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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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13 Fantastic Museums You Can Visit for Free on Saturday
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On Saturday, September 23, museums and cultural institutions across the United States will open their doors to the public for free, as part of Smithsonian magazine’s annual Museum Day Live! event. Hundreds of museums are set to participate, ranging from world-famous institutions in major cities to tiny, local museums in small towns. While the full list of museums can be viewed, and tickets can be reserved, on the Smithsonian website, we’ve collected a small selection of the fantastic museums you can visit for free this Saturday.

1. NEWSEUM // WASHINGTON, D.C.

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. is an entire museum dedicated to the First Amendment. Celebrating freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, the museum features exhibits on civil rights, the Berlin Wall, and the history of news media in America. Their latest special exhibitions take a look back at the event of September 11, 2001 and go inside the FBI's crime-fighting tactics.

2. INTREPID SEA, AIR & SPACE MUSEUM // NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK

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New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum doesn’t just showcase America’s military and maritime history—it is a piece of that history. The museum itself is one of the Essex-class aircraft carriers built by the United States Navy during World War II. Visitors can explore its massive deck and interior, and view historic airplanes, a real World War II submarine, and a range of interactive exhibits. Normally, a ticket will set you back a whopping $33 (or $19 for New York City residents), but on Saturday, general admission is free with a Museum Day Live! ticket.

3. AUTRY MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN WEST // LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

Perfect for art lovers, history buffs, and cinephiles alike, the Autry Museum of the American West (named for legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry) offers up an eclectic mix of art, historical artifacts from the real American West, and Western film memorabilia and props.

4. MUSEUM OF ARTS AND SCIENCES // DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA

A massive art, science, and history museum located on a 90-acre nature preserve, the Museum of Arts and Sciences features the largest collection of Florida art anywhere in the world, as well as the largest collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia in all of Florida. Its diverse exhibits are alternately awe-inspiring, informative, and quirky, ranging from an exploration of 2000 years of sculpture art to an exhibition of 19th and 20th century advertising posters.

5. INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE HORSE AT THE KENTUCKY HORSE PARK // LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY

The International Museum of the Horse explores the history of—you guessed it!—the horse. That might sound like a narrow scope, but the museum doesn’t just display horse racing artifacts or teach you about modern horse breeds. Instead, it endeavors to tackle the 50-million-year evolution of the horse and its relationship with humans from ancient times to modern times.

6. THE PEGGY NOTEBAERT NATURE MUSEUM // CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

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The 160-year-old Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is pulling out all the stops for this year’s Museum Day Live! In addition to their vast exhibits of animal specimens and cultural artifacts, the museum will be hosting a live animal feeding and a butterfly release throughout the day.

7. OGDEN MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN ART // NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art aims to teach visitors about the rich culture and diverse visual arts of the American South. Right now, visitors can view a collection of William Eggleston's photographs and check out the museum's 10th annual invitational exhibition of ceramic teacups and teapots.

8. BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF INDUSTRY // BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

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Located in a 19th century oyster cannery on the Baltimore waterfront, the Baltimore Museum of Industry tells the story of American manufacturing from garment making to video game design. Visitors this weekend can meet video game designers and create custom games at the museum’s interactive “Video Game Wizards” exhibit.

9. SYLVAN HEIGHTS BIRD PARK // SCOTLAND NECK, NORTH CAROLINA

You can meet 2000 birds from around the world this weekend at the 18-acre Sylvan Heights Bird Park. Visitors to the massive garden can walk through aviaries displaying birds from every continent except Antarctica, including ducks, geese, swans, and exotic birds from all over the world.

10. DELTA BLUES MUSEUM // CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

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Visitors to the Delta Blues Museum can learn about the unique American musical art form in “the land where blues began,” with audiovisual exhibits centered on blues and rock legend Don Nix, as well as Paramount Records illustrator Anthony Mostrom.

11. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NUCLEAR SCIENCE & HISTORY // ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

America’s only congressionally chartered museum dedicated to the story of the Atomic Age, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History features exhibits on everything from nuclear medicine to representations of atomic power in pop culture. Adult visitors to the museum will delight in its impressively nuanced take on nuclear technology, while kids will love the museum’s outdoor airplane exhibit and hands-on science activities at Little Albert’s Lab.

12. MUSEUM OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN // PINEDALE, WYOMING

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Dedicated to the mountain men who explored and settled Wyoming in the 19th century, the Museum of the Mountain Man brings American folklore and legends to life. The museum features exhibits on the Rocky Mountain fur trade and tells the story of American folk legend and famed mountain man Hugh Glass (the man Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar playing in 2015's The Revenant).

13. BESH BA GOWAH ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK AND MUSEUM // GLOBE, ARIZONA

Arizona’s Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum lets visitors connect with history firsthand. The museum is home to the ruins and artifacts of the Salado Indians who inhabited Arizona from the 13th century through the 15th century, and even lets visitors wander through an 800-year-old Salado pueblo.

