8 Movie Star Life Stories (That Were Completely Made Up)

You know you shouldn't believe everything you read about famous actors and actresses. Here are eight stars whose life stories (or significant parts thereof) were as fictional as the movies they starred in.

1. Theda Bara

The publicists promoting Theda Bara, Hollywood's first major sex symbol, let their imaginations run wild. She was introduced in fan magazines as the daughter of a desert prince and an Italian or French sculptor (or an Egyptian seeress, depending on the story you read). "Born in the shadow of the Sphinx," and weaned on serpent's blood, she was "a crystal-gazing seeress of profoundly occult powers." She had previously been a star of the Paris stage and, in her spare time, she drove men wild with desire. She would also go heavily veiled in public (thanks to a contractual obligation) and was often photographed with skeletons.

In actuality, she was a girl from Cincinnati named Theodosia Goodman, the daughter of a Jewish tailor. Can you believe that people used to fall for that "daughter of an Egyptian seeress" line? In truth, she was known to be demure and prudent. As a teenage actor on the New York stage (sorry, not Paris), she had tried to make herself sound exotic (or at least non-Jewish) by calling herself Theodosia de Coppet.

But it was as Theda Bara that she became a superstar. She later told stories of public exclusion and being refused service in restaurants. "Audiences thought the stars were the way they saw them," she recalled. "Once on the streets of New York a woman called the police because her child spoke to me."

2. Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks was one of the top film stars of the silent era, a successful producer, and an all-around athlete. The evidence is still there, on film. Many of the things he said about himself, however, were not so reliable. Was he a Wall Street stockbroker (which was a great job back then, when the stock market was cool)? Was he a cattle freighter? Or were they just stories?

If you believe one story that he told throughout his life, he was a Harvard graduate. However, there is no record of him on that university's esteemed register. Perhaps he was trying to add an intellectual side to his dashing image. Or perhaps there's truth to the story that he attended Harvard for a few months before deciding to travel to Europe – and the "graduation" part of the story was added later. Whatever the case, his son Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (a top star in his own right) said that it was one of many tall tales that his father made up about his early life.

3. Erich von Stroheim

Before he became known as one of Hollywood's great directors, Erich von Stroheim was the classic evil German soldier in many films made during World War I – and, like Theda Bara, audiences had trouble telling him apart from his roles. People would heckle and spit at him in the streets. But unlike Bara, he loved the attention, as it proved what an effective movie villain he was.

Although he seemed German enough, he wasn't quite there. When it was revealed that he was actually born in Vienna, he claimed to be of a noble Austrian family. In fact, his parents were Jews from Prussia and the Czech Republic. He was an officer in the Austrian army before moving to America at age 21. He wasn't an evil German; in fact, despite his name (and, as later films would reveal, his accent), he wasn't even German.

4. Max Schreck

German actor Max Schreck's unusual features inspired director F.W. Murnau to cast him as the title vampire in the horror classic Nosferatu (1922). Schreck's performance was so chilling that, as nobody remembers him for anything else, legend states that he was a real-life vampire, cast in just one film. Many horror fans, in fact, believe that this might be true. In the film Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Willem Dafoe played him like this, as a mysterious actor who avoided the sunlight and casually sucked the blood from a low-flying bat. Dafoe's performance won him an Oscar nomination and was added to Schreck's vampirical reputation.

In fact, Schreck was a happily married man who was a 43-year-old established theatre actor when Nosferatu (his fifth film) was released. Though he specialized in horror, he made several more films in Germany (usually playing non-vampires) until his death of a heart attack in 1936. None of them, however, are even remotely as famous as Nosferatu.

5. Adolphe Menjou

Another silent movie star, Adolphe Menjou was famous as a debonair charmer, with a waxy mustache and an impeccable dress sense. His name fit the image perfectly, allowing his fans to assume that he was French. The truth was less glamorous. He was actually an Irish-American born in Pittsburgh.

When talking pictures came in, many stars' voices revealed them as frauds. Menjou, however, used a French accent to match his name in his first speaking role as a womanizing musician in Fashions in Love (1929). Formerly a stage actor, he was skilled with his voice, but movie stardom meant maintaining an image. He continued making films for another 30 years, though he eventually dropped the accent.

