15 Screen Characters You Never Knew Were Based on Real People

Characters You Never Knew Were Real!

by Randy Krinsky

Unfortunately, these days Hollywood is anything but fresh and new; reboots, reimaginings, sequels, prequels, and spinoffs is business as usual for the major studios. If you’ve been around for a few years you might even catch them doing it with a film that they didn’t advertise as such. (For example, Point Break - didn’t know it was out? Don’t worry about it. Go back and watch the original – you’ll thank me.)  Even characters that you thought were brand new and unique are in many cases cinematic doppelgangers for real personalities the writer knew. Sure, we all knew Will Smith was portraying Muhammad Ali in Ali (2001), or that Russell Crowe was portraying John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001). Those were both public figures that were well-known. But what about other film characters who were based on actual real people? I’ve come up with a quick list of some that may surprise you.

Nacho-Libre

Nacho Libre, in Nacho Libre (2006)

Jack Black’s infectious character, Nacho is actually based on a real-life wrestler priest. It’s true! In the 1970s, Rev. Sergio Gutiérrez Benítez wrestled under the name Fray Tormenta (“Friar Storm”) to help raise funds for his parish. He wrestled anonymously, hidden behind a mask and helped raise money for an orphanage. He kept his true identity hidden as he believed no one would take a wrestling priest seriously. It must’ve worked because the good reverend had a successful 23-year career as a masked “luchador.”

Edna-Mode

Edna Mode, from The Incredibles (2004)

This has got to be one of my favorites! Anyone who saw Brad Bird's 2004 animated superhero film, The Incredibles surely fell in love with the short, feisty, bespectacled Edna.

This superhero fashion designer from the hit Pixar film is actually based on a real Hollywood fashion icon.  Edith Head was a legendary costume designer for more than 400 movies, including a ton of Hitchcock classics and Elvis Presley films. For her work with Paramount Studios, and later Universal, she was nominated for a whopping 35 Academy Awards.

Edna Mode is an animated reboot of the prolific Edith Head. Voiced by Brad Bird himself, Edna was never confirmed as being based on Edith but if you look at the two of them side by side, the similarities are obvious! Some have even observed that Edna's behavior is an exaggeration of Edith's real persona.

Upon winning her fifth Academy Award, in 1954, she remarked, "I'm going to take it home and design a dress for it." You know it, dahling!

Rocky-Dennis

Rocky Dennis, in Mask (1985)

Mask is a film based on the life and untimely death of Roy Lee “Rocky” Dennis in 1970s California. Dennis was a real young man and looked very similar to how he was portrayed by actor Eric Stoltz in the film. Dennis suffered from craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, an extremely rare disorder more commonly known as lionitis which causes calcium to build up in the skull leading to facial disfigurement and a shortened life expectancy. The film won an Academy Award for Best Makeup in its depiction of Dennis. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. Both Stoltz and Cher, who portrays his mother, received Golden Globe nominations for their performances.

Lebowski

 “The Dude,” from The Big Lebowski (1998)

Who didn’t fall in love with Jeff Bridges’ eccentric character, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski? It’s a legendary performance and a character that he’ll forever be linked with. But did you know that the filmmakers, the Coen brothers, actually were inspired by a real friend of theirs, Jeff “The Dude” Dowd?

Dowd, or El Dowderino or simply “The Dude”, had the same signature proclivity for White Russians and shared the same personality as Bridges depicts in the popular film. Though not a stoner or avid bowler, Dowd actually works at a real job but did own the famous rug that tied his room together. He was even a member of the Seattle Seven, the most famous members of the radical anti-Vietnam War group, the Seattle Liberation Front. This is even referred to by “The Dude” in the film. How did he feel being portrayed in his friends’ movie? How else, “The Dude” abides.

Popeye

Popeye the Sailor Man (created in 1929)

He started off as a character in the King Features comic strip, "Thimble Theater." Created by E.C. Segar, Popeye's popularity soon took over the decade's old strip and the title was eventually changed to simply "Popeye."  In 1933, capitalizing on the character's fame, cartoonist Max Fleischer adapted the comic strip into a series of animated cartoon shorts for Paramount. Popeye's popularity grew and eventually the character was expanded for use in comic books, television cartoons, video games, advertising, and a 1980 live-action feature directed by Robert Altman, starring comedian Robin Williams.

Legend has it that E.C. Segar based his popular creation on a local tough guy named Frank "Rocky" Fiegel (January 27, 1868 - March 24, 1947) from his hometown of Chester, Illinois. Bearing a striking resemblance to the comic character, some say Fiegel's demeanor was similar as well. He was a lifelong bachelor and worked a saloon in his hometown. They say he never shied away from a good fight. Though he was known for his chiseled physique (hence the name "Rocky"), there has been no word yet on a penchant for spinach.

