Well, where do you think pop culture’s most beloved icons come from? You think screenwriters just sit around all day making that stuff up? If Hollywood was that creative, the world wouldn’t have had to suffer through Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. Fortunately for the industry, history is sprinkled with extraordinary people who led extraordinary lives—and many of them won’t demand royalties! For example:
5. Sidney Reilly
The Character: James Bond
This real-life international man of mystery was born in 1874 and raised in the Ukraine, not England, so we’re guessing that his accent wasn’t as sexy as Roger Moore’s. Like James Bond, Reilly enjoyed the trappings of ostentatious wealth, which he first gained access to through a medicine business that he established in London. In fact, he eventually went to work for British intelligence (originally under a supervisor codenamed “M”) partly as way to earn money and support his lavish lifestyle.
Reilly performed many undercover operations on behalf of England, including getting close to a wealthy Australian in order to ensure British access to Iranian oil and orchestrating a botched assassination attempt against Vladimir Lenin. The “renegade who doesn’t play by the rules” is something of an action movie cliché, but Reilly’s recklessness really did frustrate his bosses; at one point he gained an audience with Lenin’s aide by showing up at the Kremlin and claiming to represent the British Prime Minister. Reilly’s sex life was also somewhat Bond-like, though less charming: He was an adulterer who went through at least three marriages, the first of which was never officially terminated.
Sadly, Reilly’s spying career didn’t get a happy ending. In 1925 he was lured back into the Soviet Union, arrested, and executed, despite his pleas that the Russians simply replace him with a younger actor who could rejuvenate the franchise.
4. Hiram Bingham III
The Character: Indiana Jones
Thanks to Indiana Jones, most American males have at some point (usually around age 10) considered becoming archaeologists. Sadly, the actual profession consists mostly of digging old rocks out of dirt, not fighting Nazis for control of supernatural powers. However, if there’s one real-life archaeologist who comes close to being as glamorous as Jones, it’s Hiram Bingham III.
Bingham was a Yale professor of history in 1911 when, during a trip to South America, native Peruvians led him to the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu. He became the first person to completely excavate and study the ruins, which are now considered one of the greatest historical sites in the world. In photographs Bingham appears less like a ruggedly unshaven movie star and more like—well, an earlytwentieth-century college professor, but he did share Indy’s love of khaki and fedoras. Due to this connection, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (whatever your opinion of it) represents a kind of homecoming for the character, since much of it was set in Peru and a few scenes were shot on the Yale campus.
Bingham later joined the US military, achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel, and was elected first as governor and then as senator of his home state of Connecticut. So either Connecticut politicians used to be a lot more badass than they are now, or Indiana Jones has a sad future awaiting him.
3. Capt. James Cook
The Character: Capt. James T. Kirk
As you’re probably aware, Capt. Kirk’s mission on Star Trek was “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” This phrase was adapted from the journals of the similarly-named -eighteenth-century-century explