The human imagination is a powerful and amazing thing. Think about it, over a century ago, a guy thought to himself “I want to be able to talk to someone far away, but don’t want to lose my voice by shouting”. Actually, in terms of the telephone, the idea belonged to several people originally, but was the successful invention was ultimately accomplished by Alexander Graham Bell.
Over one hundred years later, the human imagination has created personal computers and managed to put them inside telephones. The incredible minds of our species have also put people into outer space and of course, have made it possible to tell the world what you’re eating, no matter where you are. What a time to be alive.
But aside from the tangible, physical products of the human mind, the realm of storytelling may be even more impressive in terms of appraising creativity. While human minds have already come up with flying machines and a weapon that can destroy a city (maybe that one isn’t something to be too proud of), ideas like light-speed travel and teleportation have been thought of, but seem nowhere near achievable (for now).
Along with concepts and ideas, storytellers have come up with ridiculous, absurd, inspirational and truly puzzling characters, with mental and physical capabilities that are as entertaining as they are unrealistic. At the end of the day however, there is sometimes no substitute for personal experiences when it comes to characters. Whether we meet them or not, some people can have such captivating personalities and personas that they make their way into fiction. Here are fifteen awesome fictional villains you didn’t know were based on real people.
Honorable Mention: Shredder
Okay, we technically couldn’t include the main villain from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, because we’re discussing villains based on people. With that said, the inspiration for TMNT’s Shredder is too interesting not to mention. Though not based on a real person, Shredder was inspired by a cheese grater. No kidding, right? One of the creators of the franchise, Kevin Eastman, thought that some cheese graters could be used as weapons in the hands of a sinister individual, and thus the villain was born. Too ridiculous to make up, right?
15. Darkseid – DC Universe
Developed by Jack Kirby, Darkseid (pronounced “dark side”, like the Star Wars concept) is one of the most powerful and truly evil villains in the DC Universe. For his face, Kirby used actor Jack Palance, whose career spanned from the early 1950s until the early 2000s. The character’s personality however, is based off Adolf Hitler and Richard Nixon.
He is the ruthless dictator of the planet Apokolips, and this planet closely resembles Nazi Germany from a social perspective. His people are brainwashed and rigidly controlled, he sees his people as little more than tools to accomplish goals. With regard to the use of Nixon as part of Darkseid’s personality, it is a critical view of President Nixon as a manipulative, dishonest, calculating, dictator-waiting-to-happen.
14. Tony Soprano – The Sopranos
Part of the reason shows like The Sopranos become so addictive is that they make us feel for terrible characters. The late James Gandolfini‘s Tony Soprano is the main character of the show, but he’s a ruthless organized crime boss, yet the audience ends up liking him. It’s like how people cheer for a doomed Tony Montana at the end of Scarface.
For the character, Tony wasn’t just some evil dude with a flair for crime family leadership. He was actually a composite character based on two members of New Jersey’s DeCavalcante crime family. The primary two are Vincent Palermo and Giovanni (John) Riggi. Riggi died last year and had spent time in prison for murder and extortion (during that time he still ran the family). Palermo actually turned on the family and worked as a witness for the government after he realized they had a ton of incriminating evidence linking him to several major crimes.
13. Dr. Eggman Robotnik – Sonic the Hedgehog
If you grew up with Nintendo and Mario games, you had a cool childhood, but if you grew up with Mario and Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, your childhood was awesome and your parents deserve a high five. Sonic, Tails, Amy and Knuckles, take on Dr. Eggman Robotnik in each of the games. His goal is inevitably some form of world domination, and the four protagonists’ job is to stop him.
With the massive smile and large mustache, this evil dude is clearly based on former United States President Teddy Roosevelt. Whether you want to interpret the resemblance between Robotnik and Roosevelt as merely visual or want to draw similarities between one being an evil mastermind who wants to rule the world and the other being a United States President, we’ll leave that up to you.
12. Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang – Rocky Series
In terms of iconic sports movies and franchises, it’s tough to name a character with as much heart as Rocky Balboa. Sylvester Stallone‘s “Italian Stallion” is based on two boxers. The titular Rocky movie, is based loosely on the story of Charles Wepner challenging Muhammad Ali for the Heavyweight belt in 1975 (Rocky being released in late 1976), and Rocky Balboa himself was inspired primarily by Rocco “Rocky” Marciano, an Italian Heavyweight from the 1940s and 50s. Marciano’s stamina in the ring, knockout power and impressive ability to absorb punishment are all attributes of Balboa.
