September 29, 2003 --
PETER Dinklage is a tolerant guy - just don't mention "ze plane." That's just the sort of dopey joke that used to send the 4-foot-6 actor into a rage.
"When I was in high school, I used to punch a lot of doors," says the Morris County, N.J., native. "As a dwarf, it was hard to have a sense of humor about life."
Dinklage survived that teenage angst to become one of the most interesting new faces on movie screens this fall.
His sensitive leading-man turn in the indie comic-drama "The Station Agent" wowed Sundance crowds in January - and will likely do the same when it opens here Friday.
There's a long Hollywood tradition of dwarf actors, including the backward-speaking Man from Another Place in "Twin Peaks" and the recent favorite, Mini-Me.
But Dinklage's portrayal of the lonely trainspotter Finbar McBride in "The Station Agent" may be filmdom's first well-rounded dwarf character.
"This is definitely not a sentimental movie of the week," Dinklage, 34, told The Post. "Finbar is human. He's flawed."
He also happens to be sexy.
Both the women in the film - played by Patricia Clarkson of "Six Feet Under" and Michelle Williams of "Dawson's Creek" - respond to Finbar's unassuming charms, a point Dinklage relished.
"What irritates me about most dwarf parts is the cuteness," he says. "I don't like the parts that make us angelic. Because you don't end up with the girl. You're left in the dark and the cold.
"It's not like I'm asexual, you know."
Dinklage proves that in a big way in "Tiptoes," an upcoming movie in which he plays a drunken, drugged-out bad boy and shares steamy sex scenes with Patricia Arquette.
"Tiptoes" is loosely based on the life of the Tattoo character of "Fantasy Island," the 3-foot-11 Herve Villechaize - who is, yes, "ze plane" guy.
"Herve was very misunderstood," Dinklage says. "He was this angry, romantic, passionate man who started out as a serious New York theater actor, working with Sam Shepard."
But Villechaize sunk into despair after leaving "Fantasy Island" in 1983, and nine years later he was reduced to lampooning his catchphrase in a Dunkin' Donuts commercial. He pointed at the counter and asked for "ze plain! ze plain!"
A year later, Villechaize shot himself in the head.
Dinklage isn't about to go out like that. He's very careful about the roles he chooses, and after years of turning down elf parts in Christmas commercials, he'll play a big-shot businessman - not an elf - in Will Ferrell's holiday movie, "Elf."
Next spring, Dinklage will be at Lincoln Center in a new play about the 4-foot-11 French painter Toulouse-Lautrec - "and all the women in his life," Dinklage says.
"Dink works more than any actor I know," says Tom McCarthy, who wrote and directed "The Station Agent" with his friend in mind.
McCarthy and Dinklage had long conversations about how to film Finbar, and at some points, the camera acknowledges Dinklage's height. In one scene, a grocery-store clerk can't see Finbar over the counter.
But otherwise, McCarthy says, "I wanted to shoot him as my leading man.
"When he first arrives at the train depot, we put the camera a little below Dink's face, looking up at him with the horizon behind.
"It's a standard western angle, like John Wayne in 'The Searchers.' It's the man against the landscape - a classic hero shot."