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10 Celebrities Who Spied on the Side

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For some of these big-name personalities, spying taught them the skills that made them famous; for others, being famous made them the perfect spies.

1. Roald Dahl: The Ladies’ Man Who Fell in Love with Writing

Long before he wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl was a fighter pilot for the British Royal Air Force during World War II. But after sustaining several injuries in a horrific crash in 1940—including a fractured skull and temporary blindness—Dahl was rendered unable to fly. In 1942, he was transferred to a desk job at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. Dahl quickly charmed his way into high society and became so popular among D.C. ladies that British intelligence came up with a whole new role for him: seducing powerful women and using them to promote Britain’s interests in America.

It wasn’t all fun and games, though. Clare Booth Luce, a prominent U.S. Representative and isolationist who was married to Time magazine founder Henry Luce, was so frisky in the bedroom that Dahl begged to be let off the assignment. In the end, however, his work with the ladies paid off. Dahl managed to not only rally support for Britain at a time when many prominent Americans didn’t want the country to enter the war, but he also managed to pass valuable stolen documents to the British government. Dahl’s stint in D.C. also helped him realize his talent for writing; it was a skill he discovered while penning propaganda for American newspapers.

2. Ian Fleming: The Armchair Spy

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By trade, author Ian Fleming was a journalist with a sharp memory and a keen eye for detail. In fact, he created James Bond, his famed international man of mystery, by plundering his own experiences as a spy.

During World War II, Fleming put his writing talents to use as part of British Naval Intelligence. Although he looked the part of Bond—tall, blue-eyed, and dapper—Fleming worked a desk job. He managed communications between the British Admiralty and the branch of intelligence tasked with sabotage behind enemy lines. Fleming was good at what he did. Not surprisingly, he proved particularly adept at conceiving outlandish spy schemes familiar to Bond fans.

Fleming’s work eventually extended to the United States. He was responsible for helping to create an American organization focused on international intelligence gathering. In 1941, he drew up a detailed chart for the chief of the OSS, showing how the new organization should be run. For his efforts, he was awarded an engraved .38 Colt Police Positive revolver.

Despite being a desk jockey, Fleming did get to witness one active operation—a break-in at the Japanese Consul General’s office at Rockefeller Center. As Fleming watched, British operatives sneaked into the office, cracked a safe, and made copies of the Japanese codebooks. Fleming later used the incident for Bond’s assignment in his first 007 book, Casino Royale.

3. Lucky Luciano: The Mobster with the Heart of a Patriot

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As head of the Genovese crime family, Charles “Lucky” Luciano did more for organized crime than any other mobster of his generation. Luciano smoothed out the Mafia’s rough edges and turned families of thugs into well-oiled, organized-crime machines. Not only that, but Lucky also embodied the gangster image—palling around with Frank Sinatra and giving girls $100 bills just for smiling. With a track record like that, it’s no wonder he ended up working for U.S. intelligence.

The story goes like this: In 1936, Luciano was convicted on 62 counts of “compulsory prostitution” and sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison. But while he was incarcerated, the government discovered that it needed his help. In 1942, a French ocean liner, the Normandie, was being converted into a troop transport ship when it suddenly caught fire and sank. American officials suspected sabotage. But the dockworkers, who were under the Mafia’s thumb, refused to spill any information. The government needed an in, and Luciano was the key.

In many ways, Luciano felt an intense loyalty to America; after all, it’s where he’d earned his fortune. So, he used his influence to urge the dockworkers to cooperate with authorities. In exchange, the mobster enjoyed unsupervised visits from friends and associates for the rest of his time in prison. It was a sweet deal for the U.S. government, too; in a matter of weeks, eight German spies were caught and arrested for the destruction of the Normandie.

Luciano continued to help American forces for the remainder of World War II, using his contacts on the docks to feed information to the Office of Naval Intelligence. Later, as the Allies were planning their invasion of Italy, Luciano, who also had strong ties to the Sicilian mob, offered invaluable information on where to counterattack.

