Luigi Francis Rossi -- better known as Shorty, titular star of the Animal Planet "docudrama" Pit Boss -- was not, as some have said, "made for television." His recently released memoir, Four Feet Tall and Rising, is, as one fan put it, "an amazing must-read for anyone interested in showbiz, pit bull rescue, dwarfism and how to make pruno" -- aka prison wine.
Rossi, the son of dwarf parents, grew up in lily-white Reseda with two average-height older sisters. An enterprising youngster, he ran away from home, fleeing his abusive father and landing with his "second family" at Nickerson Gardens in Watts. He later joined the Bloods and served a decade behind bars for a gang-related shooting.
The ebullient, cigar-chomping Rossi then found lucrative work as an actor before opening Shortywood, a talent-management agency for little people, in 2000. His allegiance to the American Pit Bull Terrier compelled him to open Shorty's Rescue a year later.
"The funny thing is, we had a pilot for Shortywood, we'd go to each network, and we'd get, 'Well, people aren't really interested in little people,' or, 'They already have a reality show.' We only get one fucking show? Little People, Big World is like Ozzie and Harriet," he says. "I'm like the Connors" of Roseanne fame.
But when Animal Planet put out word for something edgy, "Then the light went on. 'Shorty runs a pit bull rescue? That's gold! He's gold!' "
Pit Boss' sixth season airs this summer. The show's valiant, seemingly spontaneous rescues have found Rossi and crew traipsing through cemeteries, paddling to houseboats, even busting out the windows of a repossessed SUV. As for its star, he's on fire, his sincerity palpable, his enthusiasm infectious. Pit bulls have no bigger champion: Rossi travels constantly, working to correct misconceptions about the breed wherever he goes.
Hero is a word rarely showered on an ex-con, but to dog lovers Rossi is one, and he's mobbed by fans from coast to coast. Before his stardom, he says, "I'd walk through LAX with [service dog] Hercules; it'd be like parting the Red Sea. Now it's, like, 'You can have one more photo. I'm going to miss my flight!' "
A recent visit to the Nicaraguan factory that makes his signature cigar, the Diesel Shorty, found Rossi doted on by factory workers; Pit Boss, after all, is carried on satellite.
"People don't realize the history of the pit bull," he says. "They were America's nanny dog. They sat on two White House lawns. These dogs don't have an enzyme, it's what we Americans have done -- made the dog bigger, stronger."
Dog fighting, he says, is an ongoing problem across the country, while pit bull bans "are not just found in Miami and Denver -- there's like another 900 little towns and cities," he says, incredulously. "I'm not going to wait till the show is done to make my platform bigger."
He's happy, too, that Pit Boss has facilitated more little-people programming, although his own stature seems to be the last thing on his mind. "We're lawyers, we're businesspeople, we're everything. Some of us are normal families," he says, and, charm dripping from his fedora, "some of us are crazy like Shorty."