The biopic has been a part of Hollywood for decades, and in the past twenty years or so, the genre has become the industry’s go-to project for guaranteed Oscar contender. Word around the Los Angeles campfire is that casting for these roles is particularly difficult for two reasons: 1) The actor cast doesn’t have the convenience of creating his or her own spin on the character. Instead, the actor has to completely immerse himself into someone else’s life. He or she needs to research, study, and memorize every tick and mannerism that may seem insignificant to the untrained eye. 2) The actor has to resemble the person he or she is playing enough so fanboys won’t tear the studio a new one before the film’s release. But from time to time, Hollywood doesn’t mind bending rule number two, at least a little bit, to ensure they get the proper leading man/lady for the job. And if you’re like me, you’re left wondering what the heck these characters looked like in real life and you spend the first few minutes of the movie on Google images looking them up until the guy next to you in the theater “accidentally” knocks your phone out of your hand. So, to save you all the trouble, I compiled a list of the real-life faces behind some of your favorite movie characters.
15. Howard Hughes From The Aviator
Howard Hughes was a legendary filmmaker, investor, pilot, philanthropist, and eventual nutjob that became one of the most successful businessmen the world has ever seen. Since his death in 1976, six separate attempts at developing a movie about his life had crashed and burned (including one by Christopher Nolan and Jim Carrey in 2002), but it was lucky number seven in 2004 that finally made the cut when director, Martin Scorsese, and actor, Leonardo Dicaprio, teamed up for the second time in what would be a long line of collaborations to span over the next ten years. The Aviator was a passion project of Scorsese’s that reportedly cost him $500,000 of his own money, and he took no chances when it came to authenticity. He used exterior shots of Hughes’ actual estate and demanded individual freckles be painted on Cate Blanchett‘s face, arms, and chest for her to accurately depict Katharine Hepburn. And Leo was no different in his approach to truly capturing the essence of the mythical tycoon himself. He spent an entire day with frequent Hughes collaborator, Jane Russell, to share her memories about the man, and another day with an OCD patient to fully grasp what it was like to live with a crippling form of the condition. The result was 11 Oscar nominations and Scorsese’s first film to gross over $100 million domestically. Just goes to show you that hard work really pays off in the end.
14. Joseph Merrick From The Elephant Man
If you’re not familiar with The Elephant Man, it’s easy to confuse it with an old movie you’ll have no interest in because it’s black and white and looks like it was made in 1930. However, allow me to do away with the disconnect. The Elephant Man came out in 1980. It was directed by David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive) and it stars Anthony Hopkins (if you’re old, Silence of the Lambs, if you’re young, Westworld, and Thor) and John Hurt (I’m not even going to bother listing his older credits and just tell you he was Mr. Ollivander in the Harry Potter movies). It tells the story of Joseph Merrick (John Merrick in the movie), a man born with severe deformities that were enlarged for most of his life. After being abandoned by his father, he spent time in a workhouse and then a freak show until he was discovered by Dr. Frederick Treves who allowed him to live at London Hospital until his death in 1890. After his demise, parts of his body were preserved as casts at the hospital which were then used to make the prosthetics for John Hurt’s makeup in the film. Hurt would reportedly arrive on set at 5 A.M., be in makeup for eight hours, and then shoot for another ten. A process that was so strenuous, he would only film every other day and even told his wife “I think they finally managed to make me hate acting.”
13. Jimmy “The Gent” Burke And Henry Hill From Goodfellas
This is a two-for-one deal. In 1990, Scorsese decided that he wanted to return to his New York City mafia roots and bring Nicholas Pileggi’s book, Wiseguys, about the rise and fall of mobster, Henry Hill, to the silver screen with his movie, Goodfellas. He amassed an all-star cast that would go down in history as the end-all-be-all in la Cosa Nostra film, and each did their own part to truly nail their roles. Robert De Niro played Jimmy Conway, a character based on Jimmy Burker, the Lucchese crime family associate with a firm adoration for stealing who saw murder as simply “part of the job description.” According to lore, De Niro would spend hours on the phone with Pileggi in order to master every minuscule detail about Burke, all the way down to how he held his cigarette and poured his ketchup and insisted he use real money in his scenes because he “didn’t like the way fake money left his hand.” Ray Liotta would listen to hours of recorded interviews between Pileggi and the real Henry Hill, taking cues from the way Hill discussed murder casually while he ate potato chips. Scorsese was such as stickler for authenticity that he would even tie Liotta’s ties each day on set to ensure the knot matched those seen in photographs of the lavish gangsters. Now that’s dedication.