As a reward for his help, Luciano was released in 1946 after serving only 10 years in prison. However, the terms of his release required that he be deported to his birthplace of Italy and never allowed back into the United States. Luciano died in exile in 1962. Before he passed away, he told two biographers that he’d had his own men set fire to the Normandie as part of a creative plot to pressure the government to release him. But as The New York Times noted, Luciano was “known to exaggerate his own cleverness.”

4. Julia Child: The Chef with a Taste for Adventure

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Julia Child wasn’t always into French cooking. As she famously recounted in her posthumous autobiography, My Life in France, it wasn’t until she was living in Paris in her mid-30s that she learned what good food tasted like.

How did Child keep busy before that? By performing equally inventive work as an employee at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the U.S. government’s precursor to the CIA. Child joined the spy outfit in 1942 after discovering that the Women’s Army Corps had a height limit; at 6’2”, she was too tall for military service. Luckily, the OSS ended up being a perfect fit. One of Child’s earliest assignments was to cook up a shark repellant that would protect underwater explosives from being set off by curious underwater creatures. By all accounts, she excelled at her work. Following a stint in the OSS lab, Child was sent to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and then to China, where she worked as Chief of the OSS Registry. As such, she enjoyed top security clearance and even a little danger. (The CIA remains mum about exactly what she did.)

Working at the OSS also turned out to be a recipe for love. In Ceylon, Julia met and fell for another OSS officer, Paul Cushing Child. After the two got hitched in 1946, Julia quit her job while Paul continued to work for the government. Within two years, he was transferred to the U.S. State Department in Paris, where Julia took up cooking to occupy her time. The rest is culinary history.

5. Noël Coward: The Playwright Who Knew How to Play Dumb

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By the start of World War II, Noël Coward was already a massive success in the world of theater. The flamboyant playwright had struck box office gold with his productions of Hay Fever (1925), Easy Virtue (1926), and Private Lives (1930).

But when the war broke out, Coward abandoned his theatrical work and set up a propaganda bureau for the British Secret Intelligence Service. Before long, he was sent to the United States to drum up support for the Allied cause. Coward used his celebrity to gain access to America’s elite and to deliver top-secret information to the most influential people in the country, including President Franklin Roosevelt. He also made the most of his vapid playboy image. As Coward explained in his diary, “I was to go on as an entertainer with an accompanist and sing my songs and on the side doing something rather hush-hush … My disguise would be my own reputation as a bit of an idiot.”

Coward actually possessed a formidable memory, and he did his job so well that he reportedly earned a place on the Nazi Black List—individuals Hitler wanted executed once Germany invaded Britain.

6. Robert Baden-Powell: The Boy Scout with a Merit Badge in Sneakiness

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“Be Prepared” figures into the codes of both spies and Boy Scouts, so you may not be surprised to learn that the Scouts were founded by an illustrious British agent, Lord Robert Baden-Powell.

The story begins in South Africa in 1899, when Baden-Powell made a name for himself during the Second Boer War. Stationed there with a poorly-armed outfit of only 500 soldiers, Baden-Powell faced a 217-day siege by a Boer army of 8,000 men. To defend the territory, he used everything at his disposal, including props, cunning, and deception. He ordered his men to plant fake mines on the edge of town and had them pretend to avoid barbed wire to throw off the enemy. And because he was short on troops, he enlisted all of the young boys in town to act as guards. Somehow, he managed to protect the territory until British reinforcements finally arrived.

The story made Baden-Powell a war hero in England, and after returning home in 1903, he used his newfound fame to kick-start the scouting movement. Soon, he was helping people across the globe set up Boy Scout troops. All the while, Baden-Powell remained active in the military, working as a spy in the countries he toured.

In 1915, after he retired from duty, Baden-Powell wrote My Adventures as a Spy. In it, he relayed stories about his love for the craft—reveling in the time he pretended to be an American in order to probe German sources, and proudly discussing how he once caught three spies on his own. All told, Baden-Powell painted a rather rosy image of the profession: “A good spy—no matter which country he serves—is of necessity a brave and valuable fellow.”

7. James Hart Dyke: The Artist Who Framed MI6

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James Hart Dyke wasn’t a spy, exactly, but he did spend a year living like one as part of MI6, Britain’s elite Secret Intelligence Service. During the 1990s, Hart Dyke was a successful landscape painter who followed Prince Charles on royal tours and later painted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, in 2009, the head of MI6, Sir John Scarlett, decided to bring Hart Dyke into the organization as an artist-in-residence. He was looking for someone to accurately portray MI6’s mythic inner workings without revealing too many details.

At first, Hart Dyke thought the assignment was an elaborate joke. He received a mysterious phone call, followed by an equally mysterious meeting in which he was asked to infiltrate MI6 as an artist. Still, he took the job. Hart Dyke was given complete access to MI6 and the lives of its employees, on the condition that he wouldn’t reveal any identifying characteristics about them. “As far as possible, I was ‘one of them,’” he told The Guardian. “Of course, I often saw people wondering what I was really up to … I saw officers looking at me as I sketched away and they seemed to be thinking, oh yes, an artist, are you? A likely story.”

One of the things Hart Dyke tried to convey through his paintings was the thick fog of suspicion and claustrophobia that permeates a spy’s life. As a result, his works possess a dreamy, half-realized quality. And while the subject matter is seemingly everyday—a street corner, a hotel room, a woman carrying a big purse—it always leaves the viewer wondering if something more nefarious is going on.

Hart Dyke also wanted his paintings to expose the boredom and the strain of the work—the in-between times of waiting and doing nothing that strip the job of its glamour. As a member of MI6, the painter experienced both the tedium and anxiety of traveling to shadowy locations and the strain of keeping the gig secret from everyone but his wife. While the artist-turned-spy no doubt enjoyed the experience, he felt pure relief at the end of his stint. As he told reporters in 2011, “I’ll be glad to get back to ordinary life … though I doubt I’ll ever do anything quite as fascinating as this again.”

8. Harry Houdini: The Magician Who Spied His Way to Stardom

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If you’re looking to become a spy, “escape artist extraordinaire” is a pretty good thing to have on your resume. So it’s no great surprise that, when he wasn’t suspended upside down in a water tank, Harry Houdini moonlighted in espionage.

At the start of his career in the late 19th century, Harry Houdini gained notoriety by waltzing into police stations and demanding that officers lock him up. It was a great publicity stunt. Every time he ditched the cuffs, he bolstered his reputation. But the stunts didn’t just make headlines—they also caught the eye of several influential people at the American and British intelligence agencies. According to a biography released in 2006, both the American Secret Service and Scotland Yard hired Houdini to sneak into police stations across Europe and Russia and gather information for them.

In return for his services, Houdini knew exactly what he wanted. The magician reportedly would only help the intelligence agencies if they agreed to further his career. William Melville, head of Scotland Yard, had to get Houdini auditions with London theater managers before he’d consent to a little spy work.

9. Marcel Petiot: The Serial Killer Who Was a Little Too Good at Keeping Secrets

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During World War II, the United States operated a second spy agency known as the Pond. Unlike the OSS, the Pond made contact with all sorts of dark characters—including serial killers, apparently.

One of the organization’s most prolific sources for Nazi intelligence was a Parisian doctor named Marcel Petiot, who used his position to gather information and gossip about German military operations. But Petiot wasn’t who he claimed to be. A former mental patient, Petiot used his doctor’s office as a kind of fake Underground Railroad. In exchange for 25,000 francs, he promised patients safe passage to Argentina. Petiot’s victims would come to the basement of his Paris townhouse, where he would give them an injection, ostensibly of vaccines. Instead, Petiot dosed his victims with cyanide. He would then incinerate the bodies in an old water-boiler or let them decompose in a pit of quicklime.

Ironically, Petiot’s killing spree ended in 1943, when the Gestapo picked him up on suspicion that he was running an actual escape route. He was held for seven months before being released without charges. Two months later, Paris police got wind of the bodies in Petiot’s basement and arrested him again. The remains of 26 victims were found in his apartment, although he’s suspected of murdering as many as 63. When the war ended, Petiot was convicted and guillotined.

