Weston Biggerstaff (actor)
Biggerstaff was born Weston Marion Biggerstaff in Orange County, California to Rachel and Ethan Fletcher Biggerstaff on 11th July 1941. As a child he was beset by the rare medical condition, Prolangatus Pedias, or ‘squid foot’ as it is more commonly known, which causes an abnormal lengthening of the toes. Doctors employed the now discredited practice of Chinese Foot Binding to control the growth, but this only led to him being teased relentlessly by the other schoolchildren who called him ‘Li’l Chiney Girl.’ It was in the school production of South Pacific, however, that he suddenly shone forth as a talented dancer, thanks in part to the extra balance provided by his abnormally long toes. Biggerstaff left school as a star and went directly into paid engagements at the age of twelve.
His career spans decades beginning with his appearance as a young Morris dancer among the chorus in Rufeld Ziegler’s That’s Morris Dancin’! (1954). Weston’s unusual dancing style (caused by his Squid Foot) caught the eye of the producer, who cast him in the supporting lead part of cheeky street urchin, Gavin Poxley, in the film’s sequel, That’s More Morris Dancin’! (1955). However, the powerful RBMD (Regulatory Body of Morris Dancers) took to the streets in protest at Weston’s unorthodox style. The Times’ headline that day read, “The streets ring with bells of fury as RBMD stomps on Biggerstaff.” The resulting riots killed the That’s Morris Dancin’ franchise.
Biggerstaff refused to hang up his specially adapted dancing shoes and went on to star in screwball musical comedy Japs Ahoy! (1958), a low-brow romp following the misadventures of three Americans on shore leave who uncover a spy ring of Japanese prostitutes in a San Francisco brothel. It was a success on initial release, but through the years has slipped into infamy for its allegedly racist portrayal of the Japanese. Particularly notorious is the film’s signature tune, Yellow Fever. To this day, Biggerstaff is frequently targeted by the Japanese -American Anti-Defamation League for his unwillingness to apologize for the film’s use of racial stereotypes.
Biggerstaff remains defiant, stating:
Seafaring musicals were proving to be Biggerstaff’s lucky charm, and he jumped at the chance to play the lead part in World War II musical, Dancin’ Out of Dunkirk (1959). The finale called for Weston to tap dance furiously in the back of his rowboat, rousing the retreating British soldiers to a show-stopping, morale-boosting dance routine. The producers did not anticipate that the cast’s tap-dancing shoes would severely damage the hulls of the little, wooden boats, and the entire fleet sank. Ironically, Weston was rescued by a passing German freight vessel, but had to have his toes amputated due to hypothermia. That spelled the end of his dancing days.
Biggerstaff took this tragedy as an opportunity to explore different film genres and subsequently starred in 1959’s low-budget sci-fi horror film, The That!, in which he played Steve Ryder, a security guard stationed at a remote military library plagued by an unseen, monstrous menace. Though the audience never sees the monster, Weston’s blood-curdling cry of “The…the…the..thaaaaaaattt!" upon first encountering the off-screen beast set their imaginations ablaze. Word spread like wild fire with audiences walking away describing the monster (which they never saw) in evermore explicit, horrific detail. This subtle filmic ploy of the unseen menace made the film an unexpected hit.
A little known fact about the film is that Weston fluffed his famous line. The working title of the film was The Monster Behind the Book Stacks, in which Weston was merely meant to say, “Oh my goodness! It’s the horrible monster! Behind the book stacks!” However, having forgotten his lines, his awkward and sputtering exclamation of “The Thaaaattt!!” made the scene altogether more real, and had critics calling him the Brando of the B-Movie.
Modern-day critics, however, have a different take on the film, calling it a paranoid example of McCarthyism in which the unseen monster clearly represents the threat of Communism. Weston’s final act of destroying the monster in a pyre of burning books is considered by many sociologists to be a blatant call to crush America’s intellectuals. In fact, on close inspection of the scene, one can see the books on the surface of the pyre are, The Communist Manifesto, The Origin of the Species, and The Cat in the Hat.
According to Weston Biggerstaff:
Biggerstaff had officially become a star. The offers flowed in and he was soon a regular fixture of the Hollywood party scene. But films like Death Before Tea Time (1960) and Next Stop Sarajevo (1963) failed to match the hysteria of the The That! and the parts soon dried out.
When The That! producers went to visit him at his Orange County villa to discuss a sequel, they found him living in his drained pool, furnished only with a filthy mattress and fully-stocked trolley bar.
From Weston Biggerstaff's autobiography:
Allen Ungerwood and Rik Bohburger threw Weston a line and dragged him out of the pool. The trio went on to create the sequel to their 1950’s hit, The That! But it was 1969 and values had changed. The film would have to be sexier and more exotic, so they concluded that Weston would be a Space Security Guard stationed at a remote Girls-Only School on Venus, once again plagued by an unseen menace. The film would also have to be bigger, and that was their lightbulb moment. They would have not one That, but two Thats. Thus, Those Thats! was born. However, Weston’s cry of, “The…the…the…those thaaaaattt’s” was considered less blood-curdling, and more laughable by cynical audiences. It remains a cult hit with ironic college students.