12. George Jung From Blow
Just when we thought the cocaine-driven crime dramas of the ’80s and ’90s had been done to death, 2001 gave us Blow, the Ted Demme directed film based on Bruce Porter’s 1993 book, Blow: How a Small Town Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellín Cocaine Cartel and Lost It All (wordy but to the point). In the film, Johnny Depp plays George Jung, a normal New England kid who becomes one of the leading importers of Columbian cocaine throughout the 1980’s. But, aside from the luxurious, Depp sported his flowing hair in the movie and took a lot of liberties with the role. He did interview the real George Jung (who was behind bars at the time of filming) prior to shooting, but reportedly improvised many of his lines used in the final cut. To add insult to injury, they didn’t even snort real cocaine when the scenes called for it. They used milk powder instead. Psh! Do you think De Niro would have stood for that hogwash? No, I didn’t think so.
11. Frank Abagnale From Catch Me If You Can
Frank Abagnale Jr. is pretty much the greatest con-artist to ever live. This guy forged checks, impersonated a Pan American Airlines pilot, a Brigham Young teaching assistant, a pediatrician, and an attorney all before the age of 21. In 1969, he was finally locked up but only served five years until he was released under the condition that he would use his skills to help the F.B.I. catch other suspected criminals trying their hand at fraud and forgery. After that, he wrote a book about his experiences which Steven Spielberg made into an Oscar-nominated movie in 2002 starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the young conman. Some life, huh? DiCaprio was 28 years old when he took on the role while the real Abagnale was only 17 when most of the actual events took place. Sure, if you look at the images above, it’s obvious that DiCaprio is a “Hollywood version” of the real-life crook. Still, Abagnale was quoted saying that Leo was “suave” enough to play his younger self, but maybe he was lying. He’s been known to do that.
10. Frank Lucas From American Gangster
Frank Lucas was a southern boy who became the king of New York in the 1970’s by selling copious amounts of heroin to citizens of Harlem. When I say “copious amounts,” I mean he was netting over $1 million a day. In 2007, director Ridley Scott took a stab at telling the famed drug kingpin’s story with his film, American Gangster. Although Lucas himself was on set as a consultant for a majority of filming, the movie was roasted a bit for its dramatic inaccuracies. Still, no one doubted Denzel Washington‘s acting chops in regards to portraying Lucas on the big screen. The two became something of friends on the set, which made the filming all that much easier.
9. Frank Dux From Bloodsport
Bloodsport is a 1988 action movie about a military man who disregards his commanding officers’ orders and travels to Hong Kong to compete in a “fight to the death” style martial arts tournament. It’s a cult classic and showcased Jean-Claude Van Damme‘s athleticism making him a star practically overnight. It’s also based on the events of real-life butt kicker, Frank Dux (pronounced “Dukes” for added coolness). Over the years since the movie’s release, there’s been a lot of speculation to the truth of Dux’s “true story,” but at the time, nobody doubted him. In fact, he was a fighting coordinator on the set and even told Van Damme he was nowhere near good enough shape for the role. Dux put the action-film legend through three months of intense training which Van Damme later referred to as “the hardest training of his life.” This sounds exhausting when you hear about, but when you take into account that Van Damme was already a world champion in martial arts prior to even stepping foot on the set, it really puts the horridness into perspective.
8. Vince Papale From Invincible
Vince Papale was a former college track star who went on to become a high school teacher and a junior varsity football coach after graduating from said college. In most cases, the story would end there. But in Papale’s case, it was merely the beginning. While teaching, he found the time to play semi-pro football for the Philadelphia Bell and he did so well that in 1976, he landed a meeting with then Philadelphia Eagles head coach, Dick Vermeil, who, believe it or not, actually put him on the team making the thirty-year-old Papale the oldest rookie in NFL history. Amazing story, right? Hollywood certainly thought so. That is why in 2006, Mark Wahlberg suited up to play the famed wide receiver in the movie, Invincible (get it? inVINCEible). Not that he needed anymore bulking, but Wahlberg did train extensively for the role, going through intense NFL-style boot camps. However, they produced a made-for-TV version of this story with Tony Danza in the late ’90s and frankly, Danza looks like a far better fit for the role…at least resemblance-wise.
7. Hugh Glass From The Revenant
This is the last time you’ll see Leonardo DiCaprio on this list, I promise. But this one is here for a good reason because The Revenant is the film that finally put that elusive Oscar in Leo’s hands. It’s also relevant because not too many people know it’s based on a true story and the film doesn’t stray too far from the facts. Hugh Glass really was an American fur trapper in the 1800’s who, after being brutally attacked by a grizzly bear, was left for dead by his team only to overcome the odds, heal himself, and seek bloody vengeance on those who betrayed him. DiCaprio must have known he was entering into Oscar territory when he signed on to play Glass because he put it all on the line when it came to his performance. He learned two Native American languages, studied ancient healing techniques, learned to load and shoot a musket, and even put his vegetarianism aside by scarfing down a raw bison liver. However, I’m sure if you ask Leo, it was a small price to pay for the Oscar gold.