But the two antagonists in Rocky, Rocky II and Rocky III, Carl Weathers‘ Apollo Creed and Mr. T‘s James “Clubber” Lang are based on professional boxers as well. Creed is meant to be an homage to Muhammad Ali, partially as a quick and agile boxer, but also as a brilliant showman with excellent smack-talk.
The character Clubber Lang is recognized as having drawn inspiration from boxers “Smokin'” Joe Frazier, George Foreman (yeah, the guy with the grill) and Sonny Liston.
11. Michael Corleone – The Godfather Series
We already mentioned the most famous fictional mob boss from television, so now we’ll do the same for the iconic villain-protagonist of The Godfather films. Much like Tony Soprano and a few of his lackeys, the vast majority of the character in The Godfather movies are based on real people, including Al Pacino‘s Michael Corleone.
Examples of other characters based on real people include Mo Greene, who was based on Bugsy Siegel, and Don Vito Corleone, whose life mirrors Mafia boss Frank Costello. Michael Corleone and his actions throughout the film are drawn from the lives of three organized crime family members.
The main two mobsters on whom he is based are Joseph Bonanno, who became the leader of his crime family at a young age, and Vito Genovese, who had to flee to Italy after committing a series of murders.
10. Hannibal Lecter – The Silence of the Lambs
There are few characters in the history of film and television as terrifying and troubling as Hannibal Lecter. Darth Vader of Star Wars is scary and intimidating, Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men is menacing and sinister, but Anthony Hopkins‘ portrayal was among the most nightmare-inducing performances in film.
For a long time the author of the original series of books, Thomas Harris, was secretive about his inspiration for Lecter. In 2013 this changed and he said in an interview that he’s based on a Mexican doctor who Harris called Dr. Salazar. He was later determined to have been Alfredo Balli Trevino, a man convicted of killing his gay lover and dismembering his body.
9. Gordon Gekko – Wall Street
One of the best movies of the late 1980s and an absolute gem from the mind of Oliver Stone, Wall Street is all about greed, detailing the story of a young stock broker played by Charlie Sheen who gets involved with a big time trader, Gordon Gekko. If the film is about greed, Gordon Gekko is the personification of that attribute.
Played by Michael Douglas, director/writer Oliver Stone has said that Gekko is based on corporate raider/businessman/financier and avid art collector Asher Edelman. He has somewhat changed his tune in the last few years and actually endorsed Bernie Sanders for President in 2015. What can we say, people change.
8. Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver
Given that Travis Bickle is the antagonist of Taxi Driver, it is hard to label him as a complete villain, but he certainly isn’t a “good guy”. A much younger Robert De Niro plays Bickle in this Martin Scorsese masterpiece. While on the one hand, Travis goes on a rampage through a brothel to save an underage prostitute (definitely good karma) and he stops a robbery, we see what kind of a character he is throughout the movie, and he is an extremely violent man with a great deal of hate going on. With that said, if he’s a villain, he’s in a film in which there are no good guys.
7. Le Chiffre – James Bond: Casino Royale
Casino Royale was the first of the Bond books, and while the book and film share the same plot for the most part, including the main villain, there are differences; primarily due to the fact that the novel was written in the early 50s and the movie was made in 2006. Le Chiffre, the main villain, is similar in personality but has some differences in terms of his backstory. In the 2006 film he is portrayed as a terrorism financier, and was one of the main western figures involved with planning the September 11th attacks.
Le Chiffre was originally based on occultist (another word for weirdly spiritual), writer, artist and religion founder Aleister Crowley. Criticized by the media in his own time for being a heavy recreational drug user, he was influential enough to be the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s first bad guy. Le Chiffre in the recent Casino Royale actually didn’t have much in common with this guy, but the version in earlier productions and the one in the book were far closer to reality.
6. Alonzo Harris – Training Day and Frank Tenpenny – GTA San Andreas
If you’re saying something right now to the effect of “are you guys on drugs? Why list these two characters together?”, your concern is well-founded. They are based on the same dirty cop. Alonzo Harris was played by Denzel Washington in Training Day, and took Ethan Hawke‘s Jake Hoyt for a heck of a ride during his first day trying out for a job in the LAPD narcotics office. Frank Tenpenny is the main antagonist in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas; harassing and tormenting main character CJ, throughout that incredible game. He was voiced by Samuel L. Jackson.
