Celebrity names

Celebrity names – the key to fame?

Here’s another list for you to memorise, this time it’s fifty celebrity names that you might not have known (their original names, that is). Which begs the question – just why do celebrities change their names?

There are all kinds of reasons, I’m sure, but there are a few that are pretty obvious. To start with, some names just don’t sound entirely ‘right’ somehow, at least not if you want to be the next big movie star or singing sensation. A name has to have a certain something, a ‘star’ quality that’s hard to pin down, but that somehow adds something special, something almost indefinable, to a personality. It’s the kind of thing we’d all like to have attached to our names, I suspect, but specially if you’re aiming to become famous the world over.

Judy Garland or Ethel Gumm? Mmm … let me think …

Judy Garland, on the list of celebrity names to ponder

Judy Garland … the star formerly known as Frances Ethel Gumm

Would The Wizard of Oz have been such a big draw if the publicity posters had proclaimed that it was to start Frances Ethel Gumm? Mmm … not sure about that one …

How about The Rockford Files, starring Jimmy Bumgarner? Or Frankenstein, introducing, as the monster, Billy Pratt? Mmm … sorry, but they just don’t do it for me. I don’t expect much from a film or TV star, just that they can act well, look pretty good, and sound like someone special, with proper celebrity names (hmm … I suppose I do expect quite a lot from them really!) Anyway, I guess the name’s just one more element in the mix, another part of the magic!

Boris Karloff ... William Pratt is among the celebrity names ditched for a better one

Boris Karloff … or Billy Pratt? You decide!

I know I’m biased, and it’s just plain wrong 🙁 but I just don’t want a beautiful, talented singer to be called Eilleen Edwards. Sorry about that (specially to all you Eilleens out there), and yes, it’s very judgemental of me, I know. In fact, judgemental or not, I’m all in favour of celebrity names being improvements on the original.

I want singers to have unusual and commanding celebrity names, not names like Reg Dwight and Alan Pincus and Bob van Winkle. There are enough of us already with dull names, we want something glitzy on our movie posters and record labels!

The entire entertainment industry is based on escapism. And let’s face it, we want to escape from ordinariness … we see way too much of it in everyday life!

Natalie Wood … easy to pronounce, and easy on the eye

Natalie Wood's original name seemed unsuitable, so it became one of the celebrity names that were changed forever

Natalie Wood, who changed her name from Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko

Of course some names are just hard to pronounce (for many of us, anyway), and keeping a name like that just doesn’t make good sense, if you’re really focused on making it big. Would Natalie Wood have been so successful if she’d used her original name, Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko? Actually, she probably would have been (assuming they could have actually fitted her name across a cinema frontage, or even found enough plastic letters), since she was such a fine actress, and so beautiful, but who could blame her for trying to tip the scales in her favour?

And Jack Palance was a very talented actor too, but he would be making a rod for his own back if he’d used his real name for his work. I’m sure it was a wise move to dip into the celebrity names pot and see what came out.

Cyd Charisse did the sensible thing – her name just wouldn’t put you in mind of a beautiful, talented dancer, so she changed it. There’s nothing wrong with Tula Ellice Finklea of course, it’s just that it doesn’t exactly match the image she brings to mind, or fits in with the usual idea of celebrity names.

Natalie Wood, Judy Garland, Alice Cooper, Cary Grant, Michael Caine, Charlton Heston, Bela Lugosi, Edward G. Robinson … the glittery names of the stars have become a part of all our lives. We might smirk at how different some of them are from the celebities ‘real’ names, but would we want it any other way? Their names, glitz an’ all, are part and parcel of who they are. And the fact that they are somehow a bit special … well, that’s just the way we would want it, given the choice, right?

Cary Grant … aka Archie Leach … a true giant of Hollywood

Archie Leach was among the  celebrity names changed for something better

Cary Grant, who chose his name based on the initials CG

Of course, some celebrity names were changed because they sounded too ‘ethnic’. God forbid a person should be judged on his or her skills and talents, when it’s so very easy to label someone as an undesirable because of their ethnic or racial background. And some names are just unfortunate. Diana Dors changed her name for good reason. And Spangler Arlington Brugh was psychic perhaps, in that he forsaw that his name might not be his fortune.

How about John Carter? Square-jawed hero of many a biblical epic. You remember good ol’ John? Or you might recall him under his assumed name of Charlton Heston! Yeah, come to think of it, that’s probably more memorable. And who can blame Peggy Middleton for taking her middle name and her mother’s maiden name as a stage name. And of course, Cary Grant, that giant of the silver screen … a name so much more ‘Hollywood’ than Archie Leach.

Celebrity names – where do they get them?

Michael Caine, who chose to have one of those memorable celebrity names rather than his own

Michael Caine, who picked his name from a film title

Where do they get their celebrity names? Well, Michael Crawford grabbed his off a passing biscuit company van apparently, and Cary Grant chose Grant because the initials CG seemed to have worked so well for Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. Michael Caine swiped his from the title of The Caine Mutine (Humphrey Bogart was his hero, and he starred in the film).

John Wayne‘s stage name was set by a studio boss, and he wasn’t even involved in the choice. In many cases, of course, the stage name is simply the celebrity’s real name, with a few changes made. Barry Manilow, for example, assumed his mother’s maiden name, rather than use Pincus. And Karl Malden simply rearranged the letters of his given name, Mladen, to come up with a new surname.

It has been said that Boris Karloff chose a name far removed from his real name to save his family any embarrassment. Apparently he thought his brothers, some of them dignified members of the British foreign service, would be ashamed of him getting involved acting, specially in the spooky roles that became his trademark. In fact, they were proud of him, and quick to pose with him for publicity photographs.

Memorising celebrities’ names

Here’s the list of fifty celebrity names, with their birth names, and their dates too. Memorising a list like this can be a lot of fun, and it’s certainly a good memory exercise. Plus it gives you the edge when certain quiz questions come up! And if you’re like me, you’ll find this kind of thing fairly easy to memorise – it’s the important stuff I have problems with!

Some of them won’t be a suprise to you, I’m sure, since they’ve been common knowledge for years, but some might make you sit up, or even smirk a little. But more than that, they might give you the urge to look up the celebrities and learn some more about them. Because ultimately celebrity names are so much more than a name and a couple of dates. The stories behind those names are facinating, and the more you learn about them as individuals, the easier it gets to memorise their details.

The stories behind the names

Victor Borge's name was considered to be among the celebrity names that were difficult to pronounce

“I normally don’t do requests”, Victor Borge was fond of saying, “unless, of course, I have been asked to do so.”

For instance, there’s a celebrity in there who played the role of God in three different films, and another who appeared in vaudeville at 17 months old (or young?) with his parents, and appeared in The Muppets in 2011, thereby stretching his career to cover ten decades!

Another of the celebrities began piano lessons at two years of age and gave his first recital at the grand old age of eight. He died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 91, after entertaining audiences for 75 years with his musical skills and his inimitable brand of humour.

In that (the peaceful demise), he was one of the lucky ones. It’s shocking to learn how many died of avoidable illnesses, many of them due to over indulgence in smoking, drinking, or drugs. In fact, one of them recorded a public information film to be shown after his death. In it he says solemly, after a dramatic pause, “Now that I’m gone, I tell you: Don’t smoke. Whatever you do, just … don’t smoke.”

NoStage NameOriginal NameDates
1Fred AstaireFrederick Austerlitz1899 - 1987
2Boris KarloffWilliam Henry Pratt1887 - 1969
3Sophia LorenSophia Scicoloni1934 -
4Chevy ChaseCornelius Crane Chase1943 -
5Jack PalanceVolodymyr Palahniuk1919 - 2006
6Martin SheenRamón Gerardo Antonio Estévez1940 -
7Vanilla IceRobert Matthew Van Winkle1967 -
8John WayneMarion Robert Morrison1907 - 1979
9Truman CapoteTruman Streckfus Persons1924 - 1984
10Veronica LakeConstance Frances Ockleman1922 - 1973
11Shelley WintersShirley Schrift1920 - 2006
12Natalie WoodNatalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko1938 - 1981
13Cary GrantArchibald Alexander Leach1904 - 1986
14Michael CaineMaurice Joseph Micklewhite1933 -
15Cyd CharisseTula Ellice Finklea1922 - 2008
16Diana DorsDiana Mary Fluck1931 - 1984
17Kirk DouglasIssur Danielovitch Demsky1916 -
18John GarfieldJacob Julius Garfinkle1913 - 1952
19Jack BennyBenjamin Kubelsky1894 - 1974
20Victor BorgeBørge Rosenbaum1909 - 2000
21Charlton HestonJohn Charles Carter1923 - 2008
22Michael LandonEugene Maurice Orowitz1936 - 1991
23Yul BrynnerYuliy Borisovich Briner1920 - 1985
24Tony CurtisBernard Schwartz1925 - 2010
25Doris DayDoris Mary Ann Kappelhoff1922 -
26Yvonne De CarloMargaret Yvonne Middleton1922 - 2007
27Barry ManilowBarry Alan Pincus1943 -
28Shania TwainEilleen Regina Edwards1965 -
29Jayne MansfieldVera Jayne Palmer1933 - 1967
30Mary PickfordGladys Marie Smith1892 - 1979
31George MichaelGeorgios Kyriacos Panagiòtou1963 -
32James BrolinCraig Kenneth Bruderlin1940 -
33Ben KingsleyKrishna Pandit Bhanji1943 -
34Sigourney WeaverSusan Alexandra Weaver1949 -
35Robert TaylorSpangler Arlington Brugh1911 - 1969
36Edward G. RobinsonEmanual Goldenberg1893 - 1973
37Clifton WebbWebb Parmelee Hollenbeck1889 - 1966
38Dorothy LamourMary Leta Dorothy Slaton1914 - 1996
39Judy GarlandFrances Ethel Gumm1922 - 1969
40Alan AldaAlphonso Joseph D'Abruzzo1936 -
41Alice CooperVincent Damon Furnier1948 -
42Billie HolidayEleanora Fagan1915 - 1959
43Mickey RooneyJoseph Yule, Jr.1920 - 2014
44Etta JamesJamesetta Hawkins1938 - 2012
45Winona RyderWinona Laura Horowitz1971 -
46James GarnerJames Scott Bumgarner1928 - 2014
47Audrey HepburnEdda Kathleen van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston1929 - 1993
48Bela LugosiBéla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó1882 - 1956
49Karl MaldenMladen George Sekulovich1912 - 2009
50George BurnsNathan Birnbaum1896 - 1996
Some celebrity names were just difficult to pronounce. This applied to Yul Brynner's original name

Yul Brynner, smoking, as usual, to the very end

Another spent her last days in a hospital room, under police guard, after having been arrested for illegal possession of narcotics, a ‘crime’ that today would be regarded as trivial. The police guard was only withdrawn, by court order, mere hours before she died.

The fact that her singing had mesmerised audiences for years was forgotten now, and all that mattered was that she had broken the law. Fortunately, today she is remembered only for her unique interpretation of those magical songs, and her transgression of the law is forgotten, or at least is seen as incidental.

Frankly, considering the troubled life she had led, it would be amazing if she hadn’t needed drugs to dull the pain.

Celebrities celebrated … and sometimes ignored

Celebrity names were sometimes just not suitable, like Fred Astaire's

Fred Astaire, who expressed himself so eloquently in dance

One celebrity on the list has the unique distinction of being the the first person ever to be listed on that amazing film and TV website, IMdB, which ain’t bad for a guy who looks a bit weird, can’t sing, but can dance a bit (according to a talent scout, who, it turns out, couldn’t smell talent if it was drenched in Eau de Talent and heavily labelled).

After a sparkling career starring in some of the most successful and enduring musicals of all time, it’s astonishing to realise that he never once won an Oscar (apart from a grudging honorary one, awarded for a lifetime’s amazing work).

Another has elicited some slack-jawed admiration and some amazing quotes from admiring directors and film critics. Howard Hawks said that he was “so far the best that there isn’t anybody to be compared to him”. David Thomson, the British film critic and historian, called him “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema”. Hitchcock called him “the only actor I ever loved in my whole life”. Richard Schickel, the film historian and screenwriter, said “He’s the best star actor there ever was in the movies”.

He was also eagerly sought for the role of James Bond in the first Bond movie, Dr. No. Not only that, he was also named the second greatest male star of all time, and starred in some of the most iconic movies ever made. All assisted by the skills he’d learned as a stilt walker, acrobat, juggler, and mime artist, during his years with a travelling vaudeville troupe. Not bad for a kid from Bristol, England, who’d been expelled from school.

Worked it out yet? *

Real life dramas … and romances

Some celebrity names were thought too 'ethnic', like Edward G. Robinson's

Edward G. Robinson, who made over 100 films in a fifty-year career

One actor on the list performed his last acting role in a euthanasia sequence in the science fiction film Soylent Green (1973), and confided to his co-star and friend Charlton Heston that he was dying from cancer and had only weeks to live, at best. He died less than a fortnight later. In a career that spanned fifty years, he had made over 100 films.

When one of the celebrities died, he arranged for a single, long-stemmed, red rose to be delivered to his widow every day for the rest of her life. That kind of detail can’t be imparted by a list of names and dates. There are love stories in there, and drama, and tragedy, and much more of each than the films they starred in ever contained.

Alice Cooper – a tribute act that became the real thing

Some celebrity names were very ordinary, and needed to be changed to something more 'rock', like Alice Cooper's

Alice Cooper based his style on a deranged Bette Davis

One of the celebrities on the list formed a band when he was about 16 and called it The Earwigs. They couldn’t play any instruments so they just mimed to Beatles songs. Strangely, it went down well! They were pleasantly surprised and thought they’d try their luck, so they got some second-hand instruments and learned to play them. Then they relaunched as The Spiders, another name that would eventually fade away into obscurity.

As the lead singer developed his particular and very iconic style, he started to dress like a woman (a rather deranged woman!) and wear exaggerated and smeared make-up, more or less based on the style of Bette Davis in ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ The rest, as they say, is rock history.

Enjoy the list! Memorise it, if you like. And let yourself be drawn into learning more about the celebrities – real facts, not just dates and assumed names. They’re fascinating individuals with interesting and sometimes dramatic back-stories, and the more you discover about them, the easier it will be to remember all those interesting little details that make their stories so engaging.

* If you were left wondering, it was the inimitable Cary Grant!


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