Have you ever read a book, or watched a movie and thought – ‘Wow. How did the author come up with that?’
Inspiration can come from anything and everything, from a pretty setting or the look of an old chair, to the guy in the bookstore or the conversation we just had with our mothers on the phone. In other words, no one and nothing is safe.
That notion extends to some of the best loved characters ever known. Have you ever wondered where your favorite cartoon character’s wacky personality came from? Sometimes it takes a little push to bring a character life. What better source of inspiration than a real person?
Take a look at this list and prepare for your mind to be blown. From serial killers to childhood bullies, this is a comprehensive look at some of the best loved and love-to-hate characters that have real people to thank for their existence.
Let me introduce you to 25 Characters That Are Surprisingly Based on Real People.
25. POPEYE THE SAILOR MAN
One of the most popular and iconic cartoons of all time was based on a person from creator Elzie Crisler Segar’s hometown, of Chester, Illinois. His name was Frank ‘Rocky’ Fiegel. Fiegel was known as being a tough guy, more than capable of taking on several opponents at a time. It’s a pretty impressive claim to fame, considering this cartoon is nearly 90 years old. Whether Fiegel had a few cans of spinach before his fist fights remains unclear, but we hope so. Each year, Chester holds a Popeye Picnic to celebrate the success and origin of everybody’s favorite sailor man.
24. NACHO LIBRE
The 2006 film Nacho Libre starring Jack Black as the title character, may seem too ridiculous to be based on any truth whatsoever. However, it is. Fray Tormenta, a.k.a Reverend Sergio Guitierrez was a Catholic priest that competed in the world of pro wrestling to help financially support an orphanage he directed. It’s the kind of thing that you just can’t make up. Tormenta’s career spanned an impressive 23 years. Not bad for a priest in a mask, fighting the good fight. I’d love to know how he came up with that money-making idea. Tormenta had an impressive career, debuting in 1973 before hanging up his mask in 2011. Good going, hombre!
23. ROCKO, ROCKO’S MODERN LIFE
When producers of the Nickelodeon show Rocko’s Modern life originally pitched the cartoon, they described the central character as ‘A young anthropomorphic Woody Allen, who has just moved away from his home into a surrealistic adult world.’ Personally, I was just 3 years old when this gem was released in 1993, so I can’t say that in my younger years I ever realized the similarities between Rocko and Allen. However, looking at it now, it seems painfully obvious. The series ran for 52 episodes, leaving behind a cult fan base that is still strong today. Me and my brother, included.
22. NORMAN BATES, PSYCHO
Norman Bates is the deluded, mother obsessed murder from the 1959 suspense novel Psycho by Robert Bloch. Widely better known due to the sensational 1960 film adaptation by the legend that is Alfred Hitchcock, the story revolves around Norman and his murderous escapades. If the film wasn’t scary enough for you, Bates was actually based on real life psycho Ed Gein. Although, it should be stated that Gein liked his women already dead as well as living. He used to exhume women’s corpses in order to craft ‘tributes’ to his late mother. When police searched his home, they found various body parts and a variety of pieces of furniture and clothing – all made out of human skin.
21. JEAN VALJEAN AND INSPECTOR JAVERT, LES MISERABLES
Prior to being the hit stage musical and blockbuster film, Les Miserables was originally published as a French historical novel by Victor Hugo way back in 1862. If you’re familiar with the epic tale, you’ll know it centers around the relentless pursuit of former criminal turned businessman Jean Valjean by Inspector Javert. Both of these characters were actually inspired by Eugene Francois Vidocq, an 18th century businessman running from his criminal past. Vidocq struck a deal with the authorities, enabling him to use his insider knowledge to keep one step ahead of criminals, and becoming a law enforcer. Hugo recognized the potential in this character and thus, one of the greatest tales of all time was born (and a lot of parody videos of Anne Hathaway singing I Dreamed A Dream).
20. FREDDY KRUEGER, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
It’s no secret that The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise is the stuff of…nightmares. Director Wes Craven drew on a particularly terrifying ordeal he had when he was just a boy of 11. Craven spotted out of his family apartment window a disfigured homeless man staring back up at him. A while later, he checked again, and the man was still there. After a moment, the man made his way into the building. When Craven’s brother checked the hallways decked out with a baseball bat, there wasn’t a trace of the man. The situation clearly struck a chord with Craven, as did the name of his childhood bully – Fred Krueger. The ultimate revenge? We think so.
19. DON DRAPER, MAD MEN
The phenomenal hit series Mad Men premiered on July 2007, picking up some impressive accolades before calling it a day after 7 seasons in 2015. Central character, Don Draper, a high flying ad executive in a fictional agency, is based on Draper ‘Dan’ Daniels, head of the Leo Burnett Agency in the 60s. In the series, Don is an extremely complex character. He has numerous affairs and a dark past, complete with identity fraud. According to the wife of the real Draper, the character and the reality couldn’t be further apart. She described her husband as ‘disgustingly honest’, something that might surprise the fans of the show.
18. MONTY PYTHON’S FAWLTY TOWERS
In 1970, The Pythons had the pleasure of staying at The Gleneagles Hotel, owned by a gentleman named Donald Sinclair. Apparently, they found enough inspiration there to spawn the much loved sitcom, Fawlty Towers. Although the show had a surprisingly small run of just twelve episodes, it’s hailed as one of the best British sitcoms of all time. John Cleese plays Basil Fawlty, who is always in some sort of self-made predicament – not unlike Sinclair who after hearing a ticking clock in Eric Idle’s suitcase, mistook it for a bomb and promptly hid it. I don’t know about you, but I would’ve loved to have been a fly on that wall.
17. FRANK COSTELLO, THE DEPARTED
It’s hard to forget the fabulous Jack Nicholson in Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed crime drama, The Departed (especially the dildo touting scene). In fact, it’s hard to forget Nicholson in anything. Nicholson plays Frank Costello, a merciless mob boss with a mole in the police department. Costello is based on James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. It was so direct that some of Bulger’s past associates acted as advisers to Scorsese to ensure authenticity. It worked and won the film some pretty impressive awards, including the Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Director. It’s like this Scorsese guy knows what he’s doing, or something.
16. LUCY WHITMORE, 50 FIRST DATES
The comforting and familiar rom-com duo of Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore prove a particularly heart-warming spectacle in this 2004 movie. Barrymore plays Lucy Whitmore, a woman with a type of amnesia due to a serious car accident. In the movie, Lucy doesn’t remember meeting Henry (Sandler), as every morning her memory is reset to the day of the accident. Lucy Whitmore is based on Michelle Philpots, a woman who relies on wedding albums and sticky notes to jog her memory, as her brain continually sets her back to 1994. Michelle’s amnesia is also thought to be due to injuries sustained in a car accident. In reality, there’s a lot less comedy in Michelle’s life, where she has to document everything she does in written form.
15. BETTY BOOP
Unlike our previous entries, this one isn’t openly recognized by the creator. The popular cartoon character devised by Max Fleischer first appeared in 1930 and was an uncanny resemblance to popular American singer, Helen Kane (best known for her song, I Want to be Loved by You – you know the one.) Betty was pretty much a cartoon double of Kane, from the distinctive voice to the curly hair. Kane’s catchphrase was even ‘Boop-oop-a-doop.’ In 1932, Kane filed a lawsuit against Fleischer, charging unfair competition and wrongful appropriation in the Betty Boop cartoons. The lawsuit went on for over two years before it was surprisingly ruled in Fleischer’s favor.
14. URSULA, THE LITTLE MERMAID
Disney made quite a splash with the 1989 film adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale. Although the fairy tale is a lot more macabre than the film (think less catchy tunes and Jamaican crabs), the sea witch remains the staple villain at the core of events. In the film, Ursula’s character is larger than life – that’s because she’s based on a popular drag queen of the time, Divine. From the bleach blonde hair to buxom bust, Ursula really is Divine down to a T, and was at the heart and soul of one of the best love-to-hate Disney villains ever.
13. TRAVIS BICKLE, TAXI DRIVER
‘Are you talkin’ to me? Are you talkin’ to me?’
A second entry from director Martin Scorsese on this list, this time from the 1976 movie Taxi Driver. Robert De Niro’s iconic gun wielding vigilante Travis Bickle was based on Arthur Bremer, a man convicted of shooting presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972. Wallace survived, although was rendered paralyzed from the waist down. Bremer was also a porn fanatic, and similarly to Bickle ruined a relationship by being overtly perverted. The subsequent trial found Wallace guilty despite claims from his defense of legal insanity and schizophrenia. When asked if he had anything to say, Bremer hauntingly said, ‘Well, Mr. Marshall mentioned that he would like society to be protected from someone like me. Looking back on my life I would have liked it if society had protected me from myself. That’s all I have to say at this time.’ Bremer was released in 2007 at age 57, after 35 years of incarceration.
12. COSMO KRAMER, SEINFELD
One of the best loved American sitcoms of the 90’s, Seinfeld had a great run spanning nine seasons and 180 episodes. Character Cosmo Kramer is Seinfeld’s kooky neighbor. Not just similar by name, the popular character was based on co-creator Larry David’s real life neighbor, comedian Kenny Kramer. David lived in the same building as Kramer for several years, giving him plenty of inspiration when it came to creating Cosmo. He even had Cosmo like the same things as Kramer, such as a hot tub, golf and whacky inventions. So, if you ever find yourself sharing an apartment block with a writer, make a good impression. You might just end up on TV one day.
The charismatic swordsman portrayed by Antonio Banderas in the blockbuster series started out as a character in pulp writer Johnston McCulley’s works in 1919. Joaquin Murrieta was a known as the Mexican Robin Hood, who lied from 1829-1853. There is some controversy over his life and whether or not he was a notorious bandit or people’s vigilante is still up for debate. It is largely considered that Zorro is based on Murrieta and his nephew, known as Procopio, who followed in his uncle’s footsteps with the intention of being even greater. He succeeded, and after being given the catchy nickname of Red Handed Dick (sounds painful), became one of the best-known bandits in California history.
10. SHERLOCK HOLMES
An integral part of the literary canon, Arthur Conan Doyle’s eccentric detective Sherlock Holmes is based on Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell was a Scottish surgeon and lecturer in the 19th century. After meeting Bell whilst serving as his clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, Doyle went on to create Holmes, taking a great deal of inspiration from his former boss. Although of course, the tales are dramatized, Bell was known throughout his time for assisting in police investigations, using his skills to aid them. Namely, Bell helped with the Ardlamont Mystery and the infamous Jack the Ripper murders that shook London in 1888.
9. JOHNNY FONTANE, THE GODFATHER
Although much more widely known due to the film adaptations directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the tale of mafia family Corleone started out as a novel, created by Mario Puzo and published in 1969. The Godfather was a phenomenal on screen success, and included the character of Johnny Fontane, played by Al Martino. Fontane is a singer and godson of the head of the Corleone family, Vito, played by none other than Marlon Brando. The character is said to be based on iconic crooner Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was the godson of real life mob boss Willie Moretti, underboss of the prolific Genovese crime family, and was reportedly a close friend to many other mobsters. Sinatra often said music saved him from a life of crime.
8. MISS PIGGY, THE MUPPETS
The Muppets just wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for that Kermit loving fashionista. Muppet designer Bonnie Erickson based Miss Piggy on Peggy Lee, a popular Jazz singer from the 40’s and 50’s. Peggy Lee was well known for her classy and sultry image, something that Erickson tried to channel when creating Miss Piggy’s character. She wanted Miss Piggy to be a strong, independent woman, just like Lee. So much so, that she originally called the character Miss Piggy Lee, before later shortening it to Miss Piggy. The fierce and feisty persona definitely comes across, don’t you think? HIYAH!