Zorro

Zorro, from The Mask of Zorro (1920), and subsequent films

Originally a magazine serial hero created by pulp author Johnston McCulley in 1919, the swashbuckling vigilante known as Zorro has been prominently featured in many films. He's been depicted on film by actors such as Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Tyrone Power, Guy Williams, Alain Delon, Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas, among others. Though he has undergone many changes throughout the years, he has always remained Don Diego de la Vega, Spanish landowner by day but fearless black mask-wearing hero by night who defends the commoners against the ruthless oppression of the Mexican government in California.

The inspiration for this sword-wielding hero is the "Mexican Robin Hood," Joaquin Murrieta. Legend tells that Murrieta was a Mexican gold miner who went to California to seek his fortune. While there he was viciously attacked and then his wife raped by American miners. Unable to get justice for the attack, he formed a gang of friends and family to seek retribution. Not only did he catch and kill many of the Americans who attacked him and his wife, but, depending on which legend you believe, he robbed banks, committed other murders, and was an all-around thorn in the side of California authorities.

In 1853, the California governor authorized the creation of the California Rangers, led by former Texas Ranger Captain Harry Love, to track down and capture or kill Murietta and his band of outlaws. A $1000 reward was promised and the Rangers quickly tracked down and confronted a group believed to be Murietta's gang. During the confrontation, three of the Mexican bandits were killed, one believed to have been Murietta. A plaque now marks the spot near Coalinga at the intersection of State Routes 33 and 198, where Murietta was believed to have been killed. The Rangers cut off Murrieta's head and preserved it in a jar of alcohol in order to show authorities and claim their reward. The jar was subsequently sent around the state in a travelling display and locals charged a fee to see it.

However, almost immediately myths began to emerge that the gang member killed was not Murietta. In 1879, Murrieta's own sister viewed the display and remarked that the head in the jar was not her brother's. Later, numerous sightings were reported of Murietta living quietly in his older years. These sightings could never be confirmed and the preserved head was destroyed in a fire during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The legend of Joaquin Murietta lived on and evolved into the swashbuckling bandit, Zorro.

Dirty-Harry

Dirty Harry (1971)

Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of iconic loner detective “Dirty” Harry Callahan is so singular that it is hard to imagine that it could be based on a real person. However, it is! His name is David Toschi and he is the inspiration for the entire Dirty Harry franchise. In fact, Toschi was also the inspiration for Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt in the equally popular film, Bullitt (1968).

Toschi was an inspector with the San Francisco Police Department and the lead investigator in the Zodiac Killer case. He served over 30 years with the SFPD before retiring in 1983. He was known for his flamboyance and sporting an upside-down quick-draw shoulder holster (a characteristic McQueen was quick to use for his own character in Bullitt). But it wasn’t until Toschi was named to head the front page Zodiac investigation that Hollywood screenwriters Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink decided to work his entire character into a film.

Dirty Harry mirrors the Zodiac case, with Clint Eastwood tracking down the notorious Scorpio Killer, though in reality Toschi never did catch his man and the Zodiac Killer remains one of the most infamous unsolved cases in American history. Since the case was never solved, the ending to Dirty Harry, where Scorpio is caught, killed, and left floating face-down was said, by writer John Milius, to have been based on an experience involving another unnamed police officer from Long Beach.

Later, Toschi would see himself portrayed on screen under his real name, in the David Fincher film, Zodiac (2007). His character was played by Mark Ruffalo. What’s cool, if you’ve seen the movie, is a scene where Ruffalo, as Toschi, goes to the movies and watches, you guessed it, Dirty Harry. The real Toschi acted a technical advisor to the film. This means that Toschi watched an actor, portraying him, go into a film to watch another actor also portraying him. Wow! Talk about being meta and surreal!

  • Barsuglia Photography

Snape

Professor Severus Snape, from the Harry Potter series

Alan Rickman was a unique individual. No one compared to him in any role he performed. He did such an incredible job of portraying the moody potions professor in the Harry Potter films, but who knew author J.K. Rowling actually based the character on a real person.  Rowling’s personal Snape was her chemistry teacher, John Nettleship, from her days at Wyedean School in Chepstow, Monmouthshire.

With the same long hair and very similar strict demeanor to how he was portrayed by Rickman, Nettleship initially wasn’t pleased with his depiction. One interview has him remarking,

[T]he first I knew was when a someone knocked on the doors and said: ‘You’re Professor Snape aren’t you’. I suppose I was quite strict as a teacher, but I said to my wife: ‘they think I’m Professor Snape.’ She said: ‘Of course you are – but I didn’t want to tell you’.

He eventually came to terms with his connection to the character and even wrote a book, Harry Potter's Chepstow, about Rowling's connections with his hometown. Nettleship eventually passed away from cancer in 2011, aged 71.

