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10 Fascinating Facts About J.K. Simmons

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Some people discovered J.K. Simmons through Oz, the gritty prison drama that put HBO on the map. Others noticed him in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), as the cigar-chomping J. Jonah Jameson. Still more discovered him only a few years ago, when he accepted an Oscar in 2015 for Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. But Simmons didn’t just materialize in the late 1990s. The 62-year-old character actor has been around for a decades—he was just delivering singing telegrams for part of that time. What else should you know about his life and career? Well for starters, here’s his real name …

1. THE “J.K.” STANDS FOR "JONATHAN KIMBLE."

J.K. Simmons was born Jonathan Kimble Simmons—“Kimble” being his mother’s maiden name. Simmons probably would’ve kept his original name, if it weren’t for some professional problems. The way he tells it, most variations of his name were already registered at the actors’ unions when he was starting his career. So he went with J.K., noting that he chose the moniker “well before Ms. Rowling had her Potter books.”

2. HIS KNEES ENDED HIS FOOTBALL CAREER.

As a teenager growing up in Ohio, Simmons played football for several years. But his knees became a problem, so he switched high school cliques. “I went from being a jock to a hippie,” he told The Guardian. “It was a very clear-cut decision. I had to be one or the other. I had to forsake that other aspect of myself. Or I thought I had to, which is regrettable. Quickly, I was back in the pine tress with the hippies, listening to my Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and turning on, tuning in, and dropping out.”

3. HE STUDIED MUSIC IN COLLEGE.

Simmons graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in music. His studies there included voice, composition, and conducting. While he ultimately moved away from music, this background served him well in his role as the sadistic conductor Terence Fletcher in Whiplash.

4. BUT HE CAN BARELY PLAY ANY INSTRUMENTS.

He might know his scales, but don’t ask Simmons to play through Beethoven’s symphonies. Apparently, he was never much of a musician. “I didn’t play anything worth a damn,” he joked to the Los Angeles Times. “I was a singer and a composer and a conductor. I played ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ on every instrument in the orchestra. Played none of them well. My kids both play piano a lot better than I do.”

5. HE ONCE SANG TELEGRAMS IN A TUTU.

Every actor takes odd jobs in the beginning, but Simmons took a job slightly odder than lifeguard or waiter. While he was living in Seattle after college, he worked for a company that provided singing telegrams. Simmons would get an address, grab a bunch of balloons, and then show up to sing the telegram … in a tutu. Simmons was one of several bearded or burly men who handled these “tutu-grams,” and you can check out his uniform in The Tonight Show clip above.

6. HE ALMOST HAD A NUDE CAMEO IN WALL STREET.

Simmons made his film debut in 1994's The Ref, seven years after losing a small role in Oliver Stone's Wall Street. Simmons was initially cast in a “featured part” in the 1987 ode to corporate greed. But he didn’t have any lines; he was just supposed to be “walking around naked or wearing a jock strap or something” in a locker room scene.

Unfortunately, Simmons never got his moment of jock strap glory. The filming schedule was pushed back repeatedly and when it finally came time to shoot, Simmons was locked into a play in Pittsburgh. He had to pass, but he did get his SAG card out of the whole fiasco.

7. HE WAS NEARLY 40 BEFORE HE LANDED HIS FIRST MOVIE ROLE.

When The Ref opened in 1994, Simmons was about 10 months shy of his 40th birthday. So where had he been for the past few decades? On the stage. Simmons was strictly a theater actor for much of his early career. After performing in regional and Off-Broadway productions, he made it onto the Great White Way in 1990 with A Change in the Heir. He continued on Broadway with revivals of Peter Pan and Guys & Dolls, plus Laughter on the 23rd Floor. But he slowly began experimenting with film and television roles, and once his two children were born, he abandoned the stage completely.

Now that his kids are preparing for college, he has hinted that he may return to his theatrical roots.

8. OZ SENT HIM TO THE ER.

Simmons’s big break came with the early HBO show Oz, where he played the villainous Vern Schillinger for six seasons. Portraying this white supremacist wasn’t just emotionally grueling—it was downright dangerous. As Simmons recalled to Esquire, “On Oz one day, I got a chunk of camera embedded in my head and I was passed out on the floor geysering blood while the set medic stood over me, freaking out … I ended up going to the ER and getting nine stitches in my head—real Frankenstein stitches. When I went back to the set, they shot me from the other side for the day.”

9. HE HAS APPEARED IN ALL OF JASON REITMAN’S MOVIES.

Beginning with his role as the screaming boss BR in Thank You for Smoking and ending with his most recent part as Allison’s dad in Men, Women & Children, Simmons has acted in all six of Jason Reitman’s feature films (though only his voice appeared in Young Adult). To date, he is the only actor to do so. “He’s my muse,” Reitman told Variety. “Hitchcock had his blondes, and I have J.K. Simmons.”

10. HE HAS VOICED THE YELLOW M&M FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS.

Even if you haven’t seen Simmons’s movies, TV shows, or Farmers Insurance commercials, you’ve probably heard him. He has lent his voice to video game characters in Portal 2 and The Legend of Korra. More importantly, he has voiced the Yellow M&M since 1996.

