"Schlitzie the Pin-Head," a.k.a. Schlitzie Surtees (b. [possibly] Simon Metz, Sept. 10, 1901, Bronx NY; d. Sept. 24, 1971, Los Angeles) was born with microcephaly, a disorder that endowed him with a small brain and elongated skull. He had the cognizance of a three-year-old and stood about four feet tall. Schlitzie wore dresses (due to incontinence), which led many to assume he was female. In a pre-PC era, when physical defects were exploited for their exhibitionist values, Schlitzie worked as a "carnie" (a traveling carnival sideshow performer). Unlike most microcephalics who endured sequestered lives, Surtees achieved immortality for appearing in the controversial 1932 Tod Browning-directed film Freaks, a melodramatic story about society's genetic outcasts. Surtees played himself—and didn't have to act: he behaved naturally, with childlike joy and often-uncontrollable exuberance.
AllMovie Guide notes: "Upon its initial release, Freaks was greeted with such revulsion from movie-house audiences that MGM spent the next 30 years distancing themselves as far from the project as possible." Freaks has long been a cult classic, and undeservedly reviled. Browning treated the unconventional cast with dignity and affection. What are perceived as horrors on camera are in fact respectful depictions of carnie life, and the film's leading actors (the "freaks") turn the notion of Hollywood glamour on its head.
View Schlitzie's big scene from Freaks. (Because he wore a dress, he was portrayed as a female.)
Surtees lived a long life, passing away at age 70. His burial plot received a headstone in 2008, thanks to the dedication of a legion of fans and admirers.
Schlitzie allegedly inspired Bill Griffith's long-running underground comic strip Zippy the Pinhead.