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9 Big Names Who Lived Above the (Tax) Law

1. Spiro Agnew

It should come as no surprise that the right hand man of "Tricky Dick" Nixon may not have been quite on the straight and narrow. In 1973, just after Nixon and Agnew were elected to their second term as President and Vice President (respectively), Agnew became the subject of an investigation that alleged the Vice-President was not only a tax evader, but a money launderer to boot. As a result of the allegations, Agnew would resign as Vice President and would be sentenced to three years probation and fined $10,000. Less than 10 years later, he would be in court again. In 1981 he was ordered by a Maryland court to repay the nearly $300,000 he accepted in bribes while in office.

2. Boris Becker

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German tennis star Boris Becker was convicted of tax evasion in 2002. Officials say in the early 90s, Becker was trying to avoid paying notoriously high German taxes by living in Monaco, a tax haven. What he forgot to mention was that he also owned an apartment in Munich, which officials claim was his real place of residence. After a ten-year investigation, Becker admitted to the court that he knew little about German tax laws and may have done something wrong, but that the apartment was only a place to sleep between tournaments. The court was skeptical and forced him to repay the over 3 million euros he owed the government; he was also given a suspended jail sentence. Becker has since sold the Munich apartment and officially moved to Switzerland, another tax haven.

3. Willie Nelson

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Willie Nelson is the poster boy for tax evasion. In 1990, the IRS sent him a bill for $16.7 million dollars in back taxes. Faced with this rather large debt, Willie decided to try and pay the IRS back by releasing a double album entitled The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories? The IRS, ever helpful, sped up the process by selling nearly everything he owned. Lucky for Willie, his friends purchased most of the items and returned them to Willie either free of charge or for a nominal fee. He managed to pay back the IRS in only three years.

4. Darryl Strawberry

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He was the baseball's number one draft pick in 1980 and the Rookie of the Year in 1983, but talent, fame and fortune couldn't keep Darryl Strawberry out of trouble with the law. In addition to allegedly breaking the nose of his first wife, Strawberry was accused of hitting his pregnant girlfriend, violating his probation, soliciting sex from an undercover police officer, possession of cocaine, and a hit-and-run while on painkillers. If that wasn't enough to keep him busy, in the late 80s, he failed to pay taxes on income he made from autograph and memorabilia shows (The exact same thing Pete Rose would go to prison for in 1990). Strawberry was convicted of the tax charges in 1995 and ordered to pay back more than $450,000 in back taxes. Allegedly, he didn't. The government sued again, and in February of this year, Strawberry was ordered to pay the more than $430,000 he still owes for not having given the government the money they were due.

5. Richard Hatch

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The first winner of the American version of Survivor was well known for his lack of clothing on the show, as well as for his lack of paying his taxes. Hatch was convicted in 2006 of failing to report his over $1 million in winnings as a result of the show. In court, Hatch's lawyer said his client was "the world's worst bookkeeper" and that Hatch just forgot to report it. The judge didn't buy it and now Hatch is serving time in prison for his forgetfulness. He is expected to be released in October of 2009. Hopefully Hatch has learned this very valuable lesson. It's hard to hide a million dollars from the government, especially when an estimated 51 million people watched you win it.

6. Leona Helmsley

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In 1989, the late "Queen of Mean" was convicted of tax evasion relating to renovations she and her husband were making on their $11 million estate. During testimony, Helmsley's maid quoted her as saying "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes," an allegation she would later deny. She would spend 18 months in prison for cheating the government out of more than a million dollars. Helmsley passed away in August of 2007. At the time of her death, her estate was worth over $4 billion "“ $12 million of which she left to her white Maltese, Trouble.

7. Joseph Nunan

He's not exactly the most high profile tax evader in the world, but Joseph Nunan may hold the record for being the most ironic of our alleged cheaters. That's because Nunan was a former commissioner of the IRS (1944-1947) and in 1952 was busted for tax evasion. What sort of horrible fraud did he commit? Apparently Nunan won an $1,800 bet that Harry Truman would win the election, but forgot to claim his winnings on his taxes.

8. Wesley Snipes

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In 2006, the famous actor was indicted on conspiracy charges that alleged he falsified past tax returns. (He claimed he was due a refund of nearly $12 million.) The government alleges that Snipes claimed the refunds using the "861 argument," which states not all income is taxable. They also accused him of failing to file tax returns from 1999 to 2004. He was acquitted of the major conspiracy charge, but the court found him guilty of the three lesser misdemeanor charges for failing to file his tax returns. In April 2008, he was sentenced to three years in prison.

9. Al Capone

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As head of the Chicago underworld during the 1920s, Al Capone was involved in some less than legal activities. Dubbed Public Enemy #1, he became the focus of an intense investigation by the FBI. It was tough going for law enforcement; Capone owned nothing in his own name and used front men, making it almost impossible to get the charges the government threw at him to stick. That is, until a stack of paper would rat him out.

During a routine raid of one of Capone's warehouses, Eliot Ness and his "Untouchables" stumbled across a desk drawer containing account information for the mobster. It would be just enough to seal his fate. The man responsible for Chicago's then-illegal alcohol trade, the corrupting of local government and the St. Valentine's Day massacre wouldn't be taken down by some lousy capital murder charge. The king of Chicago would be done in by paperwork. Capone once allegedly said "The income tax law is a lot of bunk. The government can't collect legal taxes from illegal money." But this time, the government did collect. After his trial in 1931, Capone was ordered to pay $80,000 dollars in fines and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. He would serve only six and a half of those years, but they took their toll. While locked up, numerous attempts on his life were made and the syphilis he contracted during his youth would rapidly progress, leaving him a shadow of his former self. Suffering from syphilitic dementia, he was released 1939 and after another stint in jail, would live out the remainder of his days with his family in Florida.

Stefanie Fontanez is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com. She also designed this t-shirt.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
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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.

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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.

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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
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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.

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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

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