Do you believe you know your favorite actor or singer? Well, you might want to take a closer look at their birth certificate. The truth is, you may not know Jack, Tom, Helen, or John at all. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a prime example of the ordeal that many actors face in the industry.
He was rejected by agents due to his surname, which prompted him to change his name to “Arnold Strong” temporarily. The change eventually worked out for him, as his distinctive heritage set him apart in a sea of bodybuilders.
Everyone in Hollywood Hates Their Birth Name
Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean, and Cary Grant, whose real name wasn’t always Cary, are well-known examples of actors who have changed their names. However, many actors change their legal or stage names, and it can make a huge difference in their careers.
Your name is usually the first thing anyone sees or hears, and at the cost of selling your soul, dropping a syllable or two is advisable. Your name is essentially your brand, and half of getting famous is marketing.
Many Jewish actors needed to hide their identity to break into the industry. Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch, and Winona Ryder was once Winona Horowitz. The urge to disguise Jewishness has never gone out of style, and Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman had her name Americanized upon migrating to the country in the mid-80s.
Interestingly, this trend creates some confusion. John Stewart, born Jon Leibowitz, cites his poor relationship with his father for his name change, not a desire to cover up his heritage as frequently thought.
Some actors change their names to avoid confusion with other famous people with the same name. Michael J. Fox changed his middle initial back in the 80s, and Michael Keaton settled on a name at random to avoid being confused with Michael Douglas. David Bowie opted for his new name to avoid any comparison or misidentification with Davey Jones of The Monkees.
In rare cases, actors will distance themselves as far as possible from their family to dodge accusations of nepotism. Nic Cage switched up his surname, Coppola, to make sure no one thought his uncle Francis Ford Coppola was calling in favors. The same cannot be said about his cousin, Sophia.
Sometimes, actors change their names because their birth name just doesn’t cut it. For example, Maurice Micklewhite fits his Cockney accent perfectly, but Michael Caine ran from that name, not wanting people to think he was a Charles Dickens character. John Wayne was christened with the less-than-imposing name Marion Morrison, which led to a childhood of incessant bullying.
In conclusion, changing your name can make all the difference in the entertainment industry. Whether you are officially filing the paperwork or not, your name is your brand, and it’s essential to get it right. So, the next time you hear of a new actor or singer, take a closer look at their name. You might be surprised by what you find.
Think you know your favorite actor or singer? Check their birth certificate. You don’t know Jack … or Tom or Helen or John.
We’ve covered Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ordeal, rejected by agents on account of his surname, at one point altering his name to “Arnold Strong” either to appear less foreign or simply because his name took up too much space. The change was short-lived. It eventually worked out for him, his distinct heritage differentiating him in a sea of body builders. At this point, it’s no secret Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jean and Cary Grant wasn’t always called Cary. But it’s probably less likely you know who Carlos Irwin Estévez or Belcalis Almanzar are.
Some alter their legal name, and some simply alter their stage name, but whether you officially file the paperwork or not, your name makes a huge difference. It’s usually the first thing anyone sees or hears. And at the cost of selling your soul, dropping a syllable or two is advisable.
Your name is your brand, but half of getting famous is marketing. You only get to make one first impression, and we all know Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta and Thomas Mapother ain’t cutting it.
Most Jews, by necessity, needed to hide their identity to break into the acting industry. Kirk Douglas came into the world as Issur Danielovitch. Before she became Winona Ryder, she was Winona Horowitz. Whether it’s Lauren Bacall (Betty Perske) or Jerry Lewis (Joseph Levitch), the urge to disguise Jewishness never went out of style. The tradition remains even if the taint of not being Anglo-Saxon is gone. Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman had her name Neta-Lee Hershlag Americanized upon migrating to the country back in the mid-80s, making for some very awkward bat mitzvah conversations. Interestingly, this trend creates some confusion. John Stewart (born Jon Leibowitz), cites his poor relationship with his father for his name change, not a desire to cover up his heritage as frequently thought.
Ironically, the anti-German sentiment after WWII thrust German actors (many of whom had absolutely no connection whatsoever to the Nazis) in the unusual position of pretending to be another nationality, Americanizing their accents and names. Many young actors found it demeaning to try out pseudonyms, but there was no recourse. The alternative was vanishing back into obscurity.
To dodge any questions of his allegiance, Charles Bronson dropped his surname Buchinsky in 1954 in fear of getting connected to communists. Likewise, Helen Mirren’s name was so Russian-sounding that it had to be drastically altered for her to assimilate into the upper-crust British acting community, despite having more blue blood, Mirren descended from European nobility. Bruce Lee transformed his Chinese birth name, Li Jun Fan (Li being his family name), to the rather dull Bruce Lee. It might sound more fitting for a chiropractor than a martial artist, but you can’t argue with the final results.
We could go on all day, but long story short, having a name that Westerners can pronounce is a boon. We’ve come a long way when people can correctly pronounce Ke Huy Quan. But even he briefly switched to Jonathan for a while. “I was working on a sitcom and the warmup comedian would butcher my name every week,” he recalled to GQ in 2022.
Not Everyone Can Be Bob Smith
David Bowie and Michael J. Fox are but a few cases of performers who feared being confused with more famous people with their name. Casting directors still debate the practice, but in the case of Michael J. Fox, the decision was probably made for him. Actor unions like SAG (Screen Actors Guild) routinely force anyone with the same name as an existing member to modify their moniker to prevent confusion, though there have been various other theories why he changed his middle initial back in the 80s just to make matters more mysterious.
Not wanting to be confused with Michael Douglas (the actor) or the other Michael Douglas (the TV host) Batman actor Michael Keaton settled on a name at random. “Everybody knows me as Michael Douglas,” he told Grantland in 2012. David Bowie opted for his new name to avoid any comparison or misidentification with Davey Jones of the (much more popular at the time) band The Monkees. Albert Brooks wisely opted to change his original last name too, dropping the family name Einstein (no relation). Don’t worry about his dad getting offended, he didn’t use the family name either.
In rare cases, actors will distance themselves as far as possible from their family to dodge accusations of nepotism. Nice Cage switched up his surname, Coppola, to make sure no one thought his uncle Francis Ford Coppola was calling in favors. The same can’t be said about his cousin Sophia. For the record Jamie Foxx and Redd Foxx are not related, neither actually called Foxx.
Starring: Rodolfo Alfonso Raphael Piero Filiberto Guglielmi
Sometimes it’s against your will, sometimes it’s a matter of survival. And sometimes your name just sucks. Maurice Micklewhite fits his Cockney accent perfect, but it’s little wonder why Michael Caine ran away from that name, not wanting people to think he was a Charles Dickens character. Tim Allen was born Tim Dick. He was lucky. John Wayne was christened with the less-than-imposing name Marion Morrison, guaranteeing a childhood of incessant bullying. There’s some compensation going on. Cutting ties with their religious group, the parents of River Jude Bottom and Joaquín Rafael Bottom chose the much cooler last name Phoenix.
It isn’t really clear why his family decided to alter their name, but Fred Astaire’s acting family rebranded themselves, discarding the surname Austerlitz. Miley Cyrus jettisoned her birth name Destiny on a whim. Portman’s co-star in Léon: The ProfessionalJean Reno — christened Juan Moreno y Herrera-Jiménez — adapted his Spanish name for the more suave stage name when taking up acting in France. As for Rudolf Valentino, streamlining his Italian heritage and dumping Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi was a no-brainer. Signing autographs would have given him carpal tunnel.