6. Errol Flynn

Many stories have been told about Errol Flynn: high seas adventurer, gun runner, alcoholic, morphine addict, murderer, serial adulterer (no one denies that one), Nazi spy. In his best-selling autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, he boasted about his misdeeds, but that's OK, because much of it was a lie. We can't be sure of exactly how much, but some of it we know was untrue.

He claimed, for example, that his film debut was playing Fletcher Christian in In the Wake of the Bounty. That's true enough, but he also said that he was discovered by an American producer named Joel Schwartz, and the film was shot on location in Tahiti. He was actually discovered by Australian producer-director Charles Chauvel, and the movie was filmed in Sydney. (Unlike Merle Oberon, he didn't want anyone to see him as an Australian. Doubt has even been cast over whether he was Australian-born.)

Even less reliable, perhaps, was Charles Higham's Errol Flynn: The Untold Story (1980). Higham accused Flynn of being all sorts of things: a closet bisexual, a drug-runner, a pedophile (OK, that was technically true), and a Nazi spy, supplying Japan with crucial intelligence for the Pearl Harbor attack. This was discredited by many of Higham's own sources, who accused him of inventing their quotes. Flynn's family tried to sue the author, but the case was thrown out of court because, as Higham was doubtless aware, the dead can't be libeled under American law. Instead, some of the stories gained wide acceptance – and added to the myth.

7. Shirley Eaton

Jill Masterson is one of the most famous James Bond girls, which is no mean achievement, as she really didn't have to do much, dying in an early scene of Goldfinger (1964) after betraying her titular boss, who suffocates her by covering her in gold paint. Jill's painted corpse, lying naked on the bed, still ranks as one of the most memorable sights from the Bond movies – and led to a long-running story that, like the character she played, Shirley Eaton had also died of asphyxiation thanks to Goldfinger. The story was so widespread that it might have done some damage to the career of the 27-year-old starlet (who already had a lengthy CV of British comedies), but she went on to make another eight movies before retiring in 1969, then wrote an autobiography called Golden Girl. Not bad for a dead woman!

Oh, and painting your body to death? As long as you can breathe through your mouth and nose, asphyxiation shouldn't be a problem.

8. Walter Matthau

Craggy-faced comedy star Walter Matthau was born Walter Matuschanskyayasky. His middle name was Foghorn and his mother was a gypsy. Or maybe not. Thought he would stick by such "facts" in several interviews, these were jokes that he told so that he wasn't driven crazy by his constant procession of media calls. In truth, his surname was Matthow (which has exactly the same pronunciation) and his parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants in New York. Those who knew him said that it was often difficult to know whether he was joking or being serious. Hence, it's anyone's guess whether his father was an Orthodox priest who lost his job after claiming that the Pope was infallible.


Mark Juddery is an author and historian based in Australia. His latest book, Overrated: The 50 Most Overhyped Things in History (Perigree), is already causing a stir. You can order it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can see a slideshow excerpt from the book, and you can argue with Mark's choices (or suggest new ones) on his blog. Mark offers one tip: If you want to say "This book is overrated"... it's been done.

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Neilson Barnard, Getty Images
5 Actors Who Have Quit Movies After Backlash
Neilson Barnard, Getty Images
Neilson Barnard, Getty Images

Sometimes a movie and an actor love each other very much, and the pair of them sail to critical and commercial success together on golden wings. Other times … it's a little different. Less than two weeks after the announcement that Scarlett Johansson would play a transgender man in Rub & Tug, a biopic of crime boss Dante “Tex” Gill, the four-time Golden Globe nominee dropped out of the project after a wave of critical backlash about the casting decision.

"In light of recent ethical questions raised surrounding my casting as Dante Tex Gill, I have decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project," Johansson said in a statement to Out.com. "Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I've learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive."

Johansson is not the only well-known actor who has taken action in the wake of public criticism. Here are five other times things just got too complicated.

