Felix Silla, an actor and stuntman active in the industry since the early 1960s, succumbed to cancer at the age of 84, on April 16th, 2021 after a lengthy battle. The actor is best known for playing the hirsute Cousin Itt on TV’s “The Addams Family” (1964-1966) as well as the robot companion “Twiki” to “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” (1979-1981). While those were arguably his most famous roles, they scratched the surface of Silla’s long and varied career.
Born in a small village near Rome, Silla was a little person determined to leave a big mark on the entertainment industry—and he most certainly did, with roles (credited and uncredited) in productions ranging from 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” to Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” (1992). As both an actor and stuntman, he was up for just about any assignment given.
Silla’s big breakout role came in 1964 as the aforementioned “Cousin Itt” on TV’s “The Addams Family.” His dialogue was dubbed in as a collection of nonsensical gibberish. This was one of many roles where Silla would bring a character’s body to life while another actor would supply the vocalizations. Silla would later tell me that he was used to this sort of thing, especially as a stunt performer (often doubling for child actors).
At the age of 30, Silla had an uncredited role as a very young gorilla child during the funeral scene in the original “Planet of the Apes” (1968). Of course, the vocals for the ape ‘child’ were dubbed in by a kid, since no child that age would’ve been able to endure the long hours of makeup wearing John Chamber’s Oscar-winning ape prosthetics. Silla would play other ape children in the movie series, as well as the short-lived 1974 live-action TV spinoff (the pilot episode, “Escape From Tomorrow”).
In the late 1970s, science fiction was really big at the box office with “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Suddenly, Silla found himself playing a few aliens and robots. In the three hour pilot of 1978’s “Battlestar Galactica,” Felix doubled for child actor Noah Hathaway as “Boxey” and appeared in the pilot’s epilogue as the dazzling “IL-series” Cylon, “Lucifer,” a recurring role he would play throughout the series (with the dubbed voice of “Lost in Space” actor Jonathan Harris).
Note: The Battlestar Galactica pilot’s theatrical release omitted the epilogue featuring the introduction of Lucifer, which was restored to the home video release of the TV series.
While the character of Lucifer (named after the brightest angel who challenges God in religious mythology) appeared to be at eye-level height with other actors such as John Colicos (“Baltar”), the rugged Silla actually had to wear a large, uncomfortable rig atop his shoulders that added considerable height, as well as an artificial ‘light bulb’ head, to his diminutive form.
In addition to horror movies such as the 1973 TV horror movie “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” as well as stunt work in 1982’s “Poltergeist” and 1979’s, “The Brood,” another big break for Silla came with writer/producer Glen Larson’s 1979 revival of “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.” 1979’s “Buck Rogers” was a disco-era reworking of Philip Francis Nowlan’s comic strip as well as well as the 1939 Buster Crabbe serials (Crabbe himself would cameo in the series’ second episode).
Larson, a writer-producer known for his frequent tendency to unashamedly (*ahem*) borrow trending ideas, immediately cashed in on the popularity of Star Wars androids R2-D2 and C3PO by creating the new short-statured ambu-quad robot “Twiki” (voiced by the iconic Mel Blanc for most of the series’ run). Twiki was assigned to recent arrival Buck (Gil Gerard), quickly becoming the hero’s sidekick on many adventures. I still remember seeing “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” in the summer of 1979 as a theatrical release, and later enjoying the subsequent TV series. Felix Silla quickly became a known name to my then-12 year old self. “Buck Rogers” was tongue-in-cheek adolescent adventure, with just enough self-awareness to wink at older audiences.
In addition to Twiki, Silla would also appear as another character in the special two-hour episode of the second season of “Buck Rogers” called “Journey To Oasis”, which costarred Star Trek veteran Mark Lenard. Silla played a mysterious blue gnome named “Odee-X”, who aided a crash-landed Buck and company with clues hidden in riddles. While the character looked like some kind of diabolical Smurf, his riddling was clearly meant to recall the tricksterish Jedi master “Yoda” from “The Empire Strikes Back”—the Star Wars sequel came out the previous summer and Yoda was huge. Despite layers of blue makeup, a white wig and facial prosthetics, Silla’s appearance as Odee-X was the closest the actor ever got to showing his actual face on the series.
Silla would later appear in the original Star Wars trilogy as one of the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi” (1983) and would even help writer/director/comic-genius Mel Brooks spoof George Lucas’ space saga (with Lucas’ blessing) in 1987’s “Spaceballs,” as one of the desert-dwelling Dinks. My wife and I recently enjoyed “Spaceballs” on an at-home movie night, and it still holds up, as do most of Mel Brooks’ movies.
Speaking of spoofs, the performer/stuntman would also appear as an alien set to abduct put-upon shoe salesman Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill) in a 1990 episode of the infamously raunchy Fox sitcom “Married With Children.” In 1992, Silla would enter the superhero movie fray with a role as an oversized emperor penguin working alongside “the” Penguin himself (fellow short-statured actor Danny DeVito).
A staple at sci-fi/fantasy/horror conventions, I finally had the chance to briefly meet and chat with Silla in Las Vegas at the annual Star Trek convention in 2018, where he was remembered for playing one of the “Talosians” in the original 1964 Star Trek pilot “The Cage.” I came to his table at the convention and made a donation to his children’s charity (as one does) and we talked for a few moments. I didn’t ask for an autograph, but I remember asking him about the comfort of the Twiki costume, and he gave sort of a nonchalant shrug, and answered with a still audible Italian accent that he just “got used to it.” At the time, I didn’t think to discuss the many other roles in the actor’s diverse career, and that’s a major regret on my part. Silla was such as regular at conventions, I always assumed I’d get another chance to talk with him again someday. Sadly, that chance will never come.
Rest in peace, Felix Silla (1937-2021), and thank you for all the wonderfully weird memories from my strange childhood. You’ll be missed.