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Born in London, England, Purvis was born with dwarfism, and stood only 4 feet 1 inch once reaching adulthood. Purvis became an artist, and he soon met and befriended Kenny Baker, with whom he acted in night-clubs and theatres. They eventually became partners in a joint show, The Mini Tones.
Purvis married his wife, Marjie, in 1964. They became parents in 1964 with the birth of their son Andrew and in 1966 their daughter Katie Purvis, who shared her father's dwarfism. Katie would later follow in her father's footsteps as a Star Wars actor, portraying an Ewok in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi They had their 3rd child Jason in 1971.
Purvis began working in cinema with Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977. His partner, Baker, was in negotiations to act as R2-D2. As that would have forced him to cancel the rich summer season of his theater show, which would be a blow to Purvis' career, Baker and Purvis convinced the producers to hire both of them for the movie. Purvis began acting as the Chief/main Jawa, seen as he attacked and disabled his friend's Droid character. His other characters in the film include the Cantina patron Kitik Keed'kak, and a Gonk Droid in Mos Eisley. After that, Purvis' height made him a great choice for other roles with similar requirements, including Wombling Free (1977), a movie adapting the children novels based on The Wombles.
Purvis would be called upon again to act in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Even although there would be no Jawas on that movie, there was another role for a man of his size: the Chief Ugnaught. Later identified as Ugloste by the Expanded Universe, Purvis can be seen on Cloud City, where Han Solo is to be frozen in carbonite.
He also drew the attention of cult director Terry Gilliam, who considered both him and partner Baker for main roles on his 1981 movie The Time Bandits, narrating the adventures of interstellar thieves of short height. Purvis' character ("Wally") again attacks Baker's ("Fidgit") in the movie. Purvis then worked with Jim Henson in his puppet fantasy The Dark Crystal, although his role is clearly diluted in the background of the movie.
Purvis would return to a galaxy far, far away in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Although there would be Jawas in this installment, they are only "Human background" (or alien background). Purvis was asked to play the part of a new species, an Ewok. His character would be Teebo, an axe-wearing gray Ewok using a skull as a helmet. Purvis' then-teenage daughter Katie also appeared in this movie as an Ewok mother, holding a Wokling in her arms. He would not appear again in the Star Wars saga, although he is the only person to be credited in the three original films as playing different characters in each installment.
After RotJ wrapped its shooting, Purvis would go on to perform in a TV version of The Invisible Man in 1984, before working again with Terry Gilliam in much-acclaimed Brazil. Purvis' role as a competitive and exploitive plastic surgeon with a monocle would be easily remembered in this, the second installment of a presumed Gilliam trilogy talking about the ages of man (Bandits would refer to childhood and Brazil to maturity, followed by the movie, Baron, which would be about old age).
Purvis would continue his career, usually paired with Baker in non-starring roles. For instance, in 1986, they would act in both Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa and in an almost uncredited role as a goblin in Jim Henson's Labyrinth. Purvis' later role as a Nelwyn band member in Lucas' 1988 film Willow would not even be credited.
Later in 1988, however, Purvis would have a major role in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. He would be one of the amazing servants of the Baron, a short guy with great lung power; his mere whisper became a hurricane.
Purvis also acted in Danny Elfman's music video collection Oingo Boingo: Skeletons In the Closet (1989), and in C.S. Lewis' TV version of the Narnia saga, Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1989). His last role as an actor would be on Caspian director Alex Kirby's TV fantasy The Silver Chair (1990), again from the Narnia saga.
After that, Purvis suffered an accident with his own vehicle after he'd parked it. The car's brakes failed and rolled backwards, crushing him between its bumper and a wall, breaking his neck, and paralyzing him for the rest of his life. Purvis died in November 1997 in Bushey Hertfordshire, England. He was 60 years old.
After his death (and David Rappaport's earlier in 1990), Terry Gilliam indefinitely shelved the possible sequel to Time Bandits, which would center on both Purvis' and Rappaport's characters.