Getty Images
Getty Images

9 Famous Artists Who Began as Street Performers

Getty Images
Getty Images

The Spanish word buscar, which means to seek, gave us the term “busker.” The art of busking, or street performing, gave us these household names.

1. Rod Stewart

Getty Images

According to the man himself, there are only two things Rod Stewart can do: play football (yes, soccer) and sing. When it came to doing one professionally, music became the only choice after he failed to make the Brentford F.C. team. While the fame, money, and model wives would suggest that it all worked out for Stewart, it didn’t always seem that way. After a disappointing experience with his first band, The Raiders, Stewart took his then undesired voice to the streets of London, where he teamed up with English folk musician Wizz Jones. Together, they traveled throughout Europe playing music and sleeping under bridges until Stewart was deported from Spain for vagrancy. Ultimately, that vagrant ended up selling 100 million records worldwide.

2. Tracy Chapman

Getty Images

While a student at Tufts University, Tracy Chapman would sing and play her guitar in nearby Harvard Square—a place so desired by buskers for its heavy foot traffic that people have to obtain a permit from the Cambridge Arts Council to perform there. Through playing the streets and various coffee houses in the area, Chapman gained a fan in Brian Koppelman, a fellow Tufts student whose father, Charles Koppelman, was in charge of a record label. The elder Koppelman introduced her to influential people in the music business, including producer David Kershenbaum, and in 1987, right after graduating, she was signed to Elektra Records. By 1988, she had a critically-acclaimed album and was performing for Nelson Mandela at his 70th birthday tribute concert.

3. Robin Williams

Getty Images

If Robin Williams seems like the kind of person you’d try and avoid while walking around New York City, that’s because, at one point, he was. While studying in an advanced program at the prestigious Juilliard School—only two students were accepted into it: he and Christopher Reeve—Williams worked as a mime outside of The Museum of Modern Art for some extra cash. Everything came up roses and giant bags of money for Williams though, as he’d go on to win an Academy Award, Emmys, Golden Globes, Grammys, all for projects that involved him talking.

4. Eddie Izzard

Getty Images

British comedian and actor Eddie Izzard says he has known he wanted to be a performer since he was seven years old, but it wasn’t until he began studying accounting at the University of Sheffield that he tried his hand at comedy. Along with a school friend, he regularly performed in Covent Garden, a district in the West End of London. Their partnership didn’t last long, but Izzard would spend a great deal of the '80s performing on the streets of Europe. In the early '90s, he began to gain some notoriety in the British comedy community and in 2000 he won two Emmys for his one-man show “Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill,” which was produced by fellow former street performer Robin Williams.

5. B.B. King

Getty Images

Before he was “B.B. King,” Riley B. King was just a kid playing his guitar on the streets of Mississippi for change. King would perform in up to four different towns a night. Eventually he made his way to Memphis, which was home to numerous blues and jazz legends, including his cousin Bukka White. While there, he performed amongst his fellow greats and landed a gig as a radio DJ. Needing a new name for the airwaves, King went with “Beale Street Blues Boy,” a nod to the music-filled Beale Street in downtown Memphis. That moniker was shortened to “Blues Boy” and then, simply “B.B.” Now, everyone knows B.B. and his guitar Lucille.

6. Pierce Brosnan

Getty Images

Shaken and stirred by moving from Ireland to England in his youth, Brosnan couldn’t wait to get out of his London classroom—where his nickname was “Irish”—and into the art world. While training to be a commercial illustrator, he attended a workshop where a fire eater taught him the craft. Soon enough, he had one of the hottest acts on the streets and caught the attention of a circus agent. That stint let to classes at Drama Centre London, which got his acting off the ground and eventually into an Aston Martin.

7. Bernie Mac

Getty Images

You can’t just wake up one morning and call yourself one of the “Original Kings of Comedy.” OK, you can, but you’d be living a lie if you didn't have the credentials to back it up like Bernie Mac did. Before the major motion pictures and network sitcom, Mac was telling jokes throughout the South Side of Chicago. The two years he spent playing the streets made the man fearless; you may remember him beginning his first set on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam by telling the audience, “I ain’t scared of you motherf***ers.” In 2012, a portion of West 69th Street in the Englewood neighborhood where he grew up was honorarily named "Bernie Mac Street."

8. Jewel

Getty Images

The pride of Homer, Alaska, Jewel Kilcher had just finished her first semester at a fine arts school in Michigan when she decided to travel the country as a street performer. With her guitar, the four chords she knew how to play on it, and a skinning knife for protection, Jewel managed to make it as far as Mexico. After graduating, Jewel returned to drifting and lived out of her car. She played coffee shops around San Diego until she signed with Atlantic Records. Her debut album, Pieces of You, would go on to sell 12 million copies in the United States alone. Hopefully counting all of that money wasn’t too much for those small hands of hers.

9. Benjamin Franklin

Getty Images

Author, diplomat, founding father, inventor, printer, postmaster, scientist, street performer—Ben Franklin was pretty much everything but president. As a youngster in Boston, Franklin would perform songs and read poems he wrote that commented on current events, which he'd then sell prints of to his fellow colonists. His meddling father didn't want his son busking around town so he put an end to little Ben's street act once and for all. After growing up under that regime, it’s no wonder he became such an advocate for free speech.

Chloe Efforn
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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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. 


More from mental floss studios