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The Time That Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Opened Competing Restaurants on the Sunset Strip
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From 1946 to 1956, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were show business supernovas. With an act that combined singing, slapstick, and spontaneous hijinks, the duo sold out nightclubs coast to coast, then went on to conquer radio, television, and film. Long before Elvis and The Beatles came along, Dean and Jerry  were rock stars of comedy.

Offstage, there was a cordial but cool friendship between the laidback Martin and the more neurotic Lewis. But as the pressures of their success increased, so did the tensions between them. Martin grew tired of playing the bland romantic straight man to Lewis’s manic monkey boy. And when Lewis started to grab more headlines and write himself bigger parts in their movies, Martin decided to quit the act. In an angry moment, he told Lewis that he was “nothing to me but a f**king dollar sign.”

After the split, both men went on with their individual careers, though it took Martin a few years before he regained his footing. One of his ventures during that transitional period was a Hollywood eatery called Dino’s Lodge.

DINO'S LODGE

In the summer of 1958, Martin and his business partner, Maury Samuels, bought a controlling interest in a restaurant called The Alpine Lodge, at 8524 Sunset Boulevard. They hired Dean’s brother Bill to manage the place, and renamed it Dino’s Lodge.

Outside they put up a large neon sign, a likeness of Dean’s face. The sign turned into a national symbol of hip and cool, thanks to appearances on TV shows like Dragnet, The Andy Griffith Show, and most prominently, in the opening credits of 77 Sunset Strip.

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Dino’s Lodge was popular from the get-go, serving home-style Italian food and steaks in an intimate, candlelit, wood-paneled room meant to replicate Martin’s own den. In the first year, Dean himself frequented the place, signing autographs and posing for photos with starstruck diners. He also occasionally brought along famous friends like Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. To promote the idea of the swingin’ lifestyle that Martin often sang about, Dino’s served “an early morning breakfast from 1 to 5 a.m.” The restaurant also had a lounge that featured singers, though only females. Dean apparently didn’t want any male vocalists encroaching on his turf.

But as with many a celebrity venture into the food business, this one soon turned sour. And most of that was due to the jealousy of Jerry Lewis.

JERRY'S

In late 1961, Lewis wooed Martin’s business partner Maury Samuels away, ponied up some $350,000, and opened his own copycat restaurant three blocks down Sunset. It was called Jerry’s. To make it clear he was out for top billing, Lewis had his own likeness rendered in neon, then mounted it on a revolving pole 100 feet above his restaurant. In contrast to Dino’s Italian-based menu, Jerry’s would serve “American and Hebrew viands.” Lewis didn’t stop there. Within a few months, he’d hired away Dino’s top two chefs, his maître d', and half his waitstaff.

Wire Photo, eBay, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When Lewis was in Los Angeles, he made of point of table-hopping and schmoozing with his guests at his restaurant, and he occasionally brought in a few of his celebrity friends, like Peggy Lee and Steve McQueen.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

By the following year, a disgusted Dean Martin was fed up with the restaurant business and cut ties with Dino’s Lodge. Much to his aggravation, he lost a motion in court to have his likeness and name removed from the sign. So the new owners carried on as Dino’s Lodge, with the big neon head staring down on Sunset for another decade before the place finally went bust.

Jerry’s lost steam long before that, folding in the mid-1960s.

For the rest of the 1960s and the early 1970s, Martin and Lewis avoided each other. “Jerry’s trying hard to be a director,” Dean once told a reporter. “He couldn’t even direct traffic.”

In 1976, Frank Sinatra famously engineered an onstage reunion of the pair during The Jerry Lewis Telethon. While the audience roared their approval, Sinatra said, “I think it’s about time, don’t you?” And to Sinatra, Lewis said under his breath, “You son of a bitch.”

What followed was an awkward few moments of shtick between the former partners. Reportedly, Martin was drunk and Lewis was doped up on painkillers. There was a quick embrace, Martin sang with Sinatra, then blew Lewis a kiss and disappeared from his life for good. Martin died in 1995. Lewis passed away today, at the age of 91.

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10 Witty Facts About The Marx Brothers
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Talented as individuals and magnificent as a team, the Marx Brothers conquered every medium from the vaudeville stage to the silver screen. Today, we’re tipping our hats (and tooting our horns) to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo—on the 50th anniversary of Groucho's passing.

1. A RUNAWAY MULE INSPIRED THEM TO TAKE A STAB AT COMEDY.

Julius, Milton, and Arthur Marx originally aspired to be professional singers. In 1907, the boys joined a group called “The Three Nightingales.” Managed by their mother, Minnie, the ensemble performed covers of popular songs in theaters all over the country. As Nightingales, the brothers enjoyed some moderate success, but they might never have found their true calling if it weren’t for an unruly equid. During a 1907 gig at the Nacogdoches Opera House in East Texas, someone interrupted the performance by barging in and shouting “Mule’s loose!” Immediately, the crowd raced out to watch the newly-liberated animal. Back inside, Julius seethed. Furious at having lost the spotlight, he skewered his audience upon their return. “The jackass is the finest flower of Tex-ass!” he shouted, among many other ad-libbed jabs. Rather than boo, the patrons roared with laughter. Word of his wit soon spread and demand for these Marx brothers grew.

