13 Characters that You Will not Believe Are Based on Real People
Some characters are so bizarre, improbable, or flat-out impossible that you have to wonder how their creators ever came up with them. In a surprising amount of cases, the answer is that they didn’t: They just copied a real person and called it a day.
Every story you’ve ever watched or read includes characters that are, in reality, based on somebody the writer knew. Nobody can invent a bunch of human beings out of whole cloth, so writers take real people and change their names (note that it’s much more fun when it’s someone the author hated). But you’d be surprised to see how totally out of left field the real-life inspirations often are.
#13. Kramer (Seinfeld)
Cosmo Kramer was the most far-fetched character in a show that included a woman who died after licking too many wedding invitations and a guy who talked like Jerry Seinfeld and had sex with a different woman every week. For the entire duration of the series, Kramer never had a real job and was always trying to make money from his ridiculous schemes — like that time he rented a bus and charged people $37.50 to take them on a “reality tour” of his life. Who the hell would do that?
The Real-Life Inspiration: Kenny Kramer
Meet Kenny Kramer, the real-life former neighbor of Seinfeld co-creator Larry David who does exactly what we just described, right down to the price of the tour. Like Cosmo, Kenny enjoys cigars, golf, and, more importantly, trying to make money in ridiculous ways. In his case, this actually worked: During the disco years, Kenny came up with electronic jewelry that sold like hotcakes, allowing him to live a life of leisure.
In a Season 5 episode, Cosmo wants to play himself on the show-within-the-show, but Jerry says no. That actually happened with Kenny and David, who didn’t even let him play the guy who plays Kramer playing Kramer on Seinfeld.
This is getting rather Inception-y.
Eventually, Kenny figured out how to profit from his connection to the show anyway thanks to his reality tour, which apparently is going way better than Michael Richards’ career.
#12. Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (The Big Lebowski)
Did you know there’s a whole movie made out of The Big Lebowski quotes? It’s called The Big Lebowski, and it’s about a laid-back slacker known as the Dude who finds himself involved in a complex kidnapping case but spends most of the movie bowling, drinking White Russians, and talking about his carpet. The Dude’s relaxed attitude has inspired a philosophical movement called Dudeism and a yearly festival, Lebowski Fest.
The Real-Life Inspiration: Jeff Dowd
The Coen brothers have a habit of putting real people in their movies, then being hailed as geniuses for creating them. The Dude, for example, is inspired by their friend Jeff Dowd, and by “inspired” we mean “it’s the same guy.” The main difference is that Dowd actually has a job (he’s a film producer), but the Dude’s personality, drink of choice, nickname, and even biography (some parts, anyway) are all borrowed from Dowd. In the movie, the Dude mentions that he was a member of the Seattle Seven, a group of political activists who were arrested in 1970 — in real life, that was Dowd.
He’s the hippie with the curly hair.
Meanwhile, some of the Dude’s misadventures were based on anecdotes told to the Coens by fellow screenwriter Peter Exline, who once had his car stolen and found a teenager’s homework inside when it was recovered. Exline and a friend tracked down the teenager and interrogated him in his living room, where his sick father (a Hollywood veteran) lived in a hospital bed. That whole story appears pretty much verbatim in the film.
Perhaps Exline can finally explain to us what “find a stranger in the Alps” means.
#11. Edna Mode (The Incredibles)
According to Pixar’s The Incredibles, Edna Mode is the woman who designed the costume for pretty much every superhero ever, meaning that despite being a self-described fashion expert, she never actually learned how underpants work. Edna was a quirky, no-nonsense character who ended up being of great use to our heroes — she’s the one who insists that no one in the family wear a cape, which is exactly what ended up causing the villain’s gruesome death.
The Real-Life Inspiration: Edith Head
Mode is apparently a Pixar reboot of Edith Head, the legendary movie costume designer who, in the course of her career, was nominated for a whopping 35 Academy Awards, taking eight of them home.
“I let my kids use them as G.I. Joes.”
Like Edna Mode, Head was incredibly prolific: She’s listed as costume designer in 436 freaking movies, including Vertigo, Rear Window, The Birds, and eight other Hitchcock classics. Incredibles director Brad Bird (who also voiced Mode) has never confirmed that they based the character on Head … but come on, just look at them. It’s also been observed that Mode’s behavior is basically an exaggeration of Head’s real personality. Head once said, “I hate modesty,” while Mode admitted that she was “the best of the best.”
#10. Popeye the Sailor
Popeye is the classic cartoon character who teaches children that they too can be strong and powerful if they get tattoos, smoke a lot, and get into fights. He’s also quite possibly the ugliest face that has ever decorated a nursery — Popeye’s impossibly deformed mug suggests that his creator only decided halfway through that he was drawing a person, not a butt. How did his mouth get all the way up there, anyway?
The Real-Life Inspiration: Frank “Rocky” Fiegel
Popeye’s creator, E.C. Segar, apparently based several of his characters on real people from his hometown of Chester, Illinois: Wimpy was supposedly inspired by his former boss, J. William Schuchert, Olive Oyl looked suspiciously like one Mrs. Dora Paskel … and Popeye himself was a local tough guy called Frank “Rocky” Fiegel. Fiegel may not have been as supernaturally strong as his cartoon counterpart, but he made up for it by being twice as ugly. The Popeye cartoon they drew on his headstone is actually doing him a favor.
“A stone for me bones, heh-heh, a post for me ghost.”
Fiegel was something of a local legend in Chester while Segar was growing up: He was known for always being prepared to dish out an ass whooping and taking on several opponents at the same time. He even acted exactly like Popeye — locals claim that children would startle him while he napped and he would “jump out of his chair, arms flailing, ready for a fight.” His official cause of death was “warships grew out of his biceps.”