10. Moe Berg: The Player Who Covered a Lot of Bases

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Baseball great Moe Berg wasn’t called the “brainiest man in baseball” for nothing. In 1923, Berg graduated from Princeton University with a degree in modern languages (he spoke 12). The all-star also had offers to play baseball just about anywhere he wanted. Berg was quickly snapped up by the Brooklyn Dodgers, but he still wasn’t content to focus on just one career. He pursued graduate degrees in French and philosophy, and then decided to add in a law degree from Columbia University.

By 1926, Berg had been traded to the Chicago White Sox, but that didn’t stop him from keeping up with his studies. Three years later, he passed the New York State bar and then accepted a position with the law firm Satterlee and Canfield—all while still playing ball.

Berg was eventually traded to the Washington Senators, where he was a hit both in the bleachers and on the social scene. Good-looking and witty, a lawyer and a pro ballplayer, Berg was quickly integrated into the D.C. dinner-party circuit, where he soon caught the eye of the U.S. government. Berg did his first spy work while touring Japan in 1934 as part of the American All-Star team. While overseas, he took home movies of Tokyo Harbor, military installations, and industrial areas.

By some accounts, however, the ballplayer wasn’t exactly a natural-born spy. One biographer claimed that Berg made some laughable mistakes early on, including getting caught by his foreign handler while he was trying to break into an aircraft factory. Even so, he was sent on relatively dangerous missions, including one in 1944 to collect intelligence on Germany’s efforts to build an atom bomb. If Berg believed the Germans were close to developing nuclear weapons, he had orders to shoot the lead physicist, Werner Heisenberg. Fortunately, Berg concluded that the Germans were years away from a breakthrough.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Consider giving someone special a gift subscription or treat yourself!

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25 Things You Might Not Know About Home Alone
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On November 16, 1990, what appeared to be a fun-filled little family yarn about a kid left to his own devices at Christmastime and forced to fend off a couple of bungling burglars, became an instant classic. Today, no holiday movie marathon is complete without a viewing of Home Alone, the movie that turned Macaulay Culkin into one of the biggest kid stars of all time. And while you may be able to recite its dialogue line for line, here are 25 things you might not know about the John Hughes-penned picture. So settle in and enjoy, ya filthy animals. 

1. WITHOUT UNCLE BUCK, THERE’D BE NO HOME ALONE.

The idea for Home Alone occurred to John Hughes during the making of Uncle Buck, which also starred Macaulay Culkin. Always game to play the precocious one, there’s a scene in which Culkin’s character interrogates a potential babysitter through a mail slot. In Home Alone, Culkin has a similar confrontation with Daniel Stern, this time via a doggie door.

2. THE ROLE OF KEVIN WAS WRITTEN SPECIFICALLY FOR MACAULAY CULKIN.

But that didn't stop director Chris Columbus from auditioning more than 100 other rascally pre-teens for the part. Which really was all for naught, as Culkin nailed the role.

3. MACAULAY WASN’T THE ONLY CULKIN TO APPEAR IN THE FILM.


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Macaulay;'s younger brother Kieran also landed a part as Kevin’s bed-wetting cousin, Fuller. Though the film marked Kieran’s acting debut, he has since gone on to build an impressive career for himself in movies like The Cider House Rules, Igby Goes Down, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

4. CASTING CULKIN TAUGHT CHRIS COLUMBUS A VERY IMPORTANT LESSON.

Since Home Alone, Columbus (who also wrote the scripts for Gremlins and The Goonies) has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s premier family-friendly moviemakers as the director of Home Alone 2, Mrs. Doubtfire, and two movies in the Harry Potter franchise. But one lesson he learned from Home Alone is that when you agree to work with a kid actor, you’re also agreeing to work with his or her family.

“I was much younger and I was really too naive to think about the family environment as well,” Columbus told The Guardian in 2013. “We didn't know that much about the family at the beginning; as we were shooting, we learned a little more. The stories are hair-raising. I was casting a kid who truly had a troubled family life.” In 1995, Culkin’s parents, who were never married, engaged in a very public—and nasty—legal battle over his fortune. 

