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15 Things You Didn't Know About Madeleine Albright

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Perhaps Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as the U.S. Secretary of State, best described her historic appointment in her 2003 memoir, Madam Secretary: “It was almost…inconceivable that someone who had not held a government job until she was thirty-nine years old and the mother of three would become the highest-ranking woman in American history. Well into adulthood, I was never supposed to be what I became."

Her impressive credentials include professor, ambassador, New York Times best-selling author and current chairperson of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs as well as the chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy business. Famously known for saying, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” the perseverance she has demonstrated throughout her career is inspiring for anyone, man or woman. In honor of her 79th birthday, here are a few things you should know about Albright and her unconventional path to U.S. politics.

1. “MADELEINE” ISN’T HER ORIGINAL NAME.

Marie Jana was born in Prague on May 15, 1937, to Anna Spieglová and Josef Korbel. But the name “Marie” didn’t stick for long; various family members called her Madla, Madlen, or Madlenka throughout her youth. When Albright began to study French, she decided she liked that language’s version of her nickname: Madeleine. Still, Albright never legally changed her name and is officially Marie Jana.

2. HER FAMILY FLED TO ESCAPE THE NAZIS.

Her father’s role at Czechoslovakia’s Belgrade embassy and deep respect for democracy put his family’s safety in question when the Nazis invaded. As her parents arranged for the family to go to London, Albright lived with her grandmother in the country. Her mother wrote of that time, “With all the possible and impossible planning and with the help of some good friends and lots of luck and little bribes the last plan worked...” Albright and her family left for England 10 days after the Nazis invaded the capital.

3. SHE APPEARED IN A FILM ABOUT REFUGEES.

While in England, Albright was selected to appear in a movie about the war’s refugee children, and was given a stuffed animal as payment for her starring role.

4. THE FAMILY’S RETURN TO CZECHOSLOVAKIA WAS BRIEF.

Albright (who speaks fluent Czech) would return to Czechoslovakia many times as an adult, including in October 2003, when she traveled there to launch her autobiography. Image credit: David Nekk/ AFP/ Getty Images

Though her family was grateful to return to their home country after the war, they weren’t there for long. A series of ominous political moves found the Communist party taking over Czechoslovakia, forcing Albright’s family to once again flee for their safety. Albright, along with her mother and two siblings, arrived in the U.S. aboard the SS America on November 11, 1948.

5. HER FAMILY BEGAN A NEW LIFE IN DENVER.

After her father arrived stateside, the family lived on Long Island while waiting to be granted political asylum. Once Josef secured a teaching position at the University of Denver and the family was settled in their new city, Albright began attending Kent Denver School and founded the school’s international relations club. (She wasn’t the only secretary of state who benefited from her father’s teachings on diplomacy and international affairs; years later, he taught Condoleezza Rice as a student.)

6. HER COLLEGE YEARS WERE MARKED WITH MAJOR MILESTONES.

Albright studied Political Science at Wellesley College, graduating with honors in 1959. In the years prior to graduation, she became a naturalized citizen (in 1957), and met her future husband, Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, during a summer internship at the Denver Post. In her 2009 book Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, Albright says it was tradition for Wellesley women to get married on graduation day. Despite this, she waited three days after receiving her diploma to marry Joseph.

7. SHE WAS ON THE MOVE THROUGH THE 1960S.

The Albrights moved several times for Joseph’s career. By 1961 the couple had already lived in Rolla, Missouri and Chicago before moving to Long Island, where their twins, Alice and Anne, were born. In 1962 the family moved to Georgetown, where Madeleine studied Russian and International Relations at a division of Johns Hopkins University. When they moved back to Long Island in 1963, Albright continued her studies at Columbia University and earned a certificate in Russian and an M.A. in 1968, and a Ph.D. in 1976. Her third daughter, Katharine, was born in 1967.

8. MOVING BACK TO D.C. SPARKED HER POLITICAL CAREER.

Albright became more involved with politics when her family moved back to D.C. in 1968. From 1976 to 1978, she served as Senator Edmund S. Muskie’s chief legislative assistant. And in 1978, Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of her professors from Columbia and then National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, chose Madeleine as Brzezinski’s liaison to Congress.

9. SHE FOLLOWED IN HER FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS TOWARD ACADEMIA.

After her 22-year marriage ended in divorce in 1982, Albright joined Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service as a research professor of International Affairs, where she taught undergraduate and graduate courses. She also served as director of the Women in Foreign Service program.

10. BEING A U.N. AMBASSADOR CHALLENGED HER TO SPEAK UP AND MAKE DIFFICULT CALLS.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Albright voted in favor of a UN resolution on August 10, 1995.
Image credit: JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images.

Albright’s work in international affairs led to her working as foreign policy adviser to both Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, but she was unable to work for Clinton’s 1992 bid. Despite this, after Clinton won, he nominated Albright to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Though she was often one of the few women in the room (and many times, the only one), she did not sit silently; she realized that if she only observed and listened, she wouldn’t get a chance to speak, which meant the voice of the United States wouldn’t be heard.

11. HER ROLE AS SECRETARY OF STATE MADE HISTORY.

As President Bill Clinton looked on, Albright was sworn in as the new US Secretary of State in January 1997.
Image Credit: Joyce Naltchayan/ AFP/ Getty Images)

On December 5, 1996, President Clinton nominated Albright to be the 64th Secretary of State. She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate and sworn in on January 23, 1997. Albright wrote of the experience that Clinton “… gave me the opportunity that no other individual, male or female, has had to serve full terms both as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as U.S. Secretary of State.” At the time of her appointment, Albright was the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government.

