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6 Non-Actors Who Won Oscars for Their Acting

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been annually awarding Oscars to Best Actor and Best Actress since 1928, and has bestowed additional awards for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress since 1936. Some prizes were awarded to people for their movie debuts, but some of the winners—like Shirley Booth (Come Back Little Sheba, 1952) and Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl, 1968)—had played a part hundreds of times on Broadway before bringing that role to a movie, while others were established stars in other media. But some people didn't fit either bill. Here are six Oscar winners who wouldn’t fall under most definitions of a professional actor at the time they won an Academy Award.

1. John Houseman - Best Supporting Actor, The Paper Chase (1973)

An immigrant from Romania, John Houseman originally intended to work with his father in the grain trade when he came to America in 1924, but his life was changed by a number of happy coincidences. He first broke into the theater after he met opera composer Virgil Thompson at a cocktail party; the composer hired Houseman to direct an off-Broadway stage version of his opera Four Saints in Three Acts, despite the fact that Houseman had no experience. When the Depression sunk his grain trading business, Houseman co-founded the legendary Mercury theater program with a young Orson Welles. Through the success of Citizen Kane, in which he supervised the script process before falling out with Welles, Houseman broke into Hollywood and produced nearly twenty films.

At 66, Houseman retired from producing and supervised the acting program at Juilliard, where he oversaw the development of students such as Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve. It was at this phase of his career that he get a call from another young prodigy named James Bridges, who had been a stage manager in Houseman's professional theater troupe at UCLA. Bridges asked Houseman for advice on his screenplay about a difficult-to-please professor at Harvard Law School. Afterward, when no one on the director's casting wishlist was available, Bridges asked Houseman if he would play the part himself. Although Houseman was an accomplished teacher and director, he didn't immediately win over the studio—but a screen test convinced the production studios that he was right for the role of the stern Mr. Kingsfield.

Houseman won an Oscar for the part, and wrote in his autobiography: "My first reaction was one of incredulity and vague pleasure, followed by a sense of embarrassment at the realization that for most actors of my age an Academy Award or even a nomination comes as the hard-earned culmination of a long and dedicated career: mine was the reward for ten agreeable days spent with a friend in Toronto!"

2. Haing Ngor - Best Supporting Actor, The Killing Fields (1984)

Cambodian physician Haing S. Ngor had been through hell and back when he found himself cast in The Killing Fields. Ngor was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, which claimed 3 million lives and terrorized a nation. The doctor was imprisoned in 1975 and made to work in a labor camp for four years, where he was tortured on three occasions (on suspicion of practicing medicine as a doctor), watched his starving wife die before his eyes, and had part of his finger chopped off. In 1979, Ngor escaped with his niece and a friend and walked four straight days through a jungle laced with land mines to Thailand. A year later, Ngor emigrated to the US with his niece to be near his brother in California.

In the meantime, director Ronald Joffe wanted to make the first film that uncovered the story of the Khmer Rouge and cast Sam Waterson in the main part as a Western journalist covering the genocide. All the director needed was a Cambodian actor. When Ngor was at a Cambodian wedding, he was photographed by a talent scout and asked to audition. Although he had never acted before, he did well enough in the screen test to get the part. Ngor travelled back to Thailand to shoot the film and was essentially asked to relive his horrific experiences on camera, which wasn't particularly easy. According to Turner Classic Movies, one scene was so emotional for him that he fled the set. In the end, though, his mesmerizing performance earned him an Oscar nomination and eventually a win. The day of the ceremony, noted film critic Roger Ebert shadowed the nominee. "Ngor did not have the slightest expectation that he would win, but he'd had an incredible journey from the killing fields to the Oscars, and he was determined to enjoy every moment. He had a camera and photographed everything," Ebert wrote

Ngor acted in 16 more films and did activist work before he died in 1996.

3. Jennifer Hudson - Best Supporting Actress, Dreamgirls, 2006

Jennifer Hudson grew up in Chicago, where she attended Dunbar Vocational Secondary School and was a Disney Line cruise singer for a year before trying out for the third season of American Idol in 2005. The singer was a wildcard entry to the finals (meaning she didn't win the fan vote) and was an early dark horse (she had the highest number of votes a couple weeks before her exit) before being voted off in seventh place. An indication of her future fame might be the outrage that accompanied her exit.

After Idol, she auditioned for Bill Condon’s film adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical Dreamgirls. To get the part of Effie, she not only had to beat out several other talented actresses, but also Fantasia Barrino, her friend from Idol who had won the third season.

Hudson’s performance in Dreamgirls landed her not just the Oscar but the Golden Globe and BAFTA. Hudson was later cast by Sarah Jessica Parker and director Michael Patrick King to appear in the movie adaptation of Sex and the City, and recently joined the cast of Smash to bolster ratings.

4. Harold Russell - Best Supporting Actor, The Best Years of Our Lives, 1947

Harold Russell was a Canadian-born World War II army veteran who lost both hands in a training accident. At Walter Reed Army Hospital, he was given the option of two plastic hands or two hooks. Russell choose the hooks, and mastered them so well that he was selected to make an instructional military film, Diary of a Sergeant, which showed others without limbs how to go about daily tasks. Director William Wyler saw it and was inspired to cast him for his drama about the lives of a trio of veterans coming home from the war called The Best Years of Our Lives.

Russell was nominated for an Oscar, but because the Academy didn't think he'd win it competitively, they awarded him an Honorary Award for his bravery in showing others the lives of war veterans. To their surprise, Russell did win the Best Supporting Oscar. 

After winning the Oscar, Wyler advised him to return to his studies at Boston University because there weren't many roles for handless actors. Russell got a degree in business in 1949. He would later write a bestselling book about his recovery as a veteran. Mr. Russell was also appointed to President Kennedy's Committee on the Employment and the Handicapped and was reappointed by both Johnson and Nixon.

5. Anna Paquin - Best Supporting Actress, The Piano (1993)

Before nabbing parts in HBO's True Blood and such films as 25th Hour, Buffalo Soldiers, Almost Famous, and X-Men, Paquin was the wunderkind who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role of Flora McGrath at the impressively ripe age of 11. Before that, Paquin was pretty much an ordinary school girl.

Director Jane Campion wanted to boost the New Zealand film industry by setting her film in the country. Since she didn’t have a lot of professional actors to draw from, she placed an open casting call. Out of 5000 people, Paquin was chosen for the role. Even more impressive, while Paquin had shown artistic aptitude with activities such as playing the cello and ballet, she had little interest in acting. She only went to the casting call because her older sister, Katja, wanted to go and she had to tag along.

Paquin is the second youngest person to win a competitive acting Oscar history; the other, Tatum O’Neal, had showbiz connections. With her successful acting career, it’s safe to say that Paquin has made good on her serendipity.

6. Marlee Matlin - Best Actress, Children of a Lesser God (1986)

Marlee Matlin, who has been deaf since she was a year old, never expected to be a professional actress. She attended Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Illinois, and found a creative outlet in a summer program called the International Center for Deafness and the Arts, where she starred in a production of Wizard of Oz. Henry Winkler (who played Fonzie on the television show Happy Days) was in the audience for one performance, and Matlin said she wanted to be an actor like him. With Winkler’s encouragement, she landed her first movie role in Children of a Lesser God when she was just 22, and became the youngest person to take home the Best Actress prize. Matlin has had guest star stints on a variety of TV series including My Name is Earl, Seinfeld, The West Wing, Desparate Housewives, CSI, and Spin City

Matlin has also been highly active in charity work and was a finalist on Celebrity Apprentice, where she raised a significant amount of money for a charity that gives hearing aids to the underprivileged deaf. She was appointed to the Committee for National Service by President Clinton in 1994.

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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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