behavior, the fat man is seen as evil simply because of his appearance, in the grand old tradition of race prejudice. Because he is fat, a whole range of behaviors are assumed—greed, incompetence, sloppiness, cowardice. This sort of stereotype spreads its ugliness into the real world where it offers a role model to juvenile delinquents, who routinely verbally and even physically attack fat children-while adults in charge demonstrate their own prejudice by turning a blind eye. There are document recent cases of fat children dropping out even of junior high school, or in extreme cases committing suicide to escape from the trap of constant harassment.

The shallowness and viciousness of stereotypes makes the Don Orville character in Third Rock even more interesting because Knight and the series writers have looked deeper into what makes Officer Don tick.

There is a streak of opportunism in Don that stems from his fear that at any moment Sally will come to her senses about how attractive she is and he is not. He endures wildly bizarre behavior from Sally, not knowing that she is an alien in a human body. Early in his relationship with her, he confides in a fellow policeman that he knows she's totally insane but he puts up with it because "she's got legs up to her neck." Knight plays the part as a lonely man who will suffer almost anything in order to keep his incredibly attractive girlfriend. Such things do exist in real life.

I have known a few couples where one partner was considered conspicuously more attractive than the other. The partner considered less attractive had to, in the eloquent words of Richard Pryor, "Do extra stuff." Clearly he or she was terrified that the relationship would fall apart at any moment. Fat can be a factor in such an "unbalanced" relationship, although far from the only possible factor. This is the seed of the "fat girls are easy because they're desperate" line of locker room talk, which deserves an essay all on its own. Perhaps when the next Nutty Professor movie comes out, we can also consider whether "fat guys are easy" is a fair statement.

The irony here is that policeman Don is shown as a wonderful person—kind, loyal, patient and loving. If it wasn't that he is short and fat and not-a-pretty-face, no one would think to ask why he wouldn't deserve to be happy in a relationship. But the tyranny of the conventionally beautiful girl is such that no one expects Sally to admire Don, to be with him, or to stay with him. When she does, it is continually amusing and amazing to everyone (except the aliens, who are seeing something the earthlings cannot seem to see).

What I hope to see is more of Wayne Knight, and "life-sized" actors like him, in roles that offer some depth and complexity.


© Lynne Murray