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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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10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars
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Winning an Oscar is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you’re Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you’d think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are, Colin Firth.

1. ANGELINA JOLIE

After Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world wrinkle their noses, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage with the rest of Marcheline’s belongings when she died in 2007, but it hasn’t yet surfaced. “I didn’t actually lose it,” Jolie said, “but nobody knows where it is at the moment.”

2. WHOOPI GOLDBERG

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. “Oscar will never leave my house again,” Goldberg said.

3. OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

When Olympia Dukakis’s Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. “For $78,” they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. MARLON BRANDO

“I don’t know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront,” Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. “Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared.” He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. “The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don’t know where it is now.”

5. JEFF BRIDGES

Jeff Bridges had just won his Oscar in 2010 for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the next year’s ceremony, where he was up for another one. He lost to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. “It’s been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now,” the actor admitted. “I’m hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven’t won a spare! But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better.” Which brings us to ...

6. COLIN FIRTH

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed the British actor as he said those words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. MATT DAMON

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn’t sure where his award went. “I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it,” Damon said in 2007.

8. MARGARET O'BRIEN

In 1945, seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O’Briens' maid took the award home to polish, as she had done before, but never came back to work. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O’Brien’s mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O’Brien. “I’ll never give it to anyone to polish again,” she said.

9. BING CROSBY

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school’s library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a three-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. “I wanted to make people laugh,” the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. HATTIE MCDANIEL

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

An earlier version of this post ran in 2013.

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15 Wonderfully Wise Quotes From Judy Blume
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Judy Blume was the queen of the YA novel before the concept even existed, inspiring generations of passionate fans—and a fair share of dissenters—in her nearly 50-year career. Here are just a few of our favorite thoughts about books, writing, and life from the iconic author, who turns 80 years old today.

1. ON BEING ONE OF THE MOST BANNED AUTHORS OF THE 20TH CENTURY

“I’ll tell you what I make of that—that censors, those who want to censor, they don’t come after books until they know that kids really like them, and once kids like a book, it’s like, ‘There must be something wrong with this book, because why do the kids like it.’ You look at the banned books and you’ll see that they’re popular books with kids.”

— From a 2012 interview with PBS

2. ON THE EFFECTS OF CENSORSHIP

“But it's not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.”

— From Blume's official website

3. WHY SHE WORRIES ABOUT KIDS THESE DAYS

“Yes, I was a great daydreamer. You know what I worry about? I worry that kids today don't have enough time to just sit and daydream. I was a great pretender, always making up stories inside my head. Stories and stories and stories, but I never told anyone.”

— From an interview with Scholastic

4. ON BEING A WRITER

"Everybody who writes fiction draws from their own life, but if it ended there, it would be very boring. When I talk to kids and they say, 'How do you become a writer?', well, I don't know that you become a writer: you just are. I always had stories, they were always there inside my head."

— From a 2014 Interview with The Guardian

5. ON WRITING

"Writing saved my life. It saved me, it gave me everything, it took away all my illnesses.”

— From a 2014 Interview with The Guardian

6. ON THE CREATIVE PROCESS

“I don't understand the creative process. For years I would say one thing when kids would ask where I got my ideas. Because I was forced to think up something even though I don't really know. And now I'm just saying to people, 'I don't know. I don't understand how it works. How do I know?'”

— From an interview with January Magazine

7. ON DEALING WITH REJECTION

"It's all about your determination, I think, as much as anything. There are a lot of people with talent, but it's that determination. I mean, you know, I would cry when the rejections came in—the first couple of times, anyway—and I would go to sleep feeling down, but I would wake up in the morning optimistic and saying, 'Well, maybe they didn't like that one, but wait till they see what I'm going to do next.' And I think you just have to keep going."

— From a 2011 interview with NPR

8. ON YA AUTHORS AND BOOKS

“[My husband] George and I listened … to the first Hunger Games and we loved it. And we couldn’t wait to get my car and come home. And when we came home, I’m not sure if we’d quite finished, and we sat in the car until we finished. I did not read any of the others. I had no interest in Twilight. But I did see the first movie.”

— From a 2014 interview with Lena Dunham through KCRW

9. ON THE PROS AND CONS OF TWITTER

“I like it. It’s a tremendous—I don’t want to say waste of time, but it also … what can I say? I enjoy reading the people I follow and discovering new people. It’s a lot of fun. I get a lot of laughs from it. And it connects you; it’s nice.”

— From a 2013 interview with Vanity Fair

10. ON GETTING KIDS TO READ

“Whatever gets them excited about reading is good! If you want them to read my books don't tell them so. Maybe just leave around a paperback with a new cover and say, 'I'm not sure you're ready for that.'"

— From a 2013 Reddit AMA

11. ON HER LITERARY INSPIRATIONS

“I was so inspired by Beverly Cleary's funny and wonderful books. And also, Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy. And E. L. Konigsberg's first book, Jennifer Hecate. And my favorite books from when I was young, the Betsy-Tacy books.”

— From an interview with Scholastic

12. ON "MARGARET" AND TEENAGED JUDY

“Margaret is fiction, but based on the kind of twelve year old I was. Growing up, we did have a club like The PTKs. And Margaret's interests and concerns were similar to mine. I was small and thin when thin wasn't in. I was a late developer and was anxious to grow like my friends. Margaret was right from my own sixth grade experience. I wanted to tell the truth as I knew it.”

— From an interview with Scholastic

13. ON HOW BOOKS HELP US COMMUNICATE

“I’ve never really thought in terms of taboos. I think that books can really help parents and kids talk together about difficult subjects. I’ve always felt that way. The parent reads the book. The kid reads the book and then they can talk about the characters instead of talking about themselves. You know there’s a connection even if you don’t talk about it when you read the same books.”

— From a 2014 interview with Lena Dunham through KCR

14. ON THREE THINGS THAT WOULD SURPRISE US ABOUT HER

“I’m phobic about thunderstorms. Writing is incredibly hard for me. I’m not the world’s best mother, though kids always assume I must be. And I love a good cupcake. (I know, that makes four things, but I’m hungry and wishing I had that cupcake.)”

— From a 2012 interview with Smithsonian Magazine

15. ON REVISITING OLD CHARACTERS

"I don't want to rewrite anything. My characters are who they are. For years, people have written and asked me to let Margaret go through menopause. And it's like, 'Hey guys! Margaret is 12 and she is going to stay 12. That's who she is.' No, I don't want to rewrite any of them."

— From a 2018 interview with NPR

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