Former Ewok Warwick Davis, England's Little Big Man, Takes a Giant Step from Wicket to Willow

updated 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As the eponymous hero of George Lucas' fantasy adventure Willow, said to have cost nearly $40 million, Warwick Davis performs physical feats that might drive Arnold Schwarzenegger back to his barbells. At one point, while burdened with the weight of a squirming princess, Warwick must mount a beast that towers above him.

So what if the beast is a horse and the princess a mere 13-lb. baby? Warwick stands just 3'4", almost two feet shorter than his steed, and, at 70 lbs., is not much heavier than the newborn he rescues. "They used a lot of babies, really," says Davis, "and all their mothers were standing around, very anxious. I was nervous because I was thinking, 'I can't lift them. It's too much.' " As for the horses—Davis grimaces. "They're big. I was a bit afraid, and I hope it doesn't show on film."

He needn't worry. While Willow weeps under some crushing early reviews, Davis has been singled out as the movie's most compelling character. An achievement for any 18-year-old actor, the attention is particularly remarkable in the case of this British teenager. Born with a rare condition called achondroplasia, he was destined to grow into an adult whose arms and legs are dwarfed. The son of insurance agent Ashley, 44, and part-time secretary Sue Davis, 42, Warwick doesn't remember when he first knew he was different, but, he says, "I don't think it came as a shock." His mother confirms that acceptance. "I was waiting for him to ask, 'Why aren't I growing?' But he never did," she says. "We are very, very lucky."

Nurtured by a family who refused to allow his height to become a handicap, Davis went from spontaneous dress-up play at 3 to formal acting lessons at 7 to a feature role in George (Star Wars) Lucas' Return of the Jedi at 11. The Jedi break came when his grandmother told him of a radio ad she'd heard saying Lucasfilm was looking for actors no more than four feet tall. Along with 40 others, Davis landed a job as one of the Ewoks. Then, when fellow Ewok Kenny Baker (Star Wars' R2-D2) fell ill after eating a bad chili dog, Davis got an even bigger break: replacing Baker as the frightened lead Ewok, Wicket, in a tender scene with Carrie Fisher. "My face is acting away," Davis jokes about the role. "You just can't see it through the mask." As Wicket, Warwick later appeared in two top-rated TV movies, 1984's The Ewok Adventure and 1985's Ewoks: Battle for Endor. What excited Davis most about Willow was the chance "to act rather than just be a body in a fur costume."

Despite his success, Warwick still lives with his parents and his normal-size 14-year-old sister, Kim, in a three-bedroom house in London's commuter belt. He does have his own car—a Mini Mayfair Saloon—with a raised driver's seat so he can see above the dashboard. Inside the house, however, only a bathroom fixture and a light switch have been altered. "We brought him up the same as everyone else," says Sue. Warwick even attended the neighborhood school, not a special one, and is grateful for the experience. Still, his mother does recall one encounter with bullies. "Warwick was shut into a room by some boys," she says, "and he couldn't reach the door handle. But he had two friends who sorted that out."

Now he's forging new friendships among the small people in his profession—with his Willow stand-in, Mike Ballan, and his stuntman, Robert Gillibrand. The three occasionally go bowling. "When we walk in," says Davis, blue-gray eyes twinkling, "we look a right spectacle."

Out in the world, Warwick's humor slices through many situations. "I have to sort of whack people in the knee-caps to get through crowds," he says. On the other hand, he once inched out of a parking ticket by pleading that he was too short to reach the meter.

When he talks of the future, Davis, who has a normal life expectancy, displays the scattered exuberance of any teen. He mentions his yen for race car driving and then, pointing to the bedroom wardrobe he uses as a film editing facility, speaks earnestly of becoming a director. Warwick's investment of $24,000 in video equipment has yielded several short features and two top prizes from the Surrey Film Festival.

It's unlikely he'll let go of the actor's dream altogether though. It is also unlikely he will develop the actor's ego. "He works hard and plays hard," says his father, "but he doesn't let the praise go to his head." Instead he laughs at it. Warwick has plastered his bedroom with Jedi posters and hung Willow's magical wand. There's also a dummy magazine cover, featuring himself wearing sunglasses and holding a fistful of cash.

—Susan Toepfer, with Jonathan Cooper in London

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