CLOSE

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
© 2017 USPS
arrow
Pop Culture
Speedy Delivery: Mister Rogers Will Get His Own Stamp in 2018
© 2017 USPS
© 2017 USPS

USPS 2018 Mister Rogers stamp
© 2017 USPS

After weeks of mailing out this year’s holiday cards, postage might be the last thing you want to think about. But the U.S. Postal Service has just given us a sneak peek at the many iconic people, places, and things that will be commemorated with their own stamps in 2018, and one in particular has us excited to send out a few birthday cards: Mister Rogers.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers’s groundbreaking PBS series that the USPS says “inspired and educated young viewers with warmth, sensitivity, and honesty,” the mail service shared a mockup of what the final stamp may look like. On it, Rogers—decked out in one of his trademark colorful cardigans (all of which were hand-knitted by his mom, by the way)—smiles for the camera alongside King Friday XIII, ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Though no official release date for Fred’s forever stamp has been given, Mister Rogers is just one of many legendary figures whose visages will grace a piece of postage in 2018. Singer/activist Lena Horne will be the 41st figure to appear as part of the USPS’s Black Heritage series, while former Beatle John Lennon will be the face of the newest Music Icons collection. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, will also be honored.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival
arrow
entertainment
15 Surprising Facts About Steve Buscemi
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

With his meme-worthy eyes, tireless work schedule, and penchant for playing lovable losers, Steve Buscemi is arguably the king of character actors. Moving seamlessly between big-budget films and shoestring independent projects, he’s appeared in well over 100 movies in the past 30 years. But if you think he’s anything like the oddballs and villains he regularly plays—well, you don’t know Buscemi. In celebration of the Brooklyn native's 60th birthday, here are 15 things you might not have known about the Golden Globe-winning actor.

1. HE WAS BORN ON A FRIDAY THE 13TH.

It only seems appropriate that Buscemi, who dies on screen so frequently, would be born on such a foreboding date. Growing up in Brooklyn and Valley Stream, New York, Buscemi also experienced plenty of real-life misfortune. As a kid, he was hit by a bus and by a car (in separate incidents). On the plus side, he used the money from the legal settlement following the bus accident to attend the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York City.

2. HE WAS A NEW YORK CITY FIREFIGHTER.

As a teenager, Buscemi worked a series of odd jobs: ice cream truck driver, mover, gas station attendant. He even sold newspapers in the toll lane of the Triborough Bridge. When Buscemi turned 18, his father, a sanitation worker, encouraged his son to take the civil service exam and become a New York City firefighter. Four years later, in 1980, the future star became a member of Engine Co. 55, located in New York City's Little Italy district. While he answered emergency calls during the day, at night Buscemi played improv clubs and auditioned for acting roles.

After four years working for the FDNY, Buscemi landed one of the lead roles in Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986), a drama set during the early days of AIDS in New York. Buscemi took a three-month leave of absence during filming, and afterwards decided not to return.

3. HE FORMED A COMEDY DUO WITH SONS OF ANARCHY’S MARK BOONE, JR.

For a brief while, Buscemi tried his hand at stand-up comedy (he bombed). In 1984, he met fellow aspiring actor Mark Boone, Jr., and the two began performing together. Part improv, part scripted comedy, the two would often carry out power struggles that pitted thin-man Buscemi against the larger Boone. The New York Times called their act “theater in the absurdist vein.”

4. HE DID NOT AUDITION FOR THE ROLE OF GEORGE COSTANZA.

Like any hard-working actor, Buscemi has had his share of failed auditions. His tryout for Alan Parker’s Fame lasted less than 30 seconds. In the late ‘80s, Martin Scorsese brought him in four different times to read for The Last Temptation of Christ. (Buscemi ended up reading every apostle’s part before being turned away.) He also auditioned for the part of Seinfeld’s George Costanza—at least according to numerous sources, including Jason Alexander himself. But it turns out this tidbit—fueled, no doubt, by the thought of a very twitchy, bug-eyed Costanza—isn’t true. On a recent episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Buscemi addressed the rumor in his typical good-natured way: “I never did [the audition] and I don’t know how to correct it because I don’t know how the Internet works.”

5. TREES LOUNGE WAS BASICALLY HIS LIFE AT 19.

After gaining momentum with roles in Mystery Train, Reservoir Dogs, Barton Fink, and other films, Buscemi took a turn behind the camera with 1996’s Trees Lounge. The movie, which he also wrote, follows a bumbling layabout named Tommy who spends most of his time at the title bar in the town where he grew up. It’s a classic flick for Buscemi fans and, according to the actor, it was pretty much his life as a teenager living on Long Island. “I was truly directionless, living with my parents,” Buscemi said in an interview. “I was driving an ice-cream truck and working at a gas station… The drinking age was 18 then, so I spent every night hanging out with my friends in bars, drinking.”

6. HE IS FULLY AWARE THAT HIS CHARACTERS OFTEN DIE.

Steve Buscemi in 'Fargo' (1996)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

He’s been shot numerous times, stabbed with an ice pick, riddled with throwing knives, tossed off a balcony, and fed to a wood chipper. Yes, Buscemi’s characters have died a variety of deaths, and the actor isn’t without a sense of humor about the whole matter. He’ll often joke in interviews that he’s living longer and longer as the years go by. Before the 2005 release of The Island, in which the aforementioned balcony-tossing occurs (and into a glass bar no less), Buscemi said he was happy his character lived almost a third of the way through the movie. Buscemi admitted that he will actually read ahead in any script he receives to see when and how he dies.

