writing << celebrity features

[originally published in Smoke magazine]

shorty rossi: short and (mostly) sweet
[cover feature]

The Pitt Boss

Animal Planet has carved out a very specific basic cable niche by airing cuddle-centric fare like America’s Cutest Pet as well as programs that follow the “professionals” who dedicate their “lives” to the pursuit of Finding Bigfoot. But the Planet is also home to Pit Boss, the captivating reality show surrounding the life and work of a cigar-chomping, oft-bleeped, ex-con named Luigi Francis Rossi who at all of four feet tall is better known by his thoroughly unironic nickname “Shorty.”

Boss, now in its fifth season, documents Rossi’s work as the head of Shortywood Productions, a casting agency specializing in little people. But the show’s central focus—and what drew the attention of Animal Planet—is Shorty’s work in support of a dog breed with an outsized reputation: the pit bull.

Rossi has been an animal lover his whole life. “Animals are unlike humans—you can trust them. They’ll never stab you in the back,” he explains during a recent sit-down with Smoke. “All they want is your devoted attention. When you go home, it’s all ‘give me love’ day after day.”

Rossi has centered his animal adoration on the pit bull, a breed Shorty defends as safe and loveable as any fluffy little home companion—when they are handled responsibly. But, the unfortunate truth is that too often these dogs are trained to be aggressive in service of home security or—more evilly—dog fighting. And it’s those mistreated animals that give the entire breed its unwarranted rep.

“I grew up in a bad neighborhood—Nickerson Gardens [Housing Projects] in Watts. Around there, there was nothing but pit bulls used for breeding and fighting,” he explains. While many in his old neighborhood saw little more in pit bulls than a quick buck or a home security system on the cheap, Rossi found something more substantial. “I ended up getting my first pit bull named Coco when I was 14. And Coco became like my right hand man. And I just developed a passion for them after that,” he recalls. He goes on to explain that there is nothing inherently evil about the pit bull which has the dubious honor of being one of the only dogs to have its own breed-specific bans in localities around the world. “It’s not the dog that is bad, it’s the idiot raising the dog. I’m even talking about middle class families who get a pit bull to be a guard dog. You don’t raise a pit bull to be vicious. If you want a guard dog, go get a rottweiler or a German shepherd. Pit bulls are meant to be family pets,” Shorty contends. “I have six pit bulls at my house.”

Pit Boss has been an invaluable platform for Rossi to implement one of the most powerful tools in pit bull advocacy: direct diplomacy. Shorty is almost always found with his current “right-hand man” Hercules, who has become a mainstay on the show and, we should note, remained dutifully by Shorty’s side for the duration of the interview. “The best thing I can do for pit bulls is walk around with one. Hercules here is probably the most popular dog in the U.S. right now [and the star of the last year’s made for TV movie Hercules Saves Christmas]. Right here’s the proof that these myths in the media are destroying the breed.”

In addition to his own rescue, Rossi operates Shorty’s Charities, a non-profit which raises funds for other pit bull groups and helps low income pit owners cover the cost of neutering and other related vet bills. Shorty also works to rehabilitate pit bulls that were trained for fighting or other aggressive uses. “Some of them are the most amazing dogs, just like Hercules,” Rossi explains. “Now I can’t say 100 percent of dogs can be helped—it’s just like humans, not 100 percent of them can be rehabilitated. But [many] can be.”

Rehabilitation and second chances are concepts Rossi can appreciate more than most. While little people are often depicted in the entertainment industry as seldom more than harmless, joyful background fodder (an image often being aided by Rossi’s own casting agency) people of all heights are subject to both the influences of their environment. Shorty was born in the middle class San Fernando Valley. As his home situation began to turn sour, he moved in with a family friend in Watts, but by the age of 15, he was out in the world living on his own. Eventually Shorty fell in with the local Bloods chapter, where he took part in the various unlawful activities that gangs inflict on a community, and on themselves. At the age of 18, Shorty was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder and was sentenced to 10 years, 10 months, and 10 days in Folsom prison.

Prison isn’t easy. But you’d think it might be especially precarious for someone of Shorty’s stature. However, in a strange twist of fate, the very Watts upbringing which led him to prison may also have been what kept him safe behind bars. “Anyone can run into problems in prison—whether you’re six foot tall or four foot tall like me,” he says in explaining his key to surviving a decade-long bid. “When I ended up in Folsom, half the people in there were people I grew up with, so it was like a family reunion. So it benefited me ‘cause I had my boys. Now there were some conflicts because I was supposed to run with my own race, but I ran with the people I grew up with. A lot of things almost happened, but by the grace of God nothing ever did and I’m here to tell you that.”

Following his release from Folsom, Shorty put his criminal youth behind him and began a new life as an actor in movies and TV. Most of his acting resume is filled with small roles (no pun intended) including everything from playing an elf in a Christmas-themed episode of Ally McBeal to tackling the role of the “Little People’s Court Judge” in an episode of WWE Raw.

