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9 Famous College Dropouts

Conventional wisdom tells us that a college degree will get you much further than only a high school diploma. But what about those who choose to cut out while pursuing their higher educations and go it alone, free from the constraints of academia? Do they ever prosper? Here are some individuals who succeeded, and how.

1. Steven Spielberg

Unlike Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and other film school-trained directors, Steven Spielberg was thrice denied entry into USC's elite directing program due to his C-average. He was eventually admitted into the film program at California State University, Long Beach, but dropped out in 1968 to make a 22-minute film entitled Amblin. It was that film that landed him a television-directing contract with Universal, making Spielberg the youngest director ever to be signed for a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio. In 2002, Spielberg completed his degree with Long Beach State via independent projects. He also received an honorary degree earlier this year from BU.

Candid video of Spielberg receiving his degree from BU:

2. Harry Truman

harry-truman-pictureThe 33rd President of the United States is also the only one post 1897 who didn't earn a college degree. Truman dreamt of attending college at West Point, but family financial difficulties forced him to work instead. Among Truman's early odd jobs were railroad timekeeper, bank clerk and mailroom attendant for the Kansas City Star. Truman did study law for a couple of years at the Kansas City Law School (now the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law), but eventually dropped out due to time constraints. At the age of 60, the college honored the former President by inviting him to become a member of their Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, which Truman accepted. Today there are two colleges named after Truman. Northeast Missouri State University was renamed Truman State University in 1996 to honor the only Missourian to become President, and in Chicago, Illinois there's Harry S. Truman College.

Harry Truman on education: "When you get an education, that is something nobody can take from you—money is only temporary—but what you have in your head, if you have the right kind of head, stays with you."

3. Ellen DeGeneres

ellen_degeneresBorn and raised in Metairie, Louisiana, it makes sense that Ellen attended the University of New Orleans. What doesn't make sense is that this smart cookie only lasted one semester before taking a job as a clerk at her cousin's law firm. From there she held a series of David Sedaris-esque jobs: working as a bartender, waitressing at TGIF's, shucking oysters, painting houses, and even selling clothes at the local Merry-Go-Round at the Lakeside Shopping Center in New Orleans.

Here's a hilarious soundbite of Ellen giving a commencement speech at Tulane earlier this year (my personal fav quote: "I'm not saying you wasted your time or money, but look at me, I'm a huge celebrity.")

4. Bill Gates

Bill_GatesBill Gates may have had the SAT scores to get into Harvard, (he scored a 1590 which corresponds to an IQ of 170) but he certainly didn't have the stamina to stay in school. Gates spent most of his time using the school's computers, and eventually left the renowned Ivy League institution his sophomore year to start Microsoft (then called Micro-Soft). Not all of Gate's time at Harvard was for naught, however. In fact, it was at Harvard that he met Steve Ballmer, who later became the CEO of Microsoft. Gates returned to his alma mater 33 years later in June of 2007, where he received an honorary doctorate.

Gates speaking after receiving his honorary doctorate:

5. Ted Turner

ted_turner-afThe founder of CNN was also a bit of a tomcat as an undergrad. Turner's father was a wealthy billboard magnate and was able to give his son the best education money could buy. Ted attended Brown University, where he majored in classics, a choice that horrified his father. Ted ultimately switched his major to economics, but was expelled for having a female student in his dorm room. Turner was never an outstanding student but managed to apply what little knowledge he learned form those boring economics courses into his father's business. He took over his father's company at the age of 24 and turned it into the global enterprise it is today.

Turner on studying Classics at Brown: "I would have not been as successful if it had not been for my classical background... it made me a better businessman."

6. John Glenn

glenn300The first American to orbit the Earth also studied chemistry at Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio. It was there that he received his pilots license in 1941. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Glenn dropped out of college and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He flew 59 combat missions over the South Pacific during World War II, and continued flying military aircraft well into the Korean War. His wingman on a few of those Korean missions was none other than future baseball hall-of-famer, Ted Williams. Glenn never finished college, but it was his expertise as a fighter pilot that impressed NASA enough to pick him as one of the original astronauts for their Mercury Project.

John Glenn on his alma mater: "I've always believed that New Concord and Muskingum College are the center of the universe, because if you get your start here, you can go anywhere."

7. Jack Kerouac

jackToday he's known for his spontaneous prose, best represented in 1957's On the Road, but early in his life, Jack Kerouac was just another jock on a football scholarship. Kerouac, who received an athletic scholarship to attend Columbia University in New York, argued constantly with his coach and was benched through most of his freshman season. His football career ended after he cracked his tibia, and he subsequently dropped out. Although his time there was brief, Kerouac would meet Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady at Columbia. These early relationships would forge the foundation for what would become The Beat Generation.