5. THE FILM IS A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD HOLDER.

In its opening weekend, Home Alone topped the box office, making $17,081,997 in 1202 theaters. The movie maintained its number one spot for a full 12 weeks and remained in the top 10 until June of the following year. It became the highest grossing film of 1990 and earned a Guinness World Record as the highest-grossing live-action comedy ever domestically.

6. THE MOVIE’S UNPRECEDENTED SUCCESS LED TO ITS TITLE BECOMING A VERB.


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In his book The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood? And Other Essays, two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman admitted that the unexpected success of Home Alone contributed a new phrase to the Hollywood lexicon: to be Home Aloned, meaning that other films suffered at the box office because of Home Alone’s long and successful run. “More than one executive said to me, ‘My picture did 40, but it would have done 50 if it hadn’t been Home Aloned,’” wrote Goldman.

7. IT SPAWNED MORE THAN A SEQUEL.

While all of the main, original cast members reprised their roles for Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (with Columbus again directing a script by Hughes), the success of the original led to a full-on franchise, complete with four sequels, three video games, two board games, a novelization, and other kid-friendly merchandise (including the Talkboy). 

8. POLAND LOVES THE MCCALLISTERS.

Showings of Home Alone have become a Christmas tradition in Poland, where the film has aired on national television since the early 1990s. And its popularity has only increased. In 2011 more than five million people tuned in to watch it, making it the most watched show to air during the season. 

9. THE MCCALLISTER HOME HAS BECOME A MAJOR TOURIST ATTRACTION.


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Located at 671 Lincoln Avenue in Winnetka, Illinois, the kitchen, main staircase, and ground-floor landing seen in the film were all shot in this five-bedroom residence. (The dining room and all other first-floor rooms, with the exception of the kitchen, were shot on a soundstage.) In 2012, John and Cynthia Abendshien, who owned the home when it was used as one of the film’s locations, sold the property for $1.585 million.

10. KEVIN’S TREE HOUSE WAS NOT PART OF THE DEAL.

Kevin’s backyard tree house was not originally part of the property. It was constructed specifically for the movie and demolished once filming ended. 

11. ALL OF THE FILM WAS SHOT IN THE CHICAGO AREA.

Though the main plot point is that that McCallister family is in Paris while Kevin’s back home in Illinois, the production was shot entirely within the Chicago area. The scenes supposedly set at Paris-Orly Airport were shot at O’Hare International Airport. And those luxurious business class seats they’re taking to Paris? Those were built on the basketball court of a local high school—the same school where the scene in which Kevin is running through a flooded basement was filmed (the “basement” in question was actually the school’s swimming pool). 

12. ROBERT DE NIRO TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF HARRY LIME.


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As did Jon Lovitz. Then Joe Pesci swept in and made the part his own. Bonus fun fact: The character is a slight homage to Orson Welles. (It was the name of Welles’ character in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.) 

13. JOE PESCI GOT ALL METHOD ON MACAULAY CULKIN.

In order to get the most authentic performance possible, Joe Pesci did his best to avoid Macaulay Culkin on the set so that the young actor would indeed be afraid of him. And no one would blame the young actor for being a bit petrified, as he still bears the physical scar from one accidental altercation. “In the first Home Alone, they hung me up on a coat hook, and Pesci says, ‘I’m gonna bite all your fingers off, one at a time,’” Culkin recalled to Rule Forty Two. “And during one of the rehearsals, he bit me, and it broke the skin.” 

14. PESCI WASN’T USED TO THE WHOLE “FAMILY-FRIENDLY” THING.

Considering that Pesci’s best known for playing the heavy in movies like Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino, it’s understandable that he wasn’t quite used to the whole family-friendly atmosphere on the set of Home Alone—and dropped a few f-bombs as a result of that. Columbus tried to curb Pesci’s four-letter-word tendency by suggesting he use the word “fridge” instead. 