In 2000, Shorty decided to jump behind the scenes by launching a casting agency specializing in little people. Or as he describes Shortywood Inc.’s mission statement: “We have about 150 little people registered across the world and we rep nothing but little people. We handle everything for the talent side of the industry, either for extras or character work. But we’ll do big corporate events or small parties. We do oompa-loompas, we do elves—we have about 350 custom-made costumes in storage to be any type of character they want.”

Beyond providing Shorty exposure for his business and his rescue work, Pit Boss has turned him into a bit of a celebrity with a means to a whole new lifestyle. When I asked if he still lives in his old neighborhood he delivers a proud “Hell no!,” which he goes on to clarify. “I live part time in Venice, California and the rest of the time in La Mision in Baja California , Mexico. I actually moved down there six months before the show started. It’s like my little haven. I get a lot more work done there ‘cause I’m not running all over L.A. going to meetings and everything. But the show just premiered in all of Latin America. Now people know me there. We were just in Nicaragua last week and got bombarded, so now my safe haven is gone.”

For his part, Shorty claims “you don’t become a millionaire when you do a reality show, but you become able to do other things to raise money.” This past January saw the release of his memoir Four Feet and Rising and he has been able to treat himself to some luxuries such as “custom made hat and custom made cigars.”

To be sure, Shorty’s iconic cigar and fedora are no mere stage props some PR flack decided a “Pit Boss” might wear. Rossi is a true cigar head. He’s also one of the few TV personalities you’ll see proudly smoking on screen. “I love cigars. It’s something I have to battle with Animal Planet about—smoking on TV all the time. The funny thing is they’ll say ‘limit your smoking, Shorty’ and then they’ll come out with a new promo and it’s nothing but me smoking a damn cigar. I don’t get.”

It’s refreshing to see someone on TV actually allowed to enjoy the product so many do off-camera. Shorty actually began smoking in the seventh grade (as noted above, the law wasn’t a huge concern for him at that time in his life), but his habit mostly consisted of bodega level smokes like Swisher Sweets and Hav-a-Tamapas. But strangely enough, he got his premium cigar education while behind bars.

It’s odd to imagine a cigar “scene” taking hold inside a prison. But it exists. The throw-away-the-keys crowd reading this will take some comfort knowing that our prisons are not home to any taxpayer funded cigar lounges or penal man caves, but they will be surprised—just as we were—to learn that cigars are a part of correctional culture. “Besides having family sending money, you get paid like 40 to 50 dollars a month for a job doing whatever, and we were allowed to get cigars shipped in,” he says in explaining how this unexpected segment of the industry maintains itself. What inmates lack in income, they make up for in non-existent overhead and an overabundance of time which, as it turns out, some use to reflect on the subtle notes of fine aged tobacco. “The good stuff,” too, he explains. “I fell in love with Punch while on the inside. And then when I got out of jail I’ve had the opportunity to smoke all kinds. I love maduros. I like a cigar that has a lot of kick, a lot of strength.”

Shorty’s cigar passion has even led to him getting his own namesake cigars. Rossi had the opportunity to work with Cuban-born cigarmaker A.J. Fernandez of Estelí, Nicaragua to create the official Diesel Shorty Limited Edition, 4 1/2-inch by 60 ring gauge cigar that Rossi describes as “like me, it’s short and packs a punch!” As a bonus, 10 percent of all profits went towards Shorty’s Charities.

More recently, Shorty teamed up with Nicaraguan powerhouse Nestor Plasencia to create a new, smaller Punisher-branded cigar. Punisher is a super robust Nicaraguan puro that has been out for over a year, but only in one size. As a fan of this strong smoke, Shorty was asked to come down to Plasencia’s facility in Nicaragua to “tweak” the Punisher recipe and create and the brand new 4 1/2 x 60 Shorty Edition size. The cigar still packs a wallop, but in a more digestible shape. And once again, the distributor donates a portion of sales to Shorty’s Charities.

Like any true cigar boss, Shorty attended this past summer’s International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR) annual convention in Las Vegas. That’s where Smoke first met up with Shorty, who we instantly spotted in the casino floor. And it wasn’t just because of the fedora and pitbull, it was for the excited congregated crowd. There he was surrounded by what might only be described as a mob of fans waiting in line to shake his hand and have their photo taken with him.

“I never knew how many people watched Animal Planet. I know I’m a figure and I know I’m easy to recognize ‘cause I’m always with a cigar and a pit bull,” he explains on his new found celebrity. “But never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d have to change my way of living because of the show. Even shopping—now I can’t even look through Wal-Mart or Target because I’ll never get nothing done.”

And to be sure, the attention is appreciated by someone who came from such humble roots. However, Rossi is most honored by the opportunity to use his celebrity to spread the pit bull gospel. “It kind of takes your freedom away, but at the same time people come to me like ‘Shorty, I adopted a dog because of your show’ or ‘Shorty, I went to go volunteer at a shelter because of your show.’ That’s the only thing I ever wanted to do.”

Rossi’s life’s second act shines a light on the fact that a new beginning is always possible, for man or beast, no matter their past misdeeds. This former inmate turned celebrity advocate is a living example for a simple truth: no matter what your stature, circumstances, or position in life, as long as your breathing, you’re never coming up short.