8. James Dean

james-dean-729587Shortly after graduating from Fairmount High School in Indiana, James Dean moved to California and enrolled in Santa Monica College. At SMC, Dean begrudgingly majored in pre-law to satisfy a controlling father, but eventually changed his major to drama and transferred to UCLA. His father disapproved, of course, and the two were estranged for the rest of Dean's life. While at UCLA, Dean beat out hundreds of actors for the role of Malcolm in Macbeth. In January, 1951, he dropped out of UCLA to pursue a full-time acting career. His first professional gig was for this Pepsi commercial.

9. Woody Allen

woody_allenWoody Allen always wanted to make movies and after high school, enrolled in the film program at New York University. But Woody could never stay focused and spent most of his time writing jokes for local newspaper columnists. He was eventually expelled from NYU after failing a film course and briefly attended City College of New York, but dropped out. He may not have been a committed student, but making $75 a week, the 19-year-old had good reason to drop out, as he was making far more than his parents writing comedy bits for the radio personality Herb Shriner.

Woody Allen (stand-up) on his college experience: "I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy next to me."

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11 Things You Didn't Know About Dolly Parton
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Brendon Thorne, Getty Images

Over the past 50-some years, Dolly Parton has gone from a chipper country starlet to a worldwide icon of music and movies whose fans consistently pack a theme park designed (and named) in her honor. Dolly Parton is loved, lauded, and larger than life. But even her most devoted admirers might not know all there is to this Backwoods Barbie.

1. YOU WON'T FIND HER ON A DOLLYWOOD ROLLER COASTER.

Her theme park Dollywood offers a wide variety of attractions for all ages. Though she's owned it for more than 30 years, Parton has declined to partake in any of its rides. "My daddy used to say, 'I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,' I am the same way," she once explained. "I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."

2. SHE ENTERED A DOLLY PARTON LOOK-A-LIKE CONTEST—AND LOST.


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Apparently Parton doesn't do drag well. “At a Halloween contest years ago on Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the guys were dressed up like me, I just over-exaggerated my look and went in and just walked up on stage," she told ABC. "I didn’t win. I didn’t even come in close, I don’t think.”

3. SHE SPENT A FORTUNE TO RECREATE HER CHILDHOOD HOME.

Parton and her 11 siblings were raised in a small house in the mountains of Tennessee that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. When Parton bought the place, she hired her brother Bobby to restore it to the way it looked when they were kids. "But we wanted it to be functional," she recounted on The Nate Berkus Show, "So I spent a couple million dollars making it look like I spent $50 on it! Even like in the bathroom, I made the bathroom so it looked like an outdoor toilet.” You do you, Dolly.

4. SHE WON'T APOLOGIZE FOR RHINESTONE.


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Parton is well-known for her hit movies Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, less so for the 1984 flop Rhinestone. The comedy musical about a country singer and a New York cabbie was critically reviled and fled from theaters in just four weeks. But while her co-star Sylvester Stallone has publicly regretted the vehicle, Parton declared in her autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business that she counts Rhinestone's soundtrack as some of her best work, especially "What a Heartache."

5. SHE IS MILEY CYRUS'S GODMOTHER, SORT OF.

"I'm her honorary godmother. I've known her since she was a baby," Parton told ABC of her close relationship with Miley Cyrus. "Her father (Billy Ray Cyrus) is a friend of mine. And when she was born, he said, 'You just have to be her godmother,' and I said, 'I accept.' We never did do a big ceremony, but I'm so proud of her, love her, and she's just like one of my own." Parton also played Aunt Dolly on Cyrus's series Hannah Montana.

6. SHE RECEIVED DEATH THREATS FROM THE KU KLUX KLAN.

A photo of Dolly Parton on stage
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In the mid-2000s, Dollywood joined the ranks of family amusement parks participating in "Gay Days," a time when families with LGBT members are encouraged to celebrate together in a welcoming community environment. This riled the KKK, but their threats didn't scare Dolly. "I still get threats," she has admitted, "But like I said, I'm in business. I just don't feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody."

7. TO PROMOTE LITERACY, SHE STARTED HER OWN "LIBRARY."

In 1995, the pop culture icon founded Dolly Parton's Imagination Library with the goal of encouraging literacy in her home state of Tennessee. Over the years, the program—built to mail children age-appropriate books—spread nationwide, as well as to Canada, the UK, and Australia. When word of the Imagination Library hit Reddit, the swarms of parents eager to sign their kids up crashed the Imagination Library site. It is now back on track, accepting new registrations and donations.