2. THEY RECEIVED THEIR STAGE NAMES DURING A POKER GAME.

In May of 1914, the five Marxes were playing cards with standup comedian Art Fisher. Inspired by a popular comic strip character known as “Sherlocko the Monk,” he decided that the boys could use some new nicknames. Leonard’s was a no-brainer. Given his girl-crazy, “chick-chasing” lifestyle, Fisher dubbed him “Chicko” (later, this was shortened to “Chico”). Arthur loved playing the harp and thus became “Harpo.” An affinity for soft gumshoes earned Milton the alias “Gummo.” Finally, Julius was both cynical and often seen wearing a “grouch bag”—wherein he’d store small objects like marbles and candy—around his neck. Thus, “Groucho” was born. For the record, nobody knows how Herbert Marx came to be known as “Zeppo.”

3. GROUCHO WORE HIS TRADEMARK GREASEPAINT MUSTACHE BECAUSE HE HATED MORE REALISTIC MODELS.

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Phony, glue-on facial hair can be a pain to remove and reapply, so Groucho would simply paint a ‘stache and some exaggerated eyebrows onto his face. However, the mustache he later rocked as the host of his famous quiz show You Bet Your Life was 100 percent real.

4. HARPO WAS A SELF-TAUGHT HARPIST.

Without any formal training (or the ability to read sheet music), the second-oldest Marx brother developed a unique style that he never stopped improving upon. “Dad really loved playing the harp, and he did it constantly,” his son, Bill Marx, wrote. “Maybe the first multi-tasker ever, he even had a harp in the bathroom so he could play when he sat on the toilet!”

5. THE VERY FIRST MARX BROTHERS MOVIE WAS NEVER RELEASED.

Financed by Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and a handful of other investors, Humor Risk was filmed in 1921. Accounts differ, but most scholars agree that the silent picture—which would have served as the family’s cinematic debut—never saw completion. Despite this, an early screening of the work-in-progress was reportedly held in the Bronx. When Humor Risk failed to impress there, production halted. By Marx Brothers standards, it would’ve been an unusual flick, with Harpo playing a heroic detective opposite a villainous Groucho character.

6. GUMMO AND ZEPPO BECAME TALENT AGENTS.

World War I forced Gummo to quit the stage. Following his return, the veteran decided that performing was no longer for him and instead started a raincoat business. Zeppo—the youngest brother—then assumed Gummo’s role as the troupe’s straight-talking foil. A brilliant businessman, Zeppo eventually broke away to found the talent agency Zeppo Marx Inc., which grew into Hollywood’s third-largest, representing superstars like Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, and—of course—the other three Marx Brothers. Gummo, who joined the company in 1935, was charged with handling Groucho, Harpo, and Chico’s needs.

7. CHICO ONCE LAUNCHED A BIG BAND GROUP.

Chico took advantage of an extended break between Marx brothers movies to realize a lifelong dream. A few months before The Big Store hit cinemas in 1941, he co-founded the Chico Marx Orchestra: a swinging jazz band that lasted until July of 1943. Short-lived as the group was, however, it still managed to recruit some amazing talent—including singer/composer Mel Tormé, who would go on to help write “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” in 1945.

8. THEY TESTED OUT NEW MATERIAL FOR A NIGHT AT THE OPERA IN FRONT OF LIVE AUDIENCES.

With the script still being drafted, MGM made the inspired choice to let the brothers perform key scenes in such places as Seattle, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Once a given joke was made, the Marxes meticulously timed the ensuing laughter, which let them know exactly how much silence to leave after repeating the gag on film. According to Harpo, this had the added benefit of shortening A Night at the Opera’s production period. “We didn’t have to rehearse,” he explained. “[We just] got onto the set and let the cameras roll.”

9. GROUCHO TEMPORARILY HOSTED THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Jack Paar bid the job farewell on March 29, 1962. Months before their star’s departure, NBC offered Paar’s Tonight Show seat to Groucho, who had established himself as a razor-sharp, well-liked host during You Bet Your Life’s 14-year run. Though Marx turned the network down, he later served as a guest host for two weeks while Johnny Carson prepared to take over the gig. When Carson finally made his Tonight Show debut on October 1, it was Groucho who introduced him.

10. SPY MAGAZINE USED A MARX BROTHERS MOVIE TO PRANK U.S. CONGRESSMEN.

Duck Soup takes place in Freedonia, a fictional country over which the eccentric Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) presides. In 1993, 60 years after the movie’s release, this imaginary nation made headlines by embarrassing some real-life politicians. Staffers from Spy got in touch with around 20 freshmen in the House of Representatives, asking some variation on the question “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?” A few lawmakers took the bait. Representative Corrine Brown (D-Florida) professed to approve of America’s presence in Freedonia, saying, “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.” Across the aisle, Steve Buyer (R-Indiana) concurred. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a different situation than the Middle East.”

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