7. MOE SZYSLAK, THE SIMPSONS
Since bursting onto our screens in 1987 on The Tracey Ullman Show, The Simpsons have become a family we know as well as our own. The dysfunctional five-some (okay, 8 if you include the pets and grandpa) are named after member of creator Matt Groening’s own family, although he substituted his own name Bart. With a vast array of characters, that isn’t the only link to real life. Moe Szyslak, the grumpy down-on-his-luck bartender, is actually based on Louis ‘Red’ Deutsch, a New Jersey bartender that professional prank callers Jim Davidson and John Elmo would call repeatedly and ask for patrons with made up stupid names, just like Bart does in the series. Just like Moe, Deutsch used to go crazy at the callers, threatening them and calling them a string of names.
6. EDNA MODE, THE INCREDIBLES
The 2004 Disney Pixar animation The Incredibles introduced us to a variety of mask wearing superheroes. One of the most popular characters however, was that of Edna Mode, the costume designer. Mode was based on real life fashion designer Edith Head, who won an amazing (you might say, incredible) 8 Oscars for her work in costume design. The similarities don’t end there. Head was a petite brunette with round framed glasses and is famously quoted as saying ‘I hate modesty.’ With all of those awards and a glittering career behind her, Edith knew her value. She remains an influential icon to this day.
5. THE DUDE, THE BIG LEBOWSKI
The 1998 crime caper directed by The Coen Brothers centers around bowling fanatic Jeffrey ‘The Dude’ Lebowski, a case of mistaken identity, ransoms and all sorts of exciting stuff. The main character is based on a close friend of The Coen’s, Jeff Dowd. Everything from his mannerisms to certain parts of the character’s story are taken directly from Dowd. Even his drink of choice, a White Russian, was inputted into the film. That’s a pretty impressive character to have based on you, played by the lovable Jeff Bridges.
4. SEVERUS SNAPE, HARRY POTTER
It’s hard to believe that the first Harry Potter book (The Philosopher’s Stone) came out in 1997, making it 20 years old this year. If that doesn’t make you feel old, I don’t know what will. J K Rowling has created some of the most popular characters ever – and the most fiercely loyal fans. Earlier this year, she apologized on Twitter for killing Dark Arts professor, Severus Snape in the seventh book. Snape, played by the late Alan Rickman, was critically acclaimed for his complexities. Rowling used her childhood chemistry teacher, John Nettleship as inspiration for the character. Nettleship even described himself as short-tempered with a gloomy laboratory. He later realized Snape was based on himself after being directly asked by a reporter.
3. BUTTERS, SOUTH PARK
Leopold ‘Butters’ Stotch is the passive nice boy in the controversial cartoon series, South Park. In stark contrast to the other characters, Butters is cheerful, sweet and endlessly optimistic, in stark contrast to the shows other characters like Cartman. Butters first appeared in the pilot episode and quickly became a fan favorite, leading to a more prominent role from season 5 onward. The character is loosely based on Eric Stough, a producer on the show. His colleagues often used to mock him for his good guy attitude, especially in reaction to the harsh events on the series. This lead to Stough being given the nickname ‘Little Buddy’, and eventually – Butters.
2. JABBA THE HUT, STAR WARS
The ugly slug-like alien villain in Return of the Jedi was inspired by famous British actor, Sydney Greenstreet. Greenstreet was a popular actor in the early 21st century, often playing the bad guy. His most notable roles include Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. Surprisingly, Greenstreet’s acting career didn’t really take off until he was 62, but he had a successful 8 years making movies with the likes of Bogart. Greenstreet was a stocky man and able to play the part of a villain excellently. When George Lucas was talking with the design team, he told them to make Jabba the Hut ‘Alien and grotesque, just like Sydney Greenstreet.’ I’m sure it was meant as a compliment.
1. ABEL TURNER, LAKEVIEW TERRACE
The 2008 crime thriller Lakeview Terrace sees Samuel L. Jackson play Abel Turner, long serving LAPD cop and neighbor of an inter-racial couple that have just moved in next door. The character doesn’t like the relationship and things quickly turn sour. Arguments about overhanging trees and passive aggressive retaliations eventually result in a shoot-out. In reality, there was a cop called Irsie Henry who terrorized a mixed-race couple in his neighborhood, in 2002. Although there was no shoot out, Henry’s disturbing behavior was enough to get him fired from the police force. Pretty scary. Here’s hoping that guy lives in isolation now.
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