8. PARTON'S HOMETOWN HAS A STATUE IN HER HONOR.

A stone's throw from Dollywood, Sevierville, Tennessee is where Parton grew up. Between stimulating tourism and her philanthropy, this proud native has given a lot back to her hometown. And Sevierville residents returned that appreciation with a life-sized bronze Dolly that sits barefoot, beaming, and cradling a guitar, just outside the county courthouse. The sculpture, made by local artist Jim Gray, was dedicated on May 3, 1987. Today it is the most popular stop on Sevierville's walking tour.

9. THE CLONED SHEEP DOLLY WAS NAMED AFTER PARTON.

In 1995 scientists successfully created a clone from an adult mammal's somatic cell. This game-changing breakthrough in biology was named Dolly. But what about Parton inspired this honor? Her own groundbreaking career? Some signature witticism or beloved lyric? Nope. It was her legendary bustline. English embryologist Ian Wilmut revealed, "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's."

10. SHE TURNED DOWN ELVIS.

After Parton made her own hit out of "I Will Always Love You," Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reached out in hopes of having Presley cover it. But part of the deal demanded Parton surrender half of the publishing rights to the song. "Other people were saying, 'You're nuts. It's Elvis Presley. I'd give him all of it!'" Parton admitted, "But I said, 'I can't do that. Something in my heart says don't do that.' And I didn't do it and they didn't do it." It may have been for the best. Whitney Houston's cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992 was a massive hit that has paid off again and again for Parton.

11. SHE JUST EARNED TWO GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS.

Parton is no stranger to breaking records. And on January 17, 2018 it was announced that she holds not one but two spot in the Guinness World Records 2018 edition: One for Most Decades With a Top 20 Hit on the US Hot Country Songs Chart (she beat out George Jones, Reba McEntire, and Elvis Presley for the honor) and the other for Most Hits on US Hot Country Songs Chart By a Female Artist (with a total of 107). Parton said she was "humbled and blessed."

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15 Things You Didn't Know About Betty White
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Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

Happy birthday, Betty White! In honor of the ever-sassy star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls's 96th birthday, let's celebrate with a collection of fun facts about her life and legacy. 

1. HER NAME IS BETTY, NOT ELIZABETH

On January 17th, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, the future television icon was born Betty Marion White, the only child of homemaker Christine Tess (née Cachikis) and lighting company executive Horace Logan White. In her autobiography If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), White explained her parents named her "Betty" specifically because they didn't like many of the nicknames derived from "Elizabeth." Forget your Beths, your Lizas, your Ellies. She's Betty.

2. SHE'S A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD HOLDER.

In the 2014 edition of the record-keeping tome, White was awarded the title of Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female) for her more than 70 years (and counting) in show business. The year before, Guinness gave out Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Male) to long-time British TV host Bruce Forsyth. As both began their careers in 1939, they'd be neck-and-neck for the title, were they not separated by gender.

3. HER FIRST TELEVISION APPEARANCE IS LOST TO HISTORY.

A photo of Betty White
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Even White can't remember the name of the show she made her screen debut on in 1939. But in an interview with Guinness Book of World Records, she recounted the life-changing event, saying, "I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the west coast, in downtown Los Angeles. I wore my high school graduation dress and our Beverly Hills High student body president, Harry Bennett, and I danced the 'Merry Widow Waltz.'" 

4. WHITE'S RISE TO STARDOM WAS DERAILED BY WORLD WAR II.

Before she took off on television, White was working in theater, on radio, and as a model. But with WWII, she shelved her ambitions and joined the American Women's Voluntary Services. Her days were devoted to delivering supplies via PX truck throughout the Hollywood Hills, but her nights were spent at rousing dances thrown to give grand send-offs to soldiers set to ship out. Of that era, she told Cleveland Magazine, "It was a strange time and out of balance with everything." 

5. HER FIRST SITCOM HIT WAS IN THE EARLY 1950S.

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Co-hosting the Al Jarvis show Hollywood on Television led to White producing her own vehicle, Life With Elizabeth. As a rare female producer, she developed the show alongside emerging writer-producer George Tibbles, who'd go on to work on such beloved shows as Dennis The Menace, Leave It To Beaver, and The Munsters. Though the show is not remembered much today, in 1951 it did earn White her first Emmy nomination of 21 (so far). Of these, she's won five times.

6. WHITE LOVES A PARADE.

From 1962 to 1971, White hosted NBC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade alongside Bonanza's Lorne Greene. But that's not all. For 20 years (1956-1976), she was also a color commentator for NBC’s annual Tournament of Roses Parade. However, as her fame grew on CBS's The Mary Tyler Moore Show, NBC decided they should pull White (and all the rival promotion that came with her) from their parade. It was a decision that was heartbreaking for White, who told People, "On New Year's Day I just sat home feeling wretched, watching someone else do my parade."

7. SHE HAS BEEN MARRIED THREE TIMES.


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White and her first husband, Dick Barker, were married and divorced in the same year, 1945. After four months on Barker's rural Ohio chicken farm, White fled back to Los Angeles and her career as an entertainer. Soon after, she met agent Lane Allen, who became her husband in 1947, and her ex-husband in 1949 after he pushed her to quit show biz. She wouldn’t marry again until 1963, after she fell for widower/father of three/game show host Allen Ludden.

8. HER MEET-CUTE WITH HUSBAND #3 HAPPENED ON PASSWORD.

Bubbly Betty was a regular on the game show circuit, but she met her match in 1961 when she was a celebrity guest on Password, hosted by Allen Ludden. Though White initially rebuffed Ludden's engagement ring (he wore it around his neck until she changed her mind), the pair stayed together until his death in 1981. Today, their stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame sit side-by-side.

9. WHITE ORIGINALLY AUDITIONED FOR THE ROLE OF BLANCHE ON THE GOLDEN GIRLS.

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Producers of the series thought of White for the role of the ensemble's promiscuous party girl because she'd long played the lusty Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Meanwhile, they eyed Rue McClanahan for the part of naive country bumpkin Rose Nylund because of her work as the sweet but dopey Vivian Harmon on Maude. Director Jay Sandrich was worried about typecasting, so he asked the two to switch roles in the audition. And just like that, The Golden Girls history was made.

10. IF SHE HADN'T BEEN AN ACTOR, SHE'D HAVE BEEN A ZOOKEEPER.

"Hands down," she confessed in a 2014 interview. This should come as little surprise to those aware of White's reputation as an avid animal lover and activist. Not only does she try to visit the local zoo of wherever she may travel, but also she's a supporter of the Farm Animal Reform Movement and Friends of Animals group, as well as a Los Angeles Zoo board member, who has donated "tens of thousands of dollars" over the past 40 years. In 2010, White founded a T-shirt line whose profits go to the Morris Animal Foundation.

11. SHE DIDN'T DO AS GOOD AS IT GETS BECAUSE OF AN ANIMAL CRUELTY SCENE.

A photo of actress Betty White
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White was offered the part of Beverly Connelly, onscreen mother to Helen Hunt, in the Oscar-winning movie As Good as It Gets. But the devoted animal lover was horrified by the scene where Jack Nicholson's curmudgeonly anti-hero pitches a small dog down the trash chute of his apartment building. On The Joy Behar Show White explained, "All I could think of was all the people out there watching that movie … and if there's a dog in the building that's barking or they don't like—boom! They do it." She complained to director James L. Brooks in hopes of having the scene cut. Instead, he kept it and cast Shirley Knight in the role.

12. A FACEBOOK CAMPAIGN MADE WHITE THE OLDEST SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE HOST EVER.

In 2010, a Facebook group called Betty White To Host SNL … Please? gathered so many fans (nearly a million) and so much media attention that SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels was happy to make it happen. At 88 years old, White set a new record. Her episode, for which many of the show's female alums returned, also won rave reviews, and gave the show's highest ratings in 18 months. White won her fifth Emmy for this performance.

13. SHE IS THE OLDEST PERSON TO EARN AN EMMY NOMINATION.


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In 2014, White earned her 21st Emmy nod—and her third in a row for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program—for the senior citizen-centric prank show Betty White's Off Their Rockers. She was 92. She also holds the record for the longest span between Emmy nominations, between her first (1951) and last (so far).  

14. SHE LOVES JUNK FOOD.

The key to aging gracefully has nothing to do with health food as far as White is concerned. In 2011, her Hot in Cleveland co-star Jane Leeves dished on White's snacking habits, "She eats Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries, and Diet Coke. If that's key, maybe she's preserved because of all the preservatives." Fellow co-star Wendie Malick concurred, "She eats red licorice, like, ridiculously a lot. She seems to exist on hot dogs and French fries." 

15. SHE WANTS ROBERT REDFORD.

A photo of actor Robert Redford
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White once gave this cheeky confession: “My answer to anything under the sun, like ‘What have you not done in the business that you’ve always wanted to do?’ is ‘Robert Redford.'” Though she has more than 110 film and television credits on her filmography, White has never worked with the Out of Africa star, who is 14 years her junior.

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