Both of those nasty cops were inspired by the LAPD’s black eye known as Rafael Perez. Perez remains one of the most notorious corrupt cops in the history of United States law enforcement. He stole money from evidence, shot and killed at least one person who was posing no threat, was accused of drug and gang activity, and may have been the guy who killed Notorious BIG.
5. Alejandro Sosa – Scarface
Much like a few other films on this list, there really aren’t any good guys among the main cast of Scarface. Tony Montana is a maniac, all his friends and co-workers are drug dealers and many of them have plenty of blood on their hands. Manny and Gina are probably as close as one can come to finding decent people on the main cast. Of course, when the movie starts to climax, they are among the first killed.
If Tony is the main character, and the guy who kills the main character is the “villain”, then that would make businessman/cocaine kingpin Alejandro Sosa the villain of Scarface. Sosa was inspired by real life Bolivian drug lord Roberto Suarez Gomez, who was one of the main suppliers of the Medellin Cartel and made hundreds of millions of dollars at his peak in the 1980s. He was eventually found and arrested, and served over seven years in prison for drug trafficking. His overall health plummeted in prison and he died in 2000.
4. Eric Cartman – South Park
If there is a main antagonist or villain in the brilliant, animated series South Park, it is Cartman. His exploits have made him one of the most beloved characters in the show, despite most of those exploits being despicable. For example, after being pranked by an older boy, Cartman killed the young man’s parents and fed them to him in chili. Furthermore, he formed a neo-Nazi organization after seeing The Passion of the Christ.
Cartman has a couple of inspirations, one of which is fictional character Archie Bunker. But more than Bunker, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have said that Cartman is largely based on and named after their high school friend Matt Karpman. Karpman is still friends with the two and has been described as similar to Cartman in terms of his sense of humor, but obviously not as awful a human being.
3. Mr. Burns – The Simpsons
If Gordon Gekko was the personification of greed in Wall Street, Charles Montgomery Burns plays the same role in The Simpsons. As that show’s main antagonist, his character is excellent. Whether he’s trying to make a suit out of puppy fur, trying to pollute the water, or making his employees work in less-than-up-to-standard conditions, Burns is one of the greatest scumbags in the history of television.
Series creator Matt Groening has said that the primary inspiration for Burns was one of his high school teachers; a Mr. Bailey, but that he also borrowed from the lives of John and David Rockefeller; two American oil businessmen. Looking at Burns however, there are a few rich old men he resembles. Among them, Norwegian shipping tycoon Fred Olsen, and Jacob Rothschild of that banking family who some people swear “own everything”.
2. Severus Snape – Harry Potter Series
Much like Matt Groening based Mr. Burns on a schoolteacher, J.K. Rowling has indicated that the potions teacher Severus Snape (played by the late Alan Rickman) was based on a teacher she had in her youth. Snape is an antagonist for most of the franchise, but ultimately becomes protective for Harry and the other main characters. Rowling’s former teacher was John Nettleship, a chemistry teacher. When asked about his role in the books, he said “I was horrified when I first found out. I knew I was a strict teacher but I didn’t think I was that bad.”
1. Patrick Bateman – American Psycho
There’s a bit of Patrick Bateman in all of us, you know? Think about it; someone cuts you off in traffic, you start to think about running them off the road, your boss gives you a hard time over something minuscule, you start thinking of whether police will be able to see that you’ve Google’d his address before. But I digress, maybe that’s just me.
Regardless, Christian Bale‘s Patrick Bateman is one of the most endearing psychopaths that pop culture has ever seen. I wouldn’t meet this guy for a meal at Dorsia if he was paying, nor would I ever enter his apartment to listen to Huey Lewis and the News, or Phil Collins (though I do like Sussudio).
While preparing to play this character for the movie American Psycho, Christian Bale (who we all know takes his roles very seriously and puts his entire life into performing) said that he tried to play the character using Tom Cruise‘s mannerisms and personality. Director Mary Harron has said in interviews that she and Bale saw Tom Cruise talking to David Letterman and decided that Cruise’s “friendliness with nothing behind the eyes” was perfect for Bateman.