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20 Facts About Your Favorite Coen Brothers Movies
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Ethan Coen turns 60 years old today, if you can believe it. Since bursting onto the scene in 1984 with the cult classic Blood Simple, the younger half of (arguably) the most dynamic moviemaking sibling duo in Hollywood has helped create some of the most memorable and quirky films in cinematic history, from Raising Arizona to Fargo and The Big Lebowski to No Country For Old Men. To celebrate the monumental birthday of one of the great writer-directors of our time (though he’s mostly uncredited as a director), here are some facts about your favorite Coen brothers movies.

1. THE COENS THINK BLOOD SIMPLE IS “PRETTY DAMN BAD.”

Fifteen years after Blood Simple’s release, the Coens reflected upon their first feature in the 2000 book My First Movie. “It’s crude, there’s no getting around it,” Ethan said. “On the other hand, it’s all confused with the actual process of making the movie and finishing the movie which, by and large, was a positive experience,” Joel said. “You never get entirely divorced from it that way. So, I don’t know. It’s a movie that I have a certain affection for. But I think it’s pretty damn bad!”

2. KEVIN COSTNER AND RICHARD JENKINS AUDITIONED FOR RAISING ARIZONA.

Kevin Costner auditioned three times to play H.I., only to see Nicolas Cage snag the role. Richard Jenkins had his first of many auditions for the Coens for Raising Arizona. He also (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Miller's Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996) before calling it quits with the Coens. In 2001, Joel and Ethan cast Jenkins in The Man Who Wasn't There, even though he had never auditioned for it.

3. THE BROTHERS TURNED DOWN BATMAN TO MAKE MILLER’S CROSSING.

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After Raising Arizona’s success established them as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the Coens had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

4. BARTON FINK AND W.P. MAYHEW WERE LOOSELY BASED ON CLIFFORD ODETS AND WILLIAM FAULKNER.

The Coens acknowledge that Fink and Odets had similar backgrounds, but they had different personalities: Odets was extroverted, for one thing. John Turturro, not his directors, read Odets’s 1940 journal. The Coens acknowledged that John Mahoney (Mayhew) looks a lot like the The Sound and the Fury author.

5. THE COENS' WEB OF DECEPTION IN FARGO GOES EVEN FURTHER THAN THE OPENING CREDITS. 

While the tag on the beginning of the movie reads “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” Fargo is, by no stretch of the imagination, a true story. During the film's press tour, the Coens admitted that while not pinpoint accurate, the story was indeed inspired by a similar crime that occurred in Minnesota, with Joel stating, “In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional.”

However, any and all efforts to uncover anything resembling such a crime ever occurring in Minnesota come up empty, and in an introduction to the published script, Ethan pretty much admitted as much, writing that Fargo “aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true." 

6. THEY WANTED MARLON BRANDO TO PLAY JEFFREY LEBOWSKI.

According to Alex Belth, who wrote the e-book The Dudes Abide on his time spent working as an assistant to the Coens, casting the role of Jeffrey Lebowski was one of the last decisions made before filming. Names tossed around for the role included Robert Duvall (who passed because he wasn’t fond of the script), Anthony Hopkins (who passed since he had no interest in playing an American), and Gene Hackman (who was taking a break at the time). A second “wish list” included an oddball “who’s who," including Norman Mailer, George C. Scott, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, Andy Griffith, William F. Buckley, and Ernest Borgnine.

The Coens’ ultimate Big Lebowski, however, was the enigmatic Marlon Brando, who by that time was reaching the end of his career (and life). Apparently, the Coens amused themselves by quoting some of their favorite Jeffrey Lebowski lines (“Strong men also cry”) in a Brando accent. The role would eventually go to the not-particularly-famous—albeit pitch-perfect—veteran character actor David Huddleston. In true Dude fashion, it all worked out in the end.

7. JOEL COEN WOOED FRANCES MCDORMAND ON THE SET OF BLOOD SIMPLE.

Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand and Joel Coen at the Oscars
Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand, and Joel Coen celebrate their Oscar wins in 1997.
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Coen and McDormand fell in love while making Blood Simple and got married a couple of years later, after production wrapped. McDormand told The Daily Beast about the moment when she roped him in. “I’d only brought one book to read to Austin, Texas, where we were filming, and I asked him if there was anything he’d recommend,” she said. “He brought me a box of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler paperbacks, and I said, ‘Which one should I start with?’ And he said, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ I read it, and it was one of the sexiest f*ckin’ books I’ve ever read. A couple of nights later, I said, ‘Would you like to come over and discuss the book?’ That did it. He seduced me with literature. And then we discussed books and drank hot chocolate for several evenings. It was f*ckin’ hot. Keep it across the room for as long as you can—that’s a very important element.”

8. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? WAS ORIGINALLY INSPIRED BY THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Joel Coen revealed as much at the 15th anniversary reunion. “It started as a 'three saps on the run' kind of movie, and then at a certain point we looked at each other and said, 'You know, they're trying to get home—let's just say this is The Odyssey. We were thinking of it more as The Wizard of Oz. We wanted the tag on the movie to be: 'There's No Place Like Home.’”

9. THE ACTORS IN FARGO WENT THROUGH EXTENSIVE TRAINING TO GET THEIR ACCENTS RIGHT.

Having grown up in Minnesota, the Coens were more than familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the “Minnesota nice” accent, but much of the cast—including Frances McDormand and William H. Macy—needed coaching to get the intricacies right. Actors were even given copies of the scripts with extensive pronunciation notes. According to dialect coach Larissa Kokernot, who also appeared as one of the prostitutes Gaear and Carl rendezvous with in Brainerd, the “musicality” of the Minnesota nice accent comes from a place of “wanting people to agree with each other and get along.” This homey sensibility, contrasted with the ugly crimes committed throughout the movie, is, of course, one of the major reasons why the dark comedy is such an enduring classic.

10. NICOLAS CAGE'S HAIR REACTED TO H.I.'S STRESS LEVEL IN RAISING ARIZONA.

Ethan claimed that Cage was "crazy about his Woody Woodpecker haircut. The more difficulties his character got in, the bigger the wave in his hair got. There was a strange connection between the character and his hair."

11. A PROP FROM THE HUDSUCKER PROXY INSPIRED THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.

Billy Bob Thornton in the Coen brothers' 'The Man Who Wasn't There' (2001)
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A bit of set dressing from 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy eventually led to 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a barbershop scene, there’s a poster hanging in the background that features a range of men’s hairstyles from the 1940s. The brothers liked the prop and kept it, and it’s what eventually served as the inspiration for The Man Who Wasn’t There.

12. GEORGE CLOONEY SIGNED ON TO O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? BEFORE EVEN READING THE SCRIPT.

The brothers visited George Clooney in Phoenix while he was making Three Kings (1999), wanting to work with him after seeing his performance in Out of Sight (1998). Moments after they put their script on Clooney’s hotel room table, the actor said “Great, I’m in.”

13. A SNAG IN THE MILLER’S CROSSING SCRIPT ULTIMATELY LED TO BARTON FINK.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

14. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY IS THE FIRST COEN MOVIE THAT WASN’T THE BROTHERS’ ORIGINAL IDEA.

In 1995, the Coens rewrote a script originally penned by other screenwriters, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano. They didn’t decide to direct the movie, which became Intolerable Cruelty, until 2003.

15. THE LADYKILLERS WAS WRITTEN FOR BARRY SONNENFELD TO DIRECT.

A still from the Coen Brothers' 'The Ladykillers.'
Melinda Sue Gordon, SMPSP - © 2004 - Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

The Coens effortlessly jump from crime thriller to comedy without missing a beat. So when they were commissioned to write a remake of the British black comedy The Ladykillers for director Barry Sonnenfeld, it seemed to fall in line with their cinematic sensibilities. When Sonnenfeld dropped out of the project, the Coens were hired to direct the film.

16. BURN AFTER READING MARKED THE FIRST TIME SINCE MILLER’S CROSSING THAT THE COENS DIDN’T WORK WITH THEIR USUAL CINEMATOGRAPHER, ROGER DEAKINS.

Instead, eventual Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki acted as the director of photography. The Coens would work with Deakins again on every one of their films until 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

17. IT TOOK SOME CONVINCING TO GET JAVIER BARDEM TO SAY “YES” TO NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Though it’s hard to imagine No Country for Old Men without Javier Bardem’s menacing—and Oscar-winning—performance as antagonist Anton Chigurh, he almost passed on the role. “It’s not something I especially like, killing people—even in movies,” Bardem said of his disdain for violence. “When the Coens called, I said, ‘Listen, I’m the wrong actor. I don’t drive, I speak bad English, and I hate violence.’ They laughed and said, ‘Maybe that’s why we called you.”’

18. PATTON OSWALT AUDITIONED FOR A SERIOUS MAN.

Patton Oswalt auditioned for the role of the obnoxious Arthur Gopnik in A Serious Man, a part that ultimately went to Richard Kind. Oswalt talked about his audition while appearing on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, in which it was also revealed that Maron was being considered for the lead role of Larry Gopnik (the role that earned Michael Stuhlbarg his first, and so far only, Golden Globe nomination).

19. THE CAT IN INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS WAS “A NIGHTMARE.”

A photo of Oscar Isaac in the Coen brothers' 'Inside Llewyn Davis' (2013).
© 2013 - CBS Films

Ulysses, the orange cat who practically stole Inside Llewyn Davis away from Oscar Isaac, was reportedly a bit of a diva. “The cat was a nightmare,” Ethan Coen said on the DVD commentary. “The trainer warned us and she was right. She said, uh, ‘Dogs like to please you. The cat only likes to please itself.’ A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don't want them to do, if anyone's interested; I don't know if there's a market for that.”

20. THE COEN BROTHERS PROBABLY DON’T LOVE THE BIG LEBOWSKI AS MUCH AS YOU DO. 

We’re assuming the Coen brothers are plenty fond of The Dude; after all, he doesn’t end up facing imminent death or tragedy, which is more than most of their protagonists have going for them. But in a rare Coen brothers interview in 2009, Joel Coen flatly stated, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.”

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