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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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Animals
John Lennon Was a Crazy Cat Lady
Chloe Efforn
Chloe Efforn

John Lennon was crazy about cats, and though he owned a couple of dogs (Sally and Bernard) over the years, he was better known for getting by with a little help from his feline friends.

1. ELVIS

Growing up, Lennon's beloved mother, Julia, had a named cat after Elvis Presley, whom Julia and John were both crazy about. The Lennons later realized they had misnamed Elvis when "he" gave birth to a litter of kittens in the cupboard, but they didn't change the cat's name based on that small mistake.

2. AND 3. TICH AND SAM

He had two other cats as a boy growing up in Liverpool: Tich and Sam. Tich passed away while Lennon was away at art school (which he attended from 1957 to 1960), and Sam was named after famous British diarist Samuel Pepys

4. TIM

One day, John Lennon found a stray cat in the snow, which his Aunt Mimi allowed him to keep. (John's Aunt Mimi raised him from a young boy through his late teenage years, and he affectionately referred to her as the Cat Woman.) He named the marmalade-colored half-Persian cat Tim.

Tim remained a special favorite of John's. Every day, he would hop on his Raleigh bicycle and ride to Mr. Smith's, the local fishmonger, where he would buy a few pieces of fish for Tim and his other cats. Even after John became famous as a Beatle, he would often call and check in on how Tim was doing. Tim lived a happy life and survived to celebrate his 20th birthday.

5. AND 6. MIMI AND BABAGHI

John and his first wife, Cynthia, had a cat named Mimi who was, of course, named after his Aunt Mimi. They soon got another cat, a tabby who they dubbed Babaghi. John and Cynthia continued acquiring more cats, eventually owning around 10 of them.

7. JESUS

As a Beatle, John had a cat named Jesus. The name was most likely John's sarcastic response to his "the Beatles are bigger than Jesus" controversy of 1966. But he wasn't the only band member with a cat named Jesus: Paul McCartney once had a trio of kittens named Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

8. AND 9. MAJOR AND MINOR

In the mid-1970s, John had an affair with his secretary, May Pang. One day, the studio receptionist brought a box of kittens into the recording studio where John and May were. "No," John immediately told May, "we can't, we're traveling too much." But she picked up one of the kittens and put it over her shoulder. Then John started stroking the kitten and decided to keep it. At the end of the day, the only other kitten left was a little white one that was so loud no one else wanted it. So they adopted it as well and named the pair Major and Minor.

10. AND 11. SALT AND PEPPER

John owned a pair of black and white cats with his wife Yoko Ono. As befitting John's offbeat sense of humor, many places report he christened the white cat Pepper and the black one Salt.

12. AND 13. GERTRUDE AND ALICE

John and Yoko also had two Russian Blue cats named Gertrude and Alice, who each met tragic ends. After a series of sicknesses, Gertrude was diagnosed with a virus that could become dangerous to their young son, Sean. John later said that he held Gertrude and wept as she was euthanized. 

Later, Alice jumped out of an open window in the Lennons' high-rise apartment at the Dakota and plunged to her death. Sean was present at the time of the accident, and he remembers it as the only time he ever saw his father cry.

14., 15. AND 16. MISHA, SASHA, AND CHARO

In later years, John also owned three cats he named Misha, Sasha, and Charo. Always an artist at heart, John loved to sketch his many cats, and he used some of these pictures as illustrations in his books.

This piece originally ran in 2012.

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entertainment
7 Famous Actors Who Starred in Obscure Short Films
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Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

Well-known actors who can attract attention or lend prestige to film projects can often command significant salaries. Jack Nicholson, for example, reportedly made more than $50 million for portraying The Joker in 1989’s Batman after merchandising royalties were factored in. But performers don’t always opt for money—or even feature-length movies—if a filmmaker is persuasive enough. Here are several notable talents who agreed to appear in obscure short films for a variety of peculiar reasons.

1. HARRISON FORD // WATER TO WINE (2004)

Arguably one of the most successful leading men of the 20th century, Harrison Ford has always been candid about his criteria for film work. In addition to being intrigued by a role, he wants to be compensated. (“No, I got paid,” he told a talk show host who asked if he was nostalgic about returning to the Star Wars universe in 2015.) He apparently made an exception for Water to Wine, a 2004 amateur film shot by a group of snowboarders in Wyoming. Ford—who has a ranch in the state—accepted the role of “Jethro the Bus Driver” as a favor to the filmmakers, who were friends of his son, Malcolm. Ford’s sole request was that his name not appear in the credits.

2. BRYAN CRANSTON // WRITER’S BLOCK (2014)

Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston was shooting the feature film Cold Comes the Night in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy interrupted production. Rather than sit idle, the actor told the movie’s production assistants that if they wanted to try writing a short film, he’d shoot it immediately. Winner Brandon Polanco came up with Writer’s Block, a 13-minute black-and-white mood piece about an author wrestling with a lack of inspiration.

3. BILLY BOB THORNTON // THE LAST REAL COWBOYS (2000)

Billy Bob Thornton broke into Hollywood with his 1994 short film Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade that he later expanded into a full-length feature. That DIY approach may have helped director Jeff Lester entice the actor to star in The Last Real Cowboys, a short that featured Thornton as one of two main characters sitting next to a campfire. The production shot for just one day 50 miles outside of Las Vegas. 

4. OSCAR ISAAC // LIGHTNINGFACE (2016)

A year after Star Wars: The Force Awakens crossed $2 billion at the box office, Oscar Isaac (who portrayed Poe Dameron) appeared in this eccentric short by director Brian Petsos. Isaac is Basil Stitt, a man who gets hit in the face with lightning and is convinced he will soon develop supernatural abilities. Isaac and Petsos previously worked on a feature film, Ticky Tacky.

5. BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH // LITTLE FAVOUR (2013)

The BBC’s Sherlock helped make Benedict Cumberbatch a highly recognizable screen presence worldwide, which in turn helped this short film raise and exceed its $40,000 budget via the Indiegogo platform. Cumberbatch portrays a British intelligence officer active during the Iraq War who is contacted by an American spy to repay a favor. Cumberbatch, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for The Imitation Game in 2015, also produced the film.

6. MICHAEL FASSBENDER // PITCH BLACK HEIST (2012)

Two-time Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender co-stars in this tight heist thriller about two thieves who are forced to complete a job in total darkness. (Liam Cunningham, who plays Davos Seaworth on Game of Thrones, co-starred.) Director John Maclean knew Fassbender before the actor broke out in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds and convinced him to take the gig. The two later worked on the well-received 2015 Western Slow West.

7. BILL MURRAY // A FILM ABOUT WALKING IN SLOW MOTION (2012)

The urban legends surrounding Murray’s puckish behavior are well-documented, from crashing karaoke parties to spontaneously tending bar. In 2012, Murray was filming a promotional video for a school in South Carolina attended by his son. Afterward, director David Smith asked if he could film Murray walking down a hall with crew members. He complied—and then kept walking, out of the building and into his car. 

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