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Hollywood Heights: The Ups, Downs And In-Betweens

Hollywood can make any actor look imposing by shooting from a low angle or building sets with short door frames. But the fact is that we want our heroes big and our villains bigger, and the average male actor is about the same size as the average American male — roughly 5 foot 9 1/2. And some very "big" stars have been a good deal less than that.

Yoda's a special case, obviously, but action-movie heroes often loom larger onscreen than they do in person. Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson and even The Governator have all been cited by journalists as being more diminutive in the flesh than expected — none comes even close to 6 feet.

Alan Ladd, who sat plenty tall in the saddle in Shane, was later cast as a romantic partner for Sophia Loren, who's barely 5 foot 8, and their director had to dig a trench for her to walk in when they were arm-in-arm, so she wouldn't tower over him.

Cruise, who is reportedly 5 foot 7 in person, plays a 6-foot-5 homicide cop in <em>Jack Reacher</em>.
Karen Ballard / Paramount
Cruise, who is reportedly 5 foot 7 in person, plays a 6-foot-5 homicide cop in Jack Reacher.

In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart needed an extra cushion in a couch scene to keep audiences from noticing he was shorter than Ingrid Bergman. And in another film, Bogie reportedly set something of a Hollywood record by wearing 5-inch elevator shoes.

Some actresses, meanwhile, must try to be short, which is tough when you're a member of the 6-foot club: Sigourney Weaver, Brooke Shields, and Glee's Jane Lynch. Uma Thurman and Nicole Kidman are right up there with them.

So who plays 6-footer Julia Child in the movies? Meryl Streep, who is barely 5 foot 6 but is a towering talent. Which gives the lie to this whole notion, really. We associate height with strength, power, dominance ... and of course, height has very little to do with any of those things. What it does have to do with is how we see relationships, and movie heroines are almost invariably expected to look up to their leading men.

Women over 5 foot 8 rarely get to wear heels in movies, though some of their leading men do. Cowboy boots give cowpokes an inch or two of a head start on mere mortals, and modified cowboy boots can do a lot more. Kirk Douglas reportedly wore pretty substantial lifts in his boots and was miffed one time when his buddy Burt Lancaster swiped them as a practical joke just before they had a scene together. Lancaster being a good half a head taller, the tech crew improvised and put Douglas on a box.

6-foot-4 actor John Wayne directs a scene for the Hollywood movie <em>The Alamo</em> in 1959. Wayne also portrays the reportedly 6-foot-tall Davy Crockett in the movie.
/ AP
6-foot-4 actor John Wayne directs a scene for the Hollywood movie The Alamo in 1959. Wayne also portrays the reportedly 6-foot-tall Davy Crockett in the movie.

Which is nothing compared with what the tech crew had to do with Lord of the Rings: Hobbits are about as diminutive as movie heroes get; they're dwarfed even by dwarves. But fantasy movies play to a different set of rules. They're about wish fulfillment, the triumph of the little guy who never thought he'd be a hero. That's a storyline that resonates in Hollywood, say some, because the entertainment business attracts so many people of slight stature.

The theory goes that to avoid being overlooked, shorter people learned early to present themselves, to be forceful and expressive. Folks who grow up taller might not feel the same need to do that. Just a theory, obviously. And happily, casting directors need all shapes and sizes, from 2-foot-8 Verne Troyer in the Austin Powers movies to 7-foot-3 Peter Mayhew in Star Wars.

A website called celebheights.com — one of many devoted to the topic, believe it or not — has assembled height records for more than 3,000 performers and reports that the average actor in Hollywood is 5 foot 10, and the average actress is 5 foot 5. And the average Oscar winners, wouldn't you know it, are a little taller: 5 foot 11 and 5 foot 5 1/2. Clearly unfair, as neither their shoes nor their careers need lifts.

How tall are they?

Celebrity heights, as reported in the press.

Leading Men (Average American male: 5 feet 9.5 inches)

Dolph Lundgren — 6 feet 5 inches
John Cleese — 6 feet 5 inches
Michael Clarke Duncan — 6 feet 5 inches
Vince Vaughn — 6 feet 5 inches
Clint Eastwood — 6 feet 4 inches
Jimmy Stewart — 6 feet 3 inches
Bill Murray — 6 feet 1.5 inches
Gene Hackman — 6 feet 2 inches
James Earl Jones — 6 feet 1 inch
Elvis Presley — 5 feet 11.75 inches
Brad Pitt — 5 feet 11 inches
Jamie Foxx — 5 feet 9 inches
Fred Astaire — 5 feet 9 inches
Antonio Banderas — 5 feet 8.5 inches
Anthony Hopkins — 5 feet 8.5 inches
Ryan Philippe — 5 feet 8.5 inches
Humphrey Bogart — 5 feet 8 inches
Robert Downey Jr. — 5 feet 8 inches
Stan Laurel — 5 feet 8 inches
Tom Cruise — 5 feet 7.75 inches
Martin Short — 5 feet 6.5 inches
Woody Allen — 5 feet 6 inches
Jack Black — 5 feet 6 inches
Al Pacino — 5 feet 6 inches
Daniel Radcliffe — 5 feet 6 inches
Bono — 5 feet 6 inches
Joe Pesci — 5 feet 4 inches
James Cagney — 5 feet 4 inches
Seth Green — 5 feet 3 inches
Danny DeVito — 4 feet 10 inches
Gary Coleman — 4 feet 7 inches
Verne Troyer — 2 feet 8 inches

Leading Ladies (Average American female: 5 feet 4 inches)

Uma Thurman — 6 feet 0 inches
Brooke Shields — 6 feet 0 inches
Jane Lynch — 6 feet 0 inches
Nicole Kidman — 5 feet 11 inches
Tilda Swinton — 5 feet 10.5 inches
Katie Holmes — 5 feet 9 inches
Julia Roberts — 5 feet 10 inches
Cameron Diaz — 5 feet 9 inches
Maggie Gyllenhaal — 5 feet 9 inches
Gwyneth Paltrow — 5 feet 9 inches
Angelina Jolie — 5 feet 6.5 inches
Marilyn Monroe — 5 feet 5.5 inches
Gina Lollobrigida — 5 feet 5 inches
Glenn Close — 5 feet 4 inches
Natalie Portman — 5 feet 3 inches
Sally Field — 5 feet 3 inches
Reese Witherspoon — 5 feet 3 inches
Jodie Foster — 5 feet 3 inches
Elizabeth Taylor — 5 feet 2 inches
Lindsay Lohan — 5 feet 2 inches
Holly Hunter — 5 feet 2 inches
Bette Midler — 5 feet 1 inches
Christina Ricci — 5 feet 1 inches
Judi Dench — 5 feet 1 inches
Dolly Parton — 5 feet 0 inches
Judy Garland — 4 feet 11 inches
Zelda Rubinstein — 4 feet 3 inches

All of the above should be taken with a grain of salt, because, you know, vanity.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.