Casterman/AP via news.com.au
The Adventures of Tintin is one of the most popular comic book series in the world, having sold over 200 million copies despite the fact that the main character can’t even grow metal claws and would suck in a fight against a killer robot. In fact, Tintin is just a kid who is somehow allowed to travel from country to country unsupervised, living through fantastic adventures and the occasional shocking display of racism.
What’s a children’s story without some good old-fashioned bigotry?
The Real-Life Inspiration: Palle Huld
Tintin debuted in a Belgian comic strip in 1929. As it happens, in 1928, another globe-trotting 15-year-old was causing a sensation all over Europe, except this one was real. Palle Huld, a boy scout from Denmark, had to circumnavigate the world in 44 days completely unaccompanied and without stepping on a plane as part of a competition organized by a Danish newspaper. Um, if that’s what they made the kid do when he won the competition, we don’t want to know what happened to the losers.
“… and this merit badge is for swimming, and this one is from when I circumnavigated the globe, and this one is for building a fire …”
Huld’s travels, which included war-torn Manchuria and just plain unfriendly Russia, made headlines all over Europe, so it seems likely that Tintin’s creator in Belgium would have been among those following him. When Huld made it back home, he was greeted by a crowd of 20,000 people, not unlike the one that receives Tintin at the end of his first album.
“Phineas Fogg ain’t got shit on me.”
Huld insisted until the end of his days that Tintin was him … despite having never read the comic. Hell, he didn’t have to, he already lived it.
#8. General Butt F**king Naked (The Book of Mormon)
General Butt Fucking Naked is a character in the Trey Parker/Matt Stone Broadway musical The Book of Mormon (and not in the actual book, we don’t think). Naked is the main antagonist of the story, a genocidal warlord who has a tendency to kill his enemies and drink their blood while completely in the nude. If you didn’t already know that this musical was written by the guys who created South Park, that phrase right there should have tipped you off.
The only name in publicly drenching political topics in blue humor.
And of course, at the end of the musical, the general converts to Mormonism and becomes Elder Butt Fucking Naked.
The Real-Life Inspiration: General Butt Naked
General Butt Fucking Naked isn’t just vaguely inspired by a real person — he’s pretty much the exact same guy. General Butt Naked was a Liberian warlord who was also a huge fan of genocide (he claims his squad killed 20,000 people), also pretty insane (he performed bizarre rituals and human sacrifices), and also fond of fighting in the nude, because he believed this granted him superpowers. Mr. Naked even had an army of child soldiers who were called the Butt Naked Brigade.
The only part the writers invented was the one where he repents and converts to Mormonism … in real life, it was Christianity. Seriously. He now goes by Pastor Blahyi and is the president of End Time Train Evangelistic Ministries Inc. and, perhaps more dramatically, has started wearing pants.
#7. Betty Boop
Betty Boop is considered one of the earliest sex symbols in pop culture, because there was nothing more arousing for people in the ’30s than the head of a baby surgically attached to the body of a woman. Betty was defined by her innocent sexiness, squeaky singing voice, and liberal use of made-up words ending in “oop.” She was also considered a fairly progressive character for her era.
What with her boyfriend being a dog and all.
The Real-Life Inspiration: Helen Kane
Cartoons parody real celebrities all the time, but in Betty Boop’s case, the parody became so popular that it completely overshadowed the real thing. To put it in perspective, imagine if people in the future believed that Family Guy invented Gary Coleman, or Star Wars, or the ’80s in general.
Betty was created as a parody of Helen Kane, a popular actress and singer from the ’20s who pretty much invented the whole “I’m a sexy baby” persona. She not only looked and sounded exactly like Betty, but her catchphrase was “Boop-oop-a-doop.” In fact, one of Betty’s early cartoons was a direct homage/ripoff of a Helen Kane movie.
Although Kane looks decidedly less like a bulldog than her counterpart.
The more audiences fell in love with Betty Boop, the less they seemed to care about Helen Kane. Kane wasn’t happy with the trade-off: In 1932, she sued Betty’s creator Max Fleischer and Paramount Pictures, but a judge ruled against her when it was proven that someone else had said “Boop-oop-a-doop” before. Kane died in relative obscurity while her silly parody version continued making millions for other people.
#6. Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert (Les Miserables)
In the recent film version of Les Miserables (pronounced “Les *barfing noises*”), Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, a thief who is relentlessly pursued by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) for over 20 years for stealing some bread. Most of you probably know that the movie is based on a stage musical, which in turn is based on a novel by Victor Hugo … which is based on a single dude.
The Real-Life Inspiration: Eugene Francois Vidocq
We’ve talked before about Eugene Francois Vidocq, the real-life equivalent of Sherlock Holmes and every other impossibly good fictional detective, from Hercule Poirot to Batman. What we didn’t mention was that, in a Fight Club-esque twist, he was also both the protagonist and the antagonist of Les Miserables.
The first rule of Les Miserables is never admit that you don’t like it.
Like Jean Valjean, Vidocq ended up in prison as a young man, but managed to escape and was on the run for years, posing as different people. He was a successful businessman and factory owner, but his past kept coming back to haunt him. A famous scene in the book is when Valjean saves a sailor by lifting a cart off of him — it was Vidocq who actually did that.
Vidocq eventually reached an arrangement with the authorities that allowed him to use his experience as a criminal to catch other criminals, becoming a law enforcer … and that leads us to Inspector Javert, who in the novel is also a reformed criminal who now chases after his former kind. Remember how Javert would use clever disguises in order to catch criminals? That was all Vidocq, too. So, basically:
“Sacrebleu! Le chauve-souris homme!“