1. WILL FERRELL

Will Ferrell
Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images

Will Ferrell, already famous for playing one President during his tenure on Saturday Night Live, was all set to play another one in a comedy based on Mike Rosolio’s Black List script, Reagan. Per Variety, Ferrell would have played President Ronald Reagan as he entered his second term, right around the time dementia started to kick in; to deal with the leader of the free world’s declining mental state, “an ambitious intern is tasked with convincing the commander-in-chief that he is an actor playing the president in a movie.” The “would have” is because, just days after it was announced that Ferrell would be starring in the film in 2016, it was announced that he was backing away from the project following extensive backlash, most notably from Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis.

“I watched as fear invaded my father’s eyes—this man who was never afraid of anything. I heard his voice tremble as he stood in the living room and said, ‘I don’t know where I am,’” Davis wrote in an open letter. “There was laughter in those years,” she continued, “but there was never humor.”

Ferrell’s spokesperson subsequently told Page Six that, “The Reagan script is one of a number of scripts that had been submitted to Will Ferrell which he had considered. While it is by no means an ‘Alzheimer’s comedy’ as has been suggested, Mr. Ferrell is not pursuing this project.”

2. LEONARDO DICAPRIO

In 2010, Mel Gibson’s planned Viking epic Berserker lost its lead actor in Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio has never offered a candid explanation as to why he left—unsurprisingly, actors tend to be pretty closed-lipped about that sort of thing—but given the news of his departure broke two and a half weeks after audio of (one of) Gibson’s infamous racist rant(s) was leaked online … we can guess a desire to avoid that particular PR firestorm probably had something to do with it. As of 2012, Gibson was still trying to get the movie made.

3. ZENDAYA

Zendaya
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images for Marie Claire

In 2014, up-and-coming actress/Disney Channel star Zendaya Coleman dropped out of the lead role in Lifetime’s biopic Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B. The main reasons, the actress explained, were the film’s production values (or lack thereof) and “complications with the music rights.” However, another major factor was the film’s lack of support from the family of the late singer, who died in a plane crash at the age of 22. “I tried my best to reach out to the family on my own, and I wrote a letter, but I was unable to do so; therefore, I felt not really morally OK with moving forward with the project,” explained Coleman. She was replaced by Alexandra Shipp.

4. CHRISTIAN BALE

Before Michael Fassbender took the lead in Steve Jobs, it was Christian Bale donning the black turtleneck and wire-rimmed glasses in Danny Boyle’s Jobs biopic. Bale, however, “couldn’t really see [how to play the part],” Boyle explained, and eventually dropped out. (Sources told The Hollywood Reporter that he “came to the conclusion he was not right for the part.”) This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that Jobs’ widow, Laurene, was actively trying to stop the movie from being made. An unnamed “key player” told The Hollywood Reporter that, “from the very beginning, Laurene Jobs has been trying to kill this movie … Laurene Jobs called up Leonardo DiCaprio [who was considering the role at one point] and said, ‘Don’t do it!’ Laurene Jobs called Christian Bale and said, ‘Don’t [do it].’” A Sony executive confirms that Jobs “had a strong desire not to have the movie made” and “did call one or two of the actors.”

5. SACHA BARON COHEN 

Sacha Baron Cohen
Christopher Polk, Getty Images

Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic of late Queen singer Freddie Mercury, has not had an easy time of things. Lingering in various circles of development hell since 2010, with directors (including David Fincher and Tom Hooper) dropping like flies, the film took a big hit in 2013 when star Sacha Baron Cohen dropped out. The reason? Backlash from the surviving members of Queen, who (per Cohen) wanted a more cleaned-up version of Mercury’s life that focused more on the band as a whole: “A member of the band—I won’t say who—said, ‘This is such a great movie, because such an amazing thing happens in the middle of the movie.’ I go, ‘What happens in the middle of the movie?’ He goes, ‘Freddie dies […] We see how the band carries on from strength to strength.’ And I said, ‘Listen, not one person is going to see a movie where the lead character dies from AIDS and then you carry on to see [what happens to the band].”

For his part, Queen’s Roger Taylor said he didn’t want the film to be “a joke,” while Brian May said that Cohen “became an arse” and “told untruths about what happened.” After languishing a bit longer, with Ben Whishaw being rumored to take the lead, it eventually proceeded into production with Mr. Robot star Rami Malek in the lead and Bryan Singer directing. It's scheduled for a November release.

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