12. HER TRIP TO NORTH KOREA WAS A FIRST FOR U.S. GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS.

US Secretary of State Albright met with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il (right) on October 23, 2000.
Image credit: David Guttenfelder/ AFP/ Getty Images.

In October 2000, Albright made a diplomatic visit to North Korea to meet with the country’s leader, Kim Jong Il. Her trip marked the first time an American secretary of state—and the highest level official ever—had visited the country.

13. SHE LEARNED ABOUT HER JEWISH ANCESTRY IN AN UNEXPECTED WAY.

Albright was raised Catholic after her parents converted in 1941, though she was unaware of any previous religious affiliations. (She later converted to Episcopalianism.) During her vetting process for secretary of state, she mentioned that she might have Jewish ancestors. During his research on a profile about Albright, Michael Dobbs, a Washington Post reporter, discovered that three of her grandparents died in Auschwitz and Terezin. Her family conducted further research and learned that 25 members of her family died in concentration camps.

14. HER SENSE OF HUMOR HAS BROADENED OVER TIME.

Albright has said that she tended to be a little too serious as a child. Young Madeleine would be happy to learn that as an adult, she has developed quite a sense of humor. She once engaged in a humorous Twitter war with Conan O’Brien and has appeared in popular TV shows as herself, including Parks and Recreation and Gilmore Girls.

15. HER CREATIVE JEWELRY SELECTIONS GARNERED INTERNATIONAL ATTENTION.

On September 29, 2009, Albright visited the New York City exhibition, "Read My Pins: The Madeline Albright Collection,"
which featured over 200 of her pins and their stories. Image Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Albright is famously known for wearing pins that express her thoughts on the diplomatic proceedings she attends. After she was compared to a serpent by the Iraqi media, Albright chose to wear a large snake pin for her next meeting on the country. The jewelry quickly became one of Albright’s trademarks. Though she is fond of all the pieces in her collection (she says her favorite is a heart made by her youngest daughter), one of them nearly betrayed her. On the day of her swearing-in ceremony for Secretary of State, her newly acquired eagle pin nearly fell off while she took her oath.

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Walt Disney Pictures
10 Facts About Hocus Pocus
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Bette Midler said she'd be interested in doing a Hocus Pocus sequel. "You have to go to send in your cards to the Walt Disney company," she said. "The ball's in their court." While you get those cards ready, here are some facts about the original, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago today.

1. THE STORY ORIGINATED AS A BEDTIME STORY.

The story for Hocus Pocus came about after writer David Kirschner invented a bedtime story for his kids. He later wrote the story up and submitted it to Muppet Magazine (why does this not still exist?), where it gained recognition.

2. THE WRITERS USED PROPS TO PITCH IT TO STUDIO EXECUTIVES.

Bette Midler in 'Hocus Pocus' (1993)
Walt Disney Pictures

To pitch the story to Disney, the writers had execs enter a dark room with broomsticks and a vacuum cleaner hanging from the ceiling. They also scattered 15 pounds of candy corn throughout the room in an effort to invoke Halloween nostalgia. It obviously worked!

3. IT WAS NOT AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

Though it’s a cult classic now, Hocus Pocus didn’t do that well when it first came out in 1993, perhaps because it was released in July instead of September or October. Though it didn’t have a terrible opening—$8,125,471, putting it in fourth place at the box office that weekend—it fell to $2,017,688 a few weeks later, and bad reviews from the critics didn’t help matters.

Entertainment Weekly was particularly put off by the movie, calling it a “piece of corny slapstick trash” and saying that “It’s acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell.”

4. BETTE MIDLER LOVES IT.

Bette Midler, by the way, has said that Hocus Pocus is her favorite film out of all of the films she’s ever done. (At least as of 2008.) Thora Birch agreed, recently saying, “The most fun I ever had on a film was Hocus Pocus.”

5. KATHY NAJIMY LOVES IT, TOO.

Midler isn't the only star of the film who isn't immune to its allure: Kathy Najimy has said she watches the movie with her family every year on August 15.

6. IT COULD HAVE STARRED LEONARDO DICAPRIO.

The role of Max was originally offered to Leonardo DiCaprio. He turned it down to do What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

7. SARAH JESSICA PARKER IS RELATED TO A WOMAN FAMOUSLY ACCUSED OF BEING A WITCH.

Had Sarah Jessica Parker known then what she knows now, she might have approached the role of Sarah Sanderson a little differently. When the actress went on the show Who Do You Think You Are to trace her family history, Parker discovered that one of her ancestors was Esther Elwell, one of the women accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. After a young girl said she saw Esther’s “spectre” strangling neighbor Mary Fitch, Elwell was arrested, but escaped going to trial.

8. THORA BIRCH REVISITED THE NEIGHBORHOOD IN AMERICAN BEAUTY.

While the kids are prematurely celebrating victory against the Sanderson sisters after locking them in the kiln, they’re shown talking in front of a house as they walk to a park. The house was later used as the house Thora Birch’s character lived in for American Beauty.

9. THE KIDS WEREN'T HUGE FANS OF THE CATS.

The kids all hated working with the cats. Many different cats were used to represent Binx, and each one served a different purpose—one was good at cuddling with the kids, one would jump on command, etc. Every time a new cat was used, the children would have to coerce the kitty to trust them by using treats and a clicker. They got sick of it.

10. MUCH OF THE ORIGINAL CAST REUNITED FOR A 20TH REUNION.

Most of the cast participated in a 20th anniversary event for D23 (the Disney fan club) members. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler were not in attendance, but pretty much everyone else was, including Kathy Najimy (Mary Sanderson), Vinessa Shaw (Allison), Omri Katz (Max), Thora Birch (Dani), and Doug Jones (Billy Butcherson). You can watch some of that reunion above.

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