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12 Violinists Known for Something Else

The violin is considered by many to be the thinking man’s instrument, famously played by the likes of Albert Einstein and Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional genius Sherlock Holmes. Here are 12 other celebrities who fiddled around in their spare time:

1. Charlie Chaplin played the violin (and the cello) in a unique way: backwards – specially strung to be fretted with the right hand and bowed by the left. As the story goes, renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz once unwittingly picked up Chaplin’s violin to do a little showing off, only to screech out several discordant notes. Chaplin calmly took the violin, and whipped out some Bach. He then explained: “I am...made inside out and upside down. When I turn my back on you in the screen, you are looking at something as expressive as a face. I am back, foremost.” He can be seen but not heard playing the violin in The Vagabond, one of his earliest silent movies, and Limelight, in which he and “pianist” Buster Keaton destroy one another’s instruments before any actual music occurs.

[Viewer beware: some violins may have been injured in the filming of this routine.]

2. Larry Fine (aka Louis Fienberg, aka Larry of the Three Stooges) began playing the violin as a child -- therapy for a bad chemical burn on his arm.

The kid had chops, and was soon performing on local stages and studying to become a concert musician. Unable to keep from clowning around, Larry eventually incorporated his fiddle into a stand-up routine, riffing on it in between jokes in a style later made famous by Henny Youngman. Though he’s better known for prat-falls, Larry showcases his virtuosity in flicks like Punch Drunks and The Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze.

3. Ana Gasteyer may be best known as one of the “NPR ladies” on Saturday Night Live, but she’s also a classically trained violinist. At age ten, the self-proclaimed “violin nerd” landed a gig playing for Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during a little break at Camp David Accords. No pressure.

4. Henri Rousseau was a groundbreaking post-impressionist painter underappreciated in his lifetime. To his friends, he was also an underappreciated violinist. To supplement his meager income as a toll-taker, Rousseau busked on the street and taught violin lessons around Paris. In the evening, he composed waltzes and played at soirees held by the notorious Société des Artistes Indépendants. Legend has it that he was once so overtaken by music (and/or wine) that he continued sawing away for hours, even as hot candle wax dripped continually upon his head.

5. Werner Klemperer (aka Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes) grew up in a musical household, and trained classically on the violin from an early age. His father, Otto Klemperer, was one of Germany’s most respected symphony maestros, and became the head conductor at the LA Philharmonic after the Klemperers fled Hitler’s Europe in 1935 (a somewhat ironic history, considering that the Jr. Klemperer found fame playing a German kommendant at a WWII POW camp.) Also ironic: Klemperer’s Klink played the violin terribly in a 1971 episode of Hogan’s Heroes. Klemperer downplayed his talent, performing in symphonies primarily as a...narrator? Is that still a thing?

6 and 7. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, both students at the College of William and Mary, became friends while doing a violin duet one evening at a fancy Christmas party. While history tells us that they both practiced obsessively, their respective talent remains questionable: One contemporary supposedly called Patrick Henry “the worst fiddler in the colonies, excepting Thomas Jefferson.” This criticism could be explained by the fact that although Jefferson was fond of referring to his instrument as the more colloquial “fiddle,” he probably stuck to a stately classical repertoire, and had little experience with proper, folksie fiddling. Patrick Henry, for his part, seemed to play more for his own enjoyment; visitors claimed he would play while lying on the floor as his caterwauling children crawled all over him.

8. Ben Franklin did a little of everything. Should the violin be any surprise? Not one to be left out of the fashionable fiddle fad among intellectuals at the time, Franklin — who taught himself the instrument, as well as the harp and guitar — penned a little music for a string quartet, and invented something called the “glass harmonica,” which is kind of a fancy version of rubbing the rim of a wine glass with your finger.

9. Woodrow Wilson grew up playing the violin, and probably played into his adulthood. Rumors of his violin skills may have been over-emphasized in the internet age, however, largely because the legitimately famous violinist Ruggiero Ricci once went by the more American-sounding pseudonym “Woodrow Wilson Rich.” Nixon played the violin as a boy, too, but you don’t hear violinists bragging about that one so much.

10. John Tyler was, you know, the tenth president of the United States. He may not be the most famous president, but he was one of the most musical. He relished writing songs and jamming with his family so much that they began performing as a band after his presidency. And unrelated to his musical talents — his grandsons are still alive!

11. Louis Farrakhan is best know as the long-time leader of the Nation of Islam, but his love for the violin has endured since childhood. Just a month after Farrakhan (then Louis X) joined the Nation of Islam, Minister Malcolm X preached for musicians to choose between show biz and the Temple. Farrakhan chose the latter, and gave up the violin for over 40 years. In 1993, he returned to the stage, in a somewhat controversial performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (probably the only “controversial” Violin Concerto ever). The New York Times reviewed Farrakhan’s playing as “wide, deep, and full of the energy that makes the violin gleam.”

12. Marlene Dietrich spent her early years training to be a concert violinist, before a painful wrist problem and a pesky sex appeal forced her into Hollywood stardom. Her first performance was at a Mexican-themed Red Cross pageant, for which sixteen-year-old Marlene (who then preferred the name “Paul”) wore a boy’s suit and a sombrero. She later got a job accompanying silent movies, until she was fired – allegedly because her legs were too distracting for her fellow musicians. Forced to go into acting, she forever called the violin “the symbol of my broken dream.”

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
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Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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