CLOSE

Lifestyles of the Rich, Famous and Surprisingly Smart

Danica McKellar of Wonder Years fame has written a textbook. Math Doesn't Suck encourages middle school girls to master mathematics. McKellar is even tutoring students through her website.

This got us thinking: If Winnie Cooper could grow up to be a math whiz, there must be similar stories about the academic pursuits of other famous people. With help from research editor Kara Kovalchik, we've compiled a list of twenty celebrities with impressive degrees and/or unexpected majors.

dolph.jpgDolph Lundgren is nothing like Ivan Drago, the mindless Russian machine he portrayed in Rocky IV. He's not even Russian. (He's a Swede.) Dolph has a masters degree in chemical engineering from the University of Sydney. He was even awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to M.I.T., but left after two weeks to pursue acting in New York. And he speaks five languages: Swedish, English, German, some French and some Japanese.

degree_BrianMay.jpgQueen guitarist Brian May recently earned his PhD in astronomy from London's Imperial College, handing in his thesis, "Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud." He's written a book called Bang! The Complete History of the Universe. May is also an active blogger, with a page on his official website called Brian's Soapbox.

cindycrawford.jpgCindy Crawford may not have her PhD. Or a masters. OK, she didn't even finish her freshman year of college. But up until that point, she was quite the scholar. Crawford was DeKalb High School's valedictorian and earned a scholarship to Northwestern, where she briefly studied chemical engineering. Then the whole modeling thing took off. The lesson: stay in school, unless you're supermodel hot.

Keep reading for Borat, Blossom and Hugh Hefner.

borat3.jpgBefore Ali G and Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen studied history at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he wrote his thesis on the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement. Before breaking into the fake-interviewer business, he worked for investment powerhouses JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs.

greggraffin.jpgGreg Graffin formed Bad Religion with a few high school classmates when he was 15. He is credited with helping rejuvenate the Los Angeles punk scene in the mid-1980s. And when he's not touring, he's a professor of life science at UCLA. Graffin "“ sorry, Dr. Graffin "“ earned a PhD in biology from Cornell. His thesis was titled "Monism, Atheism and the Naturalist Worldview: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology."

mayim.jpgWe don't set the bar too high for child stars. Avoid jail and rehab and exceed all expectations. But Mayim Bialik has kept her name out of the tabloids and her nose in the books. The former Blossom star is closing in on her PhD in neuroscience at UCLA. She's writing her thesis on Prader-Willi syndrome, a strange DNA disorder that forces its victims to go crazy and destroy their homes in a desperate search for food.

More tidbits about the academic lives of celebrities:

Art Garfunkel has a masters in mathematics from Columbia University.

Frank Capra graduated from Caltech (then named the Throop College of Technology) in 1918 with a degree in chemical engineering.

Jay Leno received his BA in speech therapy from Emerson College in 1973.

Gene Simmons of KISS studied education at Richmond College on Staten Island, and spent a stint teaching elementary school in Spanish Harlem. He also was a personal assistant for an editor at Vogue.

"Weird Al" Yankovic graduated as his high school's valedictorian at age 16, and later received his degree in architecture from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.

Mira Sorvino graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with a degree in East Asian studies.

"¢ Milwaukee Brewers lefty Chris Capuano graduated from Duke University with a degree in economics. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

"¢ Two-time Best Actress Oscar winner Jodie Foster earned a degree in literature from Yale. She graduated magna cum laude.

"¢ Although he didn't graduate, Ashton Kutcher studied biomedical engineering at the University of Iowa.

Mick Jagger attended the London School of Economics before dropping out to give music a try.

Steve Martin studied philosophy at California State University at Long Beach before transferring to UCLA and switching his major to theater studies. He left school to focus on comedy.

Hugh Hefner was a psychology major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and he graduated in under three years.

"¢ And let's finish things up by coming full circle. Danica McKeller's Wonder Years co-star, Fred Savage, graduated from Stanford University in 1999 with a degree in English. His brother Ben, of Boy Meets World fame, graduated from the same institution in 2004.

I'm sure there are scores of other celebrities with impressive (or unexpected) degrees or majors. If you know of one, add to the list.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images

Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
Getty Images

Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
Getty Images

To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
Getty Images

During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
Getty Images

David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
quiz
Scary Baby Names
iStock
iStock

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios