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Christopher Polk/Getty Images for DirecTV
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for DirecTV

The Stories Behind 15 Celebrity Stage Names

Christopher Polk/Getty Images for DirecTV
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for DirecTV

It's hard to overestimate the importance of having a solid, memorable name if you want to have a successful show business or literary career. So if you're born with a dud moniker, it might not hurt to change it. Have you ever wondered how some famous writers and performers came up with their pseudonyms? Here's a look at how some notables got their stage names.

1. Snoop Dogg

Snoop Dogg was born Calvin Broadus, but his parents nicknamed him "Snoopy" because he looked like the famous cartoon beagle.

2. Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks is a brilliantly funny man, but even he might not have made it too far in show business with his birth name: Albert Einstein.

Brooks originally tried to go by his first and middle names, Albert Lawrence, but decided that "sounded like a Vegas singer." The name Brooks was already in his family, so he ran with that. His brother, Bob Einstein, actually kept the family surname when he entered show biz, but even he's better known by an alias: Super Dave Osborne.

3. Whoopi Goldberg

Whoopi Goldberg took her stage name from the whoopee cushion. The actress, who was born Caryn Johnson, said that a tendency to break wind led a number of friends and colleagues to accuse her of being "like a whoopee cushion." According to Goldberg, she considered going by the name "Whoopi Cushion" when she advanced her comedy career, but her mother warned her that nobody would take her seriously with such a silly name. Her mom thought it would be smarter to pair "Whoopi" with a more serious name and proposed that her daughter use "Goldberg."

4. Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan was working at a construction site in Australia when he got his famous nickname: one of his co-workers couldn't pronounce Chan's first name, Kong-sang, so he called him "Little Jack" instead. The name soon morphed into "Jackie," and stayed that way.

5. Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss, but he took on the stage name Harry Houdini as a tribute to famed French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. "Harry" was the Americanized version of his childhood nickname, "Ehrie."

6. MC Hammer

MC Hammer got his nickname from his childhood job with the Oakland Athletics. Eccentric longtime A's owner Chuck Finley loved Stanley Kirk Burrell, the talented kid who danced in the team's parking lot and eventually became a batboy for the club. The benevolent owner called him "Little Hammer" because he thought Burrell looked like "Hammerin'" Hank Aaron. When Little Hammer picked up the mic, he became MC Hammer.

7. Alice Cooper

Alice Cooper, who was born Vincent Furnier, was supposedly playing with a Ouija board in the late 1960s when a 16th-century witch doctor named Alice Cooper contacted him. Furnier and his buddies then started a band called Alice Cooper with the magnetic Furnier in the lead role of "Alice." Since the name originally referred to the whole band and not just Furnier, he continues to pay an annual royalty to his old bandmates for the commercial use of the Alice Cooper name.

8. Sugar Ray Robinson

Sugar Ray Robinson was born Walker Smith, Jr., but once he began to make some noise as a boxer, commentators described his fighting style as "sweet as sugar." So beginning in 1939, his manager began promoting him as "Sugar Ray Robinson," and every future boxer named Ray suddenly had a nickname.

9. Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton was born Michael Douglas. He changed it because we already had a famous actor by that name. You may have heard of him.

10. LL Cool J

LL Cool J stands for "Ladies Love Cool James," as you may already know. What you might not know, though, is that the name wasn't necessarily true when it made its debut. When James Todd Smith and a buddy were 16 years old, they began calling themselves LL Cool J and Playboy Mikey D in the hopes that it would help their stock with the girls they tried to woo. In a 2008 interview with CBS' Early Show, LL admitted that the ladies didn't actually love cool James quite yet, saying, "It was just wishful thinking, just hoping for the best."

11. Pee-wee Herman

Paul Reubens' Pee-wee Herman character got his name from two different sources: Reubens owned a brand of harmonica called a Pee-wee, and he remembered a particularly high-strung grammar school classmate named Herman. Reubens later told Vanity Fair that he ran with the combination because, "I like that it didn't sound like a made-up name, that it was just kind of cruddy."

12. Sid Vicious

Sid Vicious—who was born John Simon Ritchie, and later went by John Beverley—got his famous stage name from Sex Pistols frontman John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon's old pet hamster, Sid. The bassist was playing with Lydon's hamster one day when the rodent bit him and forced him to exclaim, "Your Sid is vicious!" Lydon thought the remark was so amusing that he started calling his friend "Sid Vicious."

13. O. Henry

O. Henry wanted to send out some of his stories when he was a young writer working in New Orleans, but he wanted to use a pseudonym in case the tales weren't very good. One of his chums suggested that they scour the society page of a local newspaper for a good name, so they read an account of a fashionable ball and settled on the last name Henry. The writer then said he didn't want a long first name, so his buddy suggested going by an initial. They decided "O" was the easiest letter to write, so that's the initial that went on the stories.

14. John le Carré

John le Carré was working as a diplomat when he began writing novels, but the British Foreign Office didn't allow its employees to publish under their real names. The writer, who was born David John Moore Cornwell, claims that he took his pseudonym from a store he saw in London called "Le Carre."

15. Iron Eyes Cody

Iron Eyes Cody was one of Hollywood's most beloved Native American actors throughout the 20th century; you might remember him as the "Crying Indian" in the famous "Keep America Beautiful" ads. One thing most audiences didn't know, however, was that Cody was actually the son of Sicilian immigrants, not Native American. For most of his life, though, he maintained that he was actually part Cree and part Cherokee and even married a Native American woman. This arrangement surely made it easier to land Native American roles than his real name, Espera Oscar de Corti, would have.

An earlier version of this post originally appeared in 2010.

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Chloe Efforn
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Animals
John Lennon Was a Crazy Cat Lady
Chloe Efforn
Chloe Efforn

John Lennon was crazy about cats, and though he owned a couple of dogs (Sally and Bernard) over the years, he was better known for getting by with a little help from his feline friends.

1. ELVIS

Growing up, Lennon's beloved mother, Julia, had a named cat after Elvis Presley, whom Julia and John were both crazy about. The Lennons later realized they had misnamed Elvis when "he" gave birth to a litter of kittens in the cupboard, but they didn't change the cat's name based on that small mistake.

2. AND 3. TICH AND SAM

He had two other cats as a boy growing up in Liverpool: Tich and Sam. Tich passed away while Lennon was away at art school (which he attended from 1957 to 1960), and Sam was named after famous British diarist Samuel Pepys

4. TIM

One day, John Lennon found a stray cat in the snow, which his Aunt Mimi allowed him to keep. (John's Aunt Mimi raised him from a young boy through his late teenage years, and he affectionately referred to her as the Cat Woman.) He named the marmalade-colored half-Persian cat Tim.

Tim remained a special favorite of John's. Every day, he would hop on his Raleigh bicycle and ride to Mr. Smith's, the local fishmonger, where he would buy a few pieces of fish for Tim and his other cats. Even after John became famous as a Beatle, he would often call and check in on how Tim was doing. Tim lived a happy life and survived to celebrate his 20th birthday.

5. AND 6. MIMI AND BABAGHI

John and his first wife, Cynthia, had a cat named Mimi who was, of course, named after his Aunt Mimi. They soon got another cat, a tabby who they dubbed Babaghi. John and Cynthia continued acquiring more cats, eventually owning around 10 of them.

7. JESUS

As a Beatle, John had a cat named Jesus. The name was most likely John's sarcastic response to his "the Beatles are bigger than Jesus" controversy of 1966. But he wasn't the only band member with a cat named Jesus: Paul McCartney once had a trio of kittens named Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

8. AND 9. MAJOR AND MINOR

In the mid-1970s, John had an affair with his secretary, May Pang. One day, the studio receptionist brought a box of kittens into the recording studio where John and May were. "No," John immediately told May, "we can't, we're traveling too much." But she picked up one of the kittens and put it over her shoulder. Then John started stroking the kitten and decided to keep it. At the end of the day, the only other kitten left was a little white one that was so loud no one else wanted it. So they adopted it as well and named the pair Major and Minor.

10. AND 11. SALT AND PEPPER

John owned a pair of black and white cats with his wife Yoko Ono. As befitting John's offbeat sense of humor, many places report he christened the white cat Pepper and the black one Salt.

12. AND 13. GERTRUDE AND ALICE

John and Yoko also had two Russian Blue cats named Gertrude and Alice, who each met tragic ends. After a series of sicknesses, Gertrude was diagnosed with a virus that could become dangerous to their young son, Sean. John later said that he held Gertrude and wept as she was euthanized. 

Later, Alice jumped out of an open window in the Lennons' high-rise apartment at the Dakota and plunged to her death. Sean was present at the time of the accident, and he remembers it as the only time he ever saw his father cry.

14., 15. AND 16. MISHA, SASHA, AND CHARO

In later years, John also owned three cats he named Misha, Sasha, and Charo. Always an artist at heart, John loved to sketch his many cats, and he used some of these pictures as illustrations in his books.

This piece originally ran in 2012.

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entertainment
7 Famous Actors Who Starred in Obscure Short Films
Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

Well-known actors who can attract attention or lend prestige to film projects can often command significant salaries. Jack Nicholson, for example, reportedly made more than $50 million for portraying The Joker in 1989’s Batman after merchandising royalties were factored in. But performers don’t always opt for money—or even feature-length movies—if a filmmaker is persuasive enough. Here are several notable talents who agreed to appear in obscure short films for a variety of peculiar reasons.

1. HARRISON FORD // WATER TO WINE (2004)

Arguably one of the most successful leading men of the 20th century, Harrison Ford has always been candid about his criteria for film work. In addition to being intrigued by a role, he wants to be compensated. (“No, I got paid,” he told a talk show host who asked if he was nostalgic about returning to the Star Wars universe in 2015.) He apparently made an exception for Water to Wine, a 2004 amateur film shot by a group of snowboarders in Wyoming. Ford—who has a ranch in the state—accepted the role of “Jethro the Bus Driver” as a favor to the filmmakers, who were friends of his son, Malcolm. Ford’s sole request was that his name not appear in the credits.

2. BRYAN CRANSTON // WRITER’S BLOCK (2014)

Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston was shooting the feature film Cold Comes the Night in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy interrupted production. Rather than sit idle, the actor told the movie’s production assistants that if they wanted to try writing a short film, he’d shoot it immediately. Winner Brandon Polanco came up with Writer’s Block, a 13-minute black-and-white mood piece about an author wrestling with a lack of inspiration.

3. BILLY BOB THORNTON // THE LAST REAL COWBOYS (2000)

Billy Bob Thornton broke into Hollywood with his 1994 short film Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade that he later expanded into a full-length feature. That DIY approach may have helped director Jeff Lester entice the actor to star in The Last Real Cowboys, a short that featured Thornton as one of two main characters sitting next to a campfire. The production shot for just one day 50 miles outside of Las Vegas. 

4. OSCAR ISAAC // LIGHTNINGFACE (2016)

A year after Star Wars: The Force Awakens crossed $2 billion at the box office, Oscar Isaac (who portrayed Poe Dameron) appeared in this eccentric short by director Brian Petsos. Isaac is Basil Stitt, a man who gets hit in the face with lightning and is convinced he will soon develop supernatural abilities. Isaac and Petsos previously worked on a feature film, Ticky Tacky.

5. BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH // LITTLE FAVOUR (2013)

The BBC’s Sherlock helped make Benedict Cumberbatch a highly recognizable screen presence worldwide, which in turn helped this short film raise and exceed its $40,000 budget via the Indiegogo platform. Cumberbatch portrays a British intelligence officer active during the Iraq War who is contacted by an American spy to repay a favor. Cumberbatch, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for The Imitation Game in 2015, also produced the film.

6. MICHAEL FASSBENDER // PITCH BLACK HEIST (2012)

Two-time Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender co-stars in this tight heist thriller about two thieves who are forced to complete a job in total darkness. (Liam Cunningham, who plays Davos Seaworth on Game of Thrones, co-starred.) Director John Maclean knew Fassbender before the actor broke out in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds and convinced him to take the gig. The two later worked on the well-received 2015 Western Slow West.

7. BILL MURRAY // A FILM ABOUT WALKING IN SLOW MOTION (2012)

The urban legends surrounding Murray’s puckish behavior are well-documented, from crashing karaoke parties to spontaneously tending bar. In 2012, Murray was filming a promotional video for a school in South Carolina attended by his son. Afterward, director David Smith asked if he could film Murray walking down a hall with crew members. He complied—and then kept walking, out of the building and into his car. 

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