It is a hot, humid day in the Dominican Republic as we wait for one of the world’s smallest men to arrive. He is Nelson de la Rosa, a 28-inch, 22-pound actor who holds his own with one of the world’s largest men, Marlon Brando, in the recent remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau.
De la Rosa, 28, plays Majai, the mad doctor’s doting son and faithful attendant, one of the beast-people spawned in creepy genetic experiments on the island. De la Rosa — who once danced for money outside hotels in his native Santo Domingo and appears on the daily local TV show La Opcion de las Doce, where he acts in comedy sketches — was hired as an extra on the film until Brando met him and created a special role for him. It was Brando’s idea to dress him in miniature versions of the flowing Allan Carr-like caftans and turbans that Brando wore. ”Marlon loved him from the moment he met him,” says director John Frankenheimer. ”So did I.”
It’s not hard to see why. ”Hasta la vista, baby!” de la Rosa calls out merrily in a Schwarzeneggeresque accent as he walks into the Hotel Sheraton and bellboys crowd around him. De la Rosa is accompanied by his manager, Manolo Tejeda; his 17-year-old girlfriend, Jennifer; Silveria Lama, the popular blond star of the TV show on which he appears; his sister; his brother; and various relatives and friends.
De la Rosa is in a good mood — for the moment. This will change, partly because he’s tired after having flown up from a performance in Argentina, partly because de la Rosa is as mercurial as any movie star five times his size. At times he is captivatingly entertaining; a second later he may storm off in a huff. ”Nelson doesn’t like to waste time,” says Tejeda nervously as the interview begins and de la Rosa, who speaks only Spanish, jumps up on his lap. ”You should get right to the point.”
Getting to the point when it comes to de la Rosa is easier said than done. He grew up in the slums of Santo Domingo — where he still lives with his mother, his four (all normal-size) siblings, and a niece and nephew in a three-room stucco shack. De la Rosa bought the house for his mother with his Moreau earnings but still lives in relative poverty, since he earns so little on local TV. (His manager won’t reveal his income.) At birth, according to his mother, Concepcion, 48, he was smaller than the palm of her hand. He has a high, squeaky voice. He also has a joint ailment that has slightly deformed his hands. ”We took him to many doctors,” says Concepcion, sitting in her cramped living room, swatting flies. ”But nobody knew what was wrong. So we just didn’t worry about it.” (According to the Billy Barty Foundation, there are 200 kinds of dwarfism, and de la Rosa’s condition remains a mystery.)
De la Rosa left school after third grade, began performing on the streets of Santo Domingo for change, and appeared in Latin American freak shows, gigs booked for him by a succession of short-lived ”managers.” He made the news briefly in 1990 in Miami when one so-called manager accused another of abducting him for a day, though it all proved to be a misunderstanding. ”People think I’m like a baby,” says de la Rosa, whose tiny stature belies a formidable will. ”They try to take advantage of me.”