15. DANIEL STERN HAD A FOUR-LETTER WORD SLIP-UP, TOO.


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And it wasn’t cut out of the film. He utters the word “s***” when attempting to retrieve his shoe through the doggie door (look for it at the 55:27 mark on the DVD). 

16. IN REAL LIFE, HARRY AND MARV MAY NOT HAVE SURVIVED KEVIN’S ATTACK.

BB gun shots to the forehead and groin? A steaming hot iron and can of paint to the face? A flaming blowtorch to the scalp? The Wet Bandits endure an awful lot of violence at the hands of a single eight-year-old. So much so that neither one of them should have been walking—let alone conscious—by the end of the night. In 2012, Dr. Ryan St. Clair diagnosed the likely outcome of their injuries at The Week. While a read-through of the entire article is well worth your time, here are a few of the highlights: That iron should have caused a “blowout fracture,” leading to “serious disfigurement and debilitating double vision if not repaired properly.” And the blowtorch? According to Dr. St. Clair, “The skin and bone tissue on Harry's skull will be so damaged and rotted that his skull bone is essentially dying and will likely require a transplant.” 

17. THE ORNAMENTS THAT MARV STEPS ON WOULD CAUSE THE LEAST AMOUNT OF DAMAGE.

"Walking on ornaments seems pretty insignificant compared to everything else we've seen so far,” said Dr. St. Clair. “If I was Marv, I'd be more concerned about my facial fractures.” Fortunately, the "glass" ornaments in question were actually made of candy. (But just to be on the safe side, Stern wore rubber feet for his barefoot scenes.)

18. THE TARANTULA ON STERN’S FACE? YEP, THAT WAS REAL.


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At one point, Kevin places a tarantula on Marv’s face. And it was indeed a real spider (Daniel Stern agreed to let it happen—but he’d only allow for one take). What wasn’t real? That blood-curdling scream. In order to not frighten the spider, Stern had to mime the scream and have the sound dubbed in later.

19. JOHN CANDY WRAPPED IN ONE DAY.

But what a long day it was: Twenty-three hours to be exact. Candy was a regular in many of John Hughes’ movies, and Gus Polinski—the polka-playing nice guy he plays in Home Alone—was inspired by his character in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. 

20. KEVIN’S OLDER SISTER IS A JUDO CHAMP.

Two years after appearing in Home Alone, Hillary Wolf—who played Kevin’s older sister Megan—landed the lead in Joan Micklin Silver’s Big Girls Don’t Cry… They Get Even. She also appeared in Home Alone 2, but hasn’t been seen on the big screen since. But there’s a good reason for her absence: In 1996 and 2000, she was a member of the Summer Olympic Judo team for the U.S. 

21. DON’T BOTHER TRYING TO FIND ANGELS WITH FILTHY SOULS.

The Jimmy Cagney-like gangster movie that Kevin channels as his inspiration throughout Home Alone? Don’t bother searching for it on eBay. It’s not real. Nor is its sequel, Angels With Even Filthier Souls, which is featured in Home Alone 2. 

22. OLD MAN MARLEY WASN'T IN THE ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY.

Kevin’s allegedly scary neighbor, who eventually teaches him the importance of family, wasn’t a character in the original script. He was added at the suggestion of Columbus, who thought the film could do with a stronger dose of sentimentality.

23. THE LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO BENEFITED FROM THE MOVIE’S SNOWFALL.

When filming of Home Alone wrapped, the production donated some of the artificial snow they had created (the stuff made from wax and plastic) to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. It has since been used in a number of their productions.

24. MARV WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE GOTTEN A SPINOFF.

Greg Beeman’s 1995 film Bushwhacked, which stars Daniel Stern as a delivery guy on the run after being framed for murder, was originally intended to be a spinoff of Home Alone. The storyline would have been essentially the same: after giving up a life of crime, Marv would have been framed for the same murder.

25. IF YOU BELIEVE THAT ELVIS IS STILL ALIVE, THEN YOU MIGHT BELIEVE THAT HE IS IN HOME ALONE.

No hit movie would be complete without a great little conspiracy theory. And in the case of Home Alone, it’s that Elvis Presley—who (allegedly?) died in 1977—makes a cameo in the film. Yes, that’s right. The King is alive and well. And making a living as a Hollywood extra.

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5 Things You Should Know About Chinua Achebe
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Often referred to as the “father of African literature,” author Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, Nigeria on this day in 1930. Though he passed away in 2013, Google is celebrating what would be his 87th birthday with a Google Doodle. Here are five things you should know about the award-winning writer.

1. HE HAD PLANNED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Though he was always an avid reader and began learning English at the age of eight, Chinua Achebe hadn’t always planned to become a beacon of the literary world. After studying at Nigeria’s prestigious Government College (poet Christopher Okigbo was one of his classmates), Achebe earned a scholarship to study medicine at University College in lbadan. One year into the program he realized that writing was his true calling and switched majors, which meant giving up his scholarship. With financial help from his brother, Achebe was able to complete his studies.

2. JOYCE CARY’S MISTER JOHNSON INSPIRED HIM TO WRITE, BUT NOT IN THE WAY YOU MIGHT THINK.

While storytelling had long been a part of Achebe’s Igbo upbringing in Nigeria, that was only part of what inspired him to write. While in college, he read Mister Johnson, Irish writer Joyce Cary’s tragicomic novel about a young Nigerian clerk whose happy-go-lucky demeanor infects everyone around him. While TIME Magazine declared it the “best book ever written about Africa,” Achebe disagreed.

“My problem with Joyce Cary’s book was not simply his infuriating principal character, Johnson,” Achebe wrote in Home and Exile. “More importantly, there is a certain undertow of uncharitableness just below the surface on which his narrative moves and from where, at the slightest chance, a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery breaks through to poison his tale.” The book led Achebe to realize that “there is such a thing as absolute power over narrative,” and he was inspired to take control of it to tell a more realistic tale of his home.

3. HE DIDN’T THINK THAT WRITING COULD BE TAUGHT.

Though he studied writing, Achebe wasn’t all too sure that he learned much about the art in college. In an interview with The Paris Review, he recalled how the best piece of advice he had ever gotten was from one of his professors, James Welch, who told him, “We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know.”

I thought that was wonderful. That was really the best education I had. I didn’t learn anything there that I really needed, except this kind of attitude. I have had to go out on my own. The English department was a very good example of what I mean. The people there would have laughed at the idea that any of us would become a writer. That didn’t really cross their minds. I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They put up a notice—write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize. I’d never written a short story before, but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named me, said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved mention, that was very high praise.

I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, You said my story wasn’t really good enough but it was interesting. Now what was wrong with it? She said, Well, it’s the form. It’s the wrong form. So I said, Ah, can you tell me about this? She said, Yes, but not now. I’m going to play tennis; we’ll talk about it. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you. This went on for a whole term. Every day when I saw her, I’d say, Can we talk about form? She’d say, No, not now. We’ll talk about it later. Then at the very end she saw me and said, You know, I looked at your story again and actually there’s nothing wrong with it. So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your own and do it.

4. HE WAS WARY OF MACHINES.

Though typewriters, followed by computers, were ubiquitous, Achebe preferred a “very primitive” approach. “I write with a pen,” he told The Paris Review. “A pen on paper is the ideal way for me. I am not really very comfortable with machines; I never learned to type very well. Whenever I try to do anything on a typewriter, it’s like having this machine between me and the words; what comes out is not quite what would come out if I were scribbling. For one thing, I don’t like to see mistakes on the typewriter. I like a perfect script. On the typewriter I will sometimes leave a phrase that is not right, not what I want, simply because to change it would be a bit messy. So when I look at all this … I am a preindustrial man.”

5. HIS DEBUT NOVEL REMAINS ONE OF THE MOST TAUGHT PIECES OF AFRICAN LITERATURE.

Achebe’s status as the “father of African literature” is no joke, and it’s largely due to his debut novel, Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, the book—which follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo leader and wrestling champion—has gone on to sell more than 10 million copies and has been translated into 50 different languages. Even today, nearly 60 years after its original publication, it remains one of the most taught and dissected novels about Africa.

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