The 1970’s relegated Biggerstaff to the disaster film genre, starring in films such as Tsunami! (1971), Avalanche! (1975), and Gnats! (1977). Biggerstaff played more or less the same character in all of them, a cynical and unscrupulous authority figure who fails to heed the hero’s warning of some impending doom, and is subsequently killed by whatever is in the title of the film.
By the early 80’s, Biggerstaff’s career had become little more than a series of maudlin caricatures on shows such as The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. His most lucrative role remains the character, Headmaster Bates, in the Nutballz series of films (I – IV), due to its near constant screening on late-night channels.
The steady money was not enough to fund Biggerstaff’s next big project, the construction his home in the hills of Montana. Biggerstaff went back to The That! cash cow and starred in the third in the trilogy: That Darn That! (1985).
That Darn That! presented another departure in style, this time gearing towards the popular suburban family comedy genre with Biggerstaff as the befuddled dad alongside Swoosy Kurtz’s practical mum, two kids (Ricky Shroeder, Justine Bateman), and their cute yet mischievous family pet, which was none other than the That. Producers blamed the film’s failure on Biggerstaff’s inability to play against an animatronic puppet, but Biggerstaff shot back by blaming it on the animatronic puppet’s inability to play against him.
Biggerstaff was to descend another notch after a disastrous appearance on Columbo as the villain of the piece. Drunk on set and annoyed by Peter Falk’s trademark badgering, Biggerstaff lost his temper and personally confessed to the fictional murder in the first scene before walking off set. No major studio would touch Biggerstaff after that incident.
It was Direct-to-Video after that with appearances in films including Tearjerker: the Dirt Loveless Story (1993) and Beast Sword 3: the Eye of Gonax (1990).
Biggerstaff made his directing debut in 1995 with Hair of the Dog, a film concerning an alcoholic lawyer trying to dry out who magically turns into a dog whenever he got the DT’s. Roger Ebert gave it an unprecedented “…two thumbs up in Weston Biggerstaff’s eyes.”
Undeterred by his inability to get his face on screen anymore, Biggerstaff is now lending his voice as narrator on nature documentary series, Tooth & Claw (in production). Biggerstaff’s narration is a far cry from the high-brow, well-researched narration from the likes of Sir David Attenborough.
Initial press reviews have criticized his loose style and, in particular, his lack of knowledge about animals, but Biggerstaff maintains, “Yes, I do sometimes stray from the script, but I improvise in order to give the footage a more natural feel. After all, does nature have a script?”
In 1992, Weston Biggerstaff followed in the line of other Hollywood actors, such as Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone, by founding a chain of restaurants. The Mutton Hut, however, was a less glamorous affair due to its exclusive reliance on goat meat instead of lamb, as the restaurant’s name would suggest. Biggerstaff reportedly did not know the difference between goats and sheep and simply went for the cheaper option.
Ever the entrepreneur, Biggerstaff changed tack and targeted the menu as healthy and affordable fast food for kids, announcing, “Kids will eat anything provided a lovable cartoon character tells them to.” Thus, Mutton Man was born. In a shrewd move, Biggerstaff bankrolled a 26 x 22 minute animated series based on the adventures of a half-man, half-goat cartoon superhero who obtained super-strength from eating goat meat.
The Mutton Man animated series goes down in television history as the only show to be cancelled five minutes into broadcast of its pilot episode. Broadcasters saw it as blatant advertising for his restaurant, while Christian groups objected to a superhero sporting horns and cloven hooves. There were also ethical issues surrounding a goat creature eating goat meat. Biggerstaff argued that Mutton Man was only half-goat.
Today, only one Mutton Hut remains in Swansea, Wales, where animation cells from the show are available for sale, all 858,000 of them.
IN POPULAR CULTURE
The vocally heterosexual Biggerstaff is strangely regarded as a gay icon on the west coast of the United States due to his supporting role as Boots the Cabin Boy in the Captain Swashbuckle film series; Captain Swashbuckle and his Merry Brigadeers (1964), Captain Swashbuckle and the Dastardly Scallywags (1965). Biggerstaff has always been quite vocal in his distaste for this reputation, claiming that the association ruins the movies for heterosexual people who just happen to like pirates. In fact, Biggerstaff even made a cameo appearance in John Waters’ camp send up of the films, Captain Swashbuckle and the Mincing Rainbow Fairies (1983). It wasn’t until the film’s premier in San Francisco that he was even aware of his gay icon status. Footage of the colourful event shows Biggerstaff as appearing genuinely surprised and bewildered.