6. Chuck Barris From Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind
Chuck Barris was some sort of hokey television genius. He’s the mastermind that brought us classics like The Gong Show, The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game. He was a pioneer in the game show genre. He was also a hired assassin for the C.I.A. throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, or at least he claimed to have been in his tell-all autobiography. Regardless of his honesty, George Clooney thought his tale was so interesting that he turned it into a movie—2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. He then cast Sam Rockwell as the gun-wielding TV producer. The script was written by the famed screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, and Barris was still alive during production so they had the man himself on set to help with authenticities. But it was Rockwell’s charismatic personality that truly made him the best fit for the role. You can train a person to sing and dance but you can’t teach charm and a million-dollar smile—two things that are vital to any game show host.
5. Patch Adams From Patch Adams
Patch Adams is a doctor and a comedian who founded a free hospital in the late 1970’s that treated its patients with alternative methods as well as with conventional medicinal practices. In 1998, his story was brought to the silver screen with a film by the same name as the comedic physician, with Robin Williams in the starring role. Now, I think we all know the late great Robin Williams didn’t need any training in the art of laughter, and although Adams spoke highly of his performance, he criticized the film for making a mockery of his methods and even went as far to publicly condemn Williams for not donating one red cent of his $21 million earnings from the film to his real-life hospital. So, don’t let those ridiculous glasses and goofy mustache fool you. Dr. Patch Adams takes healing very seriously and he means business.
4. John Nash From A Beautiful Mind
John Nash was a revered mathematician and a certified genius who made invaluable contributions to various aspects of the math world that are far too complex for me to even understand, let alone try to describe them here. To put it simply, the internet sums up his work by saying that he has “provided insight into the factors that govern chance and decision-making inside complex systems found in everyday life,” which is especially interesting because his very own decision-making and everyday life were hindered by his paranoid schizophrenia, a condition he battled with for decades. In 1998, his biography, A Beautiful Mind, was released to acclaim. Three years later, Russell Crowe was playing him in the movie by the same name. Director Ron Howard wanted very much to keep up authenticity by not only putting actual math equations written by Nash on chalkboards for many of the scenes, but even having the renowned brainiac visit the set. Crowe said he was fascinated by the way Nash moved his hands and desperately tried to mimic the motions as to better understand the inner workings of his character.
3. Principal Joe Clark From Lean On Me
Lean On Me wasn’t the first movie about a firm but fair educator who uses out-of-the-box, and sometimes extreme, methods to get through to the kids. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t everyone’s favorite. Morgan Freeman plays Principal Joe Clark, who, in real life, was in charge of one of New Jersey’s toughest inner city high schools. During his career at the school in the 1980’s, he famously expelled over 300 frequently tardy students and did actually see a small improvement in standardized test scores because of it. Now when it came time to filming, director John Avildsen wanted to capture the authenticity of the affected youth as best he could. He hired real-life teachers and students to appear as extras in the film, and Morgan Freeman spent an extended amount of time with the real Joe Clark in order to properly mimic his mannerisms and style of speech. All of which paid off because, like I said, Lean On Me is everyone’s favorite.
2. Ace Rothstein And Nicky Santoro From Casino
Here’s another Scorsese mob movie and another two-for-one deal. Five years after the famed director had critical and box office success with 1990’s Goodfellas, he decided to follow the same formula almost exactly with Casino. The film was another adaptation of a Nicholas Pileggi true crime novel and even starred two Goodfellas alums in the lead roles. Robert De Niro plays “Ace” Rothstein, an absurdly talented sports gambler hired by the mob to run the Las Vegas Tangiers Casino, and Joe Pesci stars as his childhood friend and mafia enforcer, Nicky Santoro, sent along with him to protect the operation. We know Scorsese values authenticity especially when it comes to his movies surrounding the comings and goings of crime figures, and Casino was no different. Along with Pileggi acting as a set advisor, Scorsese recruited actual associates of the real Rothstein (Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal) and Santoro (Tony Spilotro) to the set to ensure nothing slipped through the cracks. The wardrobe budget alone was over $1 million and it’s said that after leaving makeup, Joe Pesci looked so much like the real Tony Spilotro that when he stepped onto the set, former associates of the ruthless killer nearly fainted right there on the casino floor.
1. Johnny Cash From Walk The Line
One of the most successful biopics of the past decade or so has been 2005’s Walk the Line. The James Mangold-directed film tells the story (based on the autobiography written by the man himself) of infamous outlaw-country singer, Johnny Cash, his rise from a small farm to international fame, and his battle with love/drugs that plagued him during that time. Mangold reportedly wanted “an angry, sensual, tortured young man” to star in the film and knew he found his man after seeing Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator. Phoenix, knowing this was his moment to prove himself as a leading man, left nothing to chance in regards to his performance. He was first approved to play the part by Cash himself and then spent the next six months with music legend, T-Bone Burnett, learning how to sing and play guitar from scratch. Phoenix became so involved with the role and adapted to Cash’s lifestyle so much, that the actor was even hospitalized after the filming ended. Method acting, it’s a hell of a drug.