7. HE HAS A FAVORITE DEATH—AND IT ISN’T FARGO.

For connoisseurs of Buscemi's movie deaths, the demise of Fargo’s Carl Showalter by way of axe then wood chipper is the crème de la crème. But when asked about his own favorite onscreen death, Buscemi references another Coen brothers film: The Big Lebowski. In that movie his character, Donny Kerabatsos, succumbs to a heart attack. It’s a surprise for viewers, and so out-of-the-blue that Buscemi can’t help but be tickled at the randomness of it. “They thought, ‘Well, Buscemi’s in it, so we’ve gotta kill him,'" the actor said in an appearance on The Daily Show.

8. HIS CHARACTER IN CON AIR WAS WRITTEN SPECIFICALLY FOR HIM.

In Con Air, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced action movie filled with muscled-up prisoners, Buscemi played the most dangerous con of them all. His Garland Greene—a serial killer whose exploits “make the Manson family look like the Partridge family,” according to one character—enters the film strapped to a chair, Hannibal Lecter mask affixed to his face. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, a friend of Buscemi’s, wrote the part with him in mind, and was tickled when Buscemi accepted the role. To this day, fans will still serenade the actor with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

9. HIS CHARACTER IN DESPERADO IS NAMED AFTER HIM.

Steve Buscemi in Desperado
Columbia Pictures

Although he inevitably dies (courtesy of Danny Trejo’s throwing knives), Buscemi commands the opening of Desperado, Robert Rodriguez’s stylish revenge movie, regaling bar patrons with the story of the title gunslinger, played by Antonio Banderas. Because his character’s name is never mentioned, Rodriguez decided to have some fun and name him "Buscemi" in the credits.

10. HE WON’T FIX HIS TEETH.

Buscemi’s crooked smile has helped him portray lowlifes and losers throughout his career. Dentists have offered to fix the actor’s teeth, but he always turns them down, knowing how valuable those chompers are to the Buscemi brand. In a guest starring role on The Simpsons, Buscemi poked fun at the matter after a dentist offers to straighten his character’s teeth: “You’re going to kill my livelihood if you do that!”

11. THERE’S SOME CONFUSION OVER HOW TO PRONOUNCE HIS LAST NAME.

Many people pronounce his last name “Boo-shemmy,” but it turns out Buscemi himself pronounces it “Boo-semmy.” In interviews, Buscemi says he’s following his father’s pronunciation, and says he doesn’t begrudge anyone who says it differently. It turns out, though, that his fans have it right—or at least mostly right. On a trip to Sicily to visit family, Buscemi recounted recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he noticed everyone saying “Boo-SHAY-me.”

12. HE GOT STABBED IN A BAR FIGHT.

Steve Buscemi in 'Trees Lounge' (1996)
Live Entertainment

On April 12th, 2001, while filming Domestic Disturbance in Wilmington, North Carolina, Buscemi, co-star Vince Vaughn, and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg went out for late night drinks at the Firebelly Lounge. After Vaughn traded insults with another patron (whose girlfriend had apparently been flirting with Vaughn), the two stepped outside, and a brief scuffle ensued before the two were separated. Buscemi, who was among the crowd that had gathered, was then confronted by a man who, after a brief exchange, attacked the actor with a pocketknife. Buscemi suffered stab wounds to his face, throat, and hands, and had to return to New York to recuperate. His attacker, Timothy Fogerty, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. In typical good-guy fashion, Buscemi declined to press additional charges and instead insisted Fogerty enter a substance abuse program.

13. HE REJOINED HIS FIRE ENGINE IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

After the horrific attack on New York City’s Twin Towers on September 11, Buscemi—like many Americans—was desperate to help. Although it had been nearly 20 years since he had strapped on his fireman’s gear, the actor reunited with his Engine 55 brethren and for days scoured the towers’ debris for survivors. Buscemi didn’t want his actions publicized; when people asked to take his picture, he declined. It took more than 10 years, in fact, before word got out, thanks to a Facebook post from Engine 55. “Brother Steve worked 12-hour shifts alongside other firefighters digging and sifting through the rubble,” the post read. “This guy is a badass!”

14. HE NARRATES THE AUDIO TOUR AT EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY.

People who take a tour of the historic Philadelphia prison may notice a familiar voice coming through their listening device. So how did Buscemi end up lending his talents to such a seemingly obscure place? It turns out Eastern State is a popular location for film and photo shoots. Scenes from Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys were filmed there, as were album covers for artists like Tina Turner. In 2000, Buscemi scouted the penitentiary for a film project. The location didn’t work out, but the actor fell in love with the history and grand architecture of the 190-year-old prison. When officials asked for his help to celebrate the prison’s tenth year running tours, he agreed.

15. HE DIDN’T BELIEVE TERENCE WINTER WHEN HE OFFERED HIM THE LEAD IN BOARDWALK EMPIRE.


HBO

After years of playing disposable villains and losers on the periphery, Buscemi had grown accustomed to being passed over for leading roles. So when Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter offered him the part of corrupt politician Enoch “Nucky” Thompson in the award-winning HBO series, Buscemi offered his usual reply. “When Terry did call me and he said that he and Marty [Scorsese] wanted me to play this role, my response was, ‘Terry, I know you’re looking at other actors, and I just appreciate that my name is being thrown in,’" Buscemi recalled. "He said, ‘No, Steve, I just said we want you.’ It still didn’t sink in.” Eventually, of course, reality did sink in, and Buscemi went on to win a Golden Globe and Emmy Award across the show’s five seasons.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios