True originality is hard to come by. If you do something creative for a living, you know that inspiration has to come from somewhere. Whether it’s a person, experience, or downright ripoff of successful models, the best art is a reflection of human nature in all its glories and miseries. As Quentin Tarantino once said, “I steal from every movie ever made.” And that’s the reason he’s considered a genius filmmaker.
But this isn’t about stealing, nor is it about homages. The following heroes and villains are real people, and they influenced some of the most memorable characters in Hollywood history. It’s always compelling to discover who’s behind the fiction, and in some cases, it’s even better than the celluloid portrayal. Truth is stranger than fiction after all. And you might agree that these stories trump the dramas themselves. From mob bosses to adventurists, “idiot” savants to legendary bandits, without these people, there would be less dynamism to their epic adaptations on the silver screen.
The next time you’re watching one of these movies with your friends and family, impress them by regaling them with the real tales. Who knows, it could be your next bar trick.
10. Frank Costello & James “Whitey” Bulger
“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”
So says the opening quote in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Best Picture-winner The Departed. Although notorious Boston mafioso James “Whitey” Bulger didn’t utter it, he could’ve, because his life was a direct reflection of that sentiment. For decades he terrorized the neighborhood of South Boston, seizing a handle on virtually every money-making scheme and mob-inflicted crime.
Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicholson, wasn’t a precise mirror image of Bulger himself, but Scorsese said in an interview that they “felt comfortable in the character, in the situation, because we knew it to be true.” Other characters, such as Matt Damon’s performance of agent Colin Sullivan, were seemingly plucked from the real story. FBI agent John Connelly, who was active in many of Bulger’s exploits, even warned of his impending indictment before it happened, causing Bulger to flee. In 2011 he was finally captured and imprisoned (he wasn’t shot in a police raid like Costello was in the movie—his $1 million reward on the FBI’s Most Wanted List was too valuable).
9. Travis Bickle & Arthur Bremer
Arthur Bremer was a sociopath hellbent on making an impact. He inspired the iconic antihero Travis Bickle, the lead character in Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. Four years before the movie’s release, Bremer plugged American politician George Wallace with five bullets, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
Like the movie, Bremer was also spurned by a love interest. But it was entirely due to his own “goofy” and “weird” nature, according to the 16-year-old Joan Pemrich, whom he briefly dated. As did Bickle with Cybill Shepherd, Bremer took Pemrich to a p*rno theater and spoke graphically about sex. Once she broke it off for good, he made a vow “to do SOMETHING BOLD AND DRAMATIC, FORCEFUL & DYNAMIC, A STATEMENT of my manhood for the world to see.”
Initially, Bremer wanted to assassinate Richard Nixon, but he was unable. So he settled on Wallace. On May 15, 1972 he pushed through the crowd at a rally in Wheaton, Maryland and shot him repeatedly in the abdomen. Like Travis Bickle, Bremer wore dark glasses and a Wallace button that said “WALLACE in ’72” and clapped hysterically in the audience after every applause break.
Bremer was sent to prison and—gasp—was released in 2007.
8. The Dude & Jeff Dowd
At a house party around the making of the Coen brothers’ debut Blood Simple in 1984, a scruffy film producer remarked about a rug of his that “really tied the room together.” This man would later be the inspiration for the illustrious “Dude.” His name was Jeff Dowd. He was a member of the Seattle Seven and occasionally drank White Russians. He smoked a lot of pot and once found homework in his recovered stolen car. But alas, he wasn’t the “laziest person in Los Angeles County”—Dowd was active politically and was a successful film producer in Hollywood. Good art stretches the truth to form an enticing narrative. And Dowd was the framework to create one of the most revered and beloved slackers in all of cinematic history.
7. Alien & Riff Raff
After the release of Spring Breakers in 2013, Florida rapper Riff Raff was clenching his gold-grilled teeth. He wanted to file a lawsuit because director Harmony Korine, molded a character in the exact dimensions of Mr. Raff. Korine originally wanted to cast Riff Raff as his Southern-drawling drug dealer, but he turned it down. After seeing a practical twin of himself on the silver screen in the form of James Franco, he said he wanted to sue for “eight to 10 million dollars.” But everything was beef-free in the end, as Riff Raff told MTV concerning Franco: “I’m sure he’s cool. I just want him to be successful.”
6. Charles Foster Kane & William Randolph Hearst
Around 1940, “boy genius” Orson Welles set out to give newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst a taste of his own medicine. He made Citizen Kane, a movie that is still considered one of the greatest film achievements ever. At the time, however, Hearst didn’t appreciate the non-subtlety of Charles Foster Kane, and immediately went on the offensive to shut the movie down. He even had Hollywood executive Louis B. Mayer try to burn the negative. According to PBS, there were threats of blackmail, smears in the newspapers, and FBI investigations. Hearst smeared Welles as a communist and a coward for not going to war for his country.
The film was released anyway.
Like Kane, Hearst was the king of the publishing empire. At the time, one in five Americans were reading a Hearst newspaper weekly. He owned 14 of the top newspapers in New York City. He had eight mansions, each filled with priceless antiques, and he made one palatial estate he called San Simeon, his primary dwelling; it was a coastal California castle perched on a piece of land roughly half the size of Rhode Island (you might remember Kane’s Xanadu).
Both Kane and Hearst were mammoths of men. They had almost sinful levels of ambition and regular episodes of extreme self-destruction. What led to their success led to their demise. But as Welles was only 24 during the making of a film that he wrote, directed and starred in, he grew into the character, and it became part of who he was. Producer Thomas Lennon put it best: “Hearst and Welles were proud, gifted, and destructive—geniuses in each his way. The fight that ruined them both was thorough in character with how they’d lived their lives.”
5. Zorro & Joaquin Murrieta
Zorro wasn’t a product of author Johnston McCulley’s mind. He was ripped out a lesser-known tale that involved Chicano bandit Joaquin Murrieta. During the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, a man later dubbed the Mexican Robin Hood had a $5,000 bounty on his head—dead or alive. Alongside his merry band of outlaws, Murrieta robbed wagon trains traveling along the rolling hills of Calaveras County.
Why did Murrieta choose a life of crime? While the origins of such a brash lifestyle remain contended, one theory points to Murrieta’s wife being killed and his brother being hung after Murrieta was accused of stealing mules. Murrieta then sought vengeance against those who murdered his loved ones.
In 1853, Murrieta was beheaded. His head was on display in the San Francisco Museum until 1906, when the infamous earthquake struck the city and destroyed all trace of him.
4. Dottie Hinson & Dorothy Kamenshek
Geena Davis’ character in the American classic A League of Their Own was fashioned out of Dorothy Kamenshek, one of history’s most successful female baseball players. Kamenshek wreaked havoc on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League playing for the Rockford Peaches—the same team used in the movie. She made the all-star team seven out of the 10 seasons she played and during her entire career, she only struck out 81 times out of 3,736 at-bats. She was even once recruited for a men’s team in Fort Lauderdale but turned it down.
3. Dirty Harry & Dave Toschi
Dave Toschi was the lead detective assigned to the Zodiac Killer case in San Francisco during the 60s and 70s. In 1971’s Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood chased a man called the “Scorpio Killer.” Writers Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink modeled Toschi’s maverick Magnum-toting style to Harry. Unfortunately though, Toschi never got a chance to tell the Zodiac Killer, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”
2. Raymond Babbitt & Kim Peek
When one recollects the 1988 film Rain Man, they often remember the scene of Raymond Babbitt counting cards and making his brother (played by Tom Cruise) rich at a casino. This amazing moment became less than exemplary when one reads about the life of Kim Peek, the inspiration for Babbitt.
Peek was deemed mentally handicapped at birth but won the genetic lottery of photographic memory. He suffered from macrocephaly and other undiagnosed brain conditions. But it gave him the ability to retain 98 percent of the information he read. He could also recall newspaper headlines from decades ago and correctly guess the day of the week complete strangers were born. By the time of his death in 2008, Peek had memorized more than 12,000 books, word for word, including the Bible.
Screenwriter Barry Morrow met him in Arlington, Texas in 1984, and four years later, Morrow held the Oscar for Best Picture. Morrow himself gave Peek the Oscar to carry around with him when he became famous after the movie. It became known as the “Most Loved Oscar Statue” due to it being touched by more people than any other Oscar.
1. Indiana Jones & Hiram Bingham III
In the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones braves hell and high water to retrieve the Golden Idol from an ancient Peruvian temple. The basis for this plot point came from a real-life lecturer at Yale who taught in the early 20th century.
In 1911, Hiram Bingham III discovered the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu, high atop the Andes. His findings brought the 400-year-old citadel to the eyes of the world. His explorations were featured in a 1912 issue of National Geographic. Bingham later excavated 40,000 artifacts, including mummies and ceramics, and brought them to America.