Indiana-Jones

Indiana Jones, from the franchise of the same name (1981)

Okay, so many people are aware that the Indiana Jones franchise is an appropriation of all the old film serial adventures of the 1930s. Some might even be aware that a more precise inspiration for the lead character, Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr., was drawn from the 1954 film, Secret of the Incas, starring Charlton Heston as adventurer Harry Steele. If you watched that film, the similarities are instantly recognizable and apparently both adventurers use the same tailor.

What many people don’t know is that some believe Steele, and subsequently Indiana Jones, are actually based on a real adventurer, Dr. Hiram Bingham III.

Bingham was a professor of South American history at Yale University when, in 1911, he rediscovered the lost Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. He later, in 1948, published a best-selling book entitled, Lost City of the Incas. Bingham would later serve as an army aviator attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel in World War I. Soon after he was elected Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut (1923-1925), and then served for one day as Governor of Connecticut, January 7-8, 1925, before resigning to assume his duties as the newly elected U.S. Senator from Connecticut (1924-1933). Bingham was an all-around academic, soldier, explorer, and politician. After leading what I would refer to as a full life, Bingham passed away quietly in his home in Washington, D.C., in 1956, age 80.

Pyscho

Norman Bates, from Psycho (1960)

In actuality, Norman Bates, the killer mama's boy, as well as the iconic Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs (1991) were all based on the same real-life serial killer! His name was Ed Gein and he was every bit as brutal a murderer as any film depiction.

Gein was born on August 27, 1906, and lived an isolated life in Plainfield, Wisconsin. He was deeply devoted to his mother, Augusta, who disliked Gein having any friends and referred to all women as prostitutes. After the death of his father, George, in 1940, and then his older brother, Henry, in 1944, Gein was left alone to take care of his mother. He was deeply devoted to her and after her death in 1945, Gein was left utterly devastated.  He kept to himself and earned money doing odd jobs and from a federal farm subsidy he began receiving in 1951.

Then, on November 16, 1957, a local business owner, Bernice Worden disappeared. Gein became a prime suspect once Worden's receipt book was found and the last receipt written was to Gein the morning she disappeared. In a subsequent search of Gein's farm, investigators uncovered Worden's decapitated body, hung upside down by ropes, appearing to have been field dressed like a deer. Further investigation revealed she had been shot and the mutilations were performed after her death.

After they completed the search of Gein's farm they made many horrifying discoveries: Worden's head in a burlap sack, her heart in a plastic bag by the stove, furniture, clothes and household accessories made from in human skin, bones ,skulls, faces and parts of human anatomy used in all manner of ways.

Gein freely told authorities that beginning in 1947, he made as many as forty trips to cemeteries, to exhume recently buried bodies. He said he usually returned home empty-handed but other times he would take the bodies of middle-aged women who resembled his mother and use their skin and bones to make his gruesome trophies. He even had a complete "woman suit" that he could put on and fantasize about being his mother!

Gein was found to be insane and sentenced to a mental institution where he remained until he died of respiratory failure, at the age of 77, on July 26, 1984. No one knows for sure how many people he killed or how many bodies he exhumed and mutilated. Due to court costs, Gein was only tried and convicted of one murder, Worden's, though he admitted to another murder as well, that of Mary Hogan, another local whose head was found in a bag in his home.

When filmmakers need a good deviant sociopath, they turn to the story of Ed Gein. One of the most notorious serial killers ever. His horrific acts are just as shocking as anything Hollywood could ever fabricate.

Kramer

Cosmo Kramer, from "Seinfeld" (1989)

Eccentric Cosmo Kramer was easily one of the most popular characters on the hit television show, "Seinfeld." His hilarious antics as Jerry Seinfeld's neighbor kept viewers watching week after week. But did you know that there really as a Kramer? His name was Kenny Kramer and he didn't live next door to Jerry, but instead he was the neighbor to "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David.

Like Cosmo, Kenny was an entrepreneur with some wild ideas to make money, including capitalizing on his television character by creating a tour service in New York City taking fans around to view places depicted in the show. Other than that, actor Michael Richards has said that his character was a creation all of his own and he had never met the real Kenny Kramer prior to filming the series.

Soup-Nazi

"The Soup Nazi," also from "Seinfeld" (1989)

Now this one is tricky. If you ever meet Al Yeganeh, the popular soup chef who runs Soup Kitchen International in New York City, don't call him "The Soup Nazi!" He prefers "The Soup Man." Al is the inspiration for the popular character on the hit television show. He has gone on record numerous times saying that he dislikes the character and that it offends him. However, he has always been happy to greet customers and to be honest, his soups are pretty great! Just remember, if you ever visit his restaurant, mind your manners, follow his rules, and he might take a photo with you. If not, "no soup for you!"

Alien

Alien, from Spring Breakers (2013)

Did you catch the potentially-cult film Spring Breakers? If not, you’re not alone. It did quite well considering its low budget and received pretty good reviews. If you remember nothing else from it, aside from scantily clad ingénues frolicking, it should be James Franco’s crazy character, Alien. Alien is so extreme that he has to be the product of some late-night drug-infused creative session between the director and the screenwriters, right? No. The character of Alien is based on real-life rapper and tattoo enthusiast, RiFF RAFF.

Born in Houston, Texas, as Horst Simco, RiFF RAFF was actually approached to be in the movie. He refused and apparently, or allegedly, without his permission, director Harmony Korine cast James Franco to play him. If you ask Franco, he’ll say that he based his character on the rapper Dangeruss, who does have a cameo in the film; however, if you look at a picture of Franco as Alien and RiFF RAFF, the similarities are remarkable and hard to ignore. The similarities are so striking that, in July 2013, RiFF RAFF threatened to sue the film’s creators for $10 million. As of yet, though, no court filings have been made.

Allison-DuBois-Pat-Arquette

Allison DuBois, from “Medium” (2005)

The television series ran on NBC, then CBS, for seven seasons, with its series finale airing in January 2011. Created by Glenn Gordon Caron, the series revolved around a medium named Allison DuBois, portrayed by Patricia Arquette, who works as a consultant for the Phoenix, Arizona district attorney’s office. She balances life with her husband and three daughters with her role in helping law enforcement solve crimes using her paranormal gifts.

I never watched it myself but it was a solid performing series with Arquette winning an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama (2005). But did you know the character is based on a real person?

Her name, surprisingly enough, is Allison DuBois. She is an American author, medium, and profiler (she doesn’t like to refer to herself as a psychic). Born on January 24, 1972, in Phoenix, Arizona, now residing in nearby Scottsdale, she has made claims that she worked in helping law enforcement solve high profile crimes. Many of these agencies have since either denied such claims or stated that her input was not ultimately used in the conclusion of the cases. Though many are skeptical of her psychic abilities, there is no denying the stories do make for good television drama.

The-Terminal

Viktor Navorski, from The Terminal (2004)

It’s a funny yet sad story: a man becomes trapped in New York City's JFK International Airport terminal after he is denied entry into the United States, yet at the same time cannot return to his native country due to a revolution. The tiny country of Krakozhia is engulfed in a civil war, leading the United States to suspend diplomatic relations. Tom Hanks portrayed Viktor Navorski, who, being from Krakozhia, has his passport seized, making him ineligible to travel internationally. He is basically a stateless man: not allowed to leave the country, yet also not allowed to enter the United States. Like I said earlier, it would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

This is based on a true story. The story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, a Iranian refugee who was forced to live in the lounge of Terminal One in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport from August 26, 1988, until July 2006.

Nasseri claims he was forced to leave Iran for protesting against the Shah and was awarded refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Belgium. Such status would allow him to reside in many European countries. Also claiming to have British lineage, he decided he would live in England. However, while enroute there in 1988; he lost his travel documents, either due to theft or simply by mistake. Regardless, upon arriving in London he was quickly denied entry and sent back to France. As he had no official country of origin to be returned to and no passport allowing him entry to France, he was forced to remain in the airport. This began his 18-year residency in Terminal one.

Being a unique case, in 1992, a French court reviewed Nasseri’s case and found that as he entered the country legally, he could not be expelled from the airport, conversely he was not granted permission to live in France. Nasseri tried to obtain new refugee papers from Belgium, but the United Nations authorities would only do so if he requested them in person. However, Belgian law states that a refugee who voluntarily leaves the country that has accepted him cannot return – legally, he couldn’t go back to Belgium now. What a headache!  Finally, in 1995, Belgian officials granted Nasseri permission for him to return, but only if he made his residence in Belgium under the supervision of social services. Nasseri, still determined to live in England, refused the offer.

Ultimately, in July 2006, Nasseri grew ill and had to be transported to a nearby hospital. While there, airport officials took down his living area. After many months, Nasseri left the hospital and was checked into a nearby hotel, looked after by the French Red Cross. In March 2007, he was transferred to an Emmaus charity center and he reportedly still lives there or at another Paris shelter to this day.

During his many years stuck in the airport terminal, Nasseri passed the time reading, writing in his journal, or studying economics. He became quite well acquainted with many airport employees and they would give him food and the daily newspaper.

In 2004, Nasseri published his autobiography, The Terminal Man, with the help of British author Andrew Donkin. That same year, Steven Spielberg reportedly bought the rights to Nasseri’s story for $250,000, and many say that in Nasseri’s final years in the airport he kept a movie poster from The Terminal draped over his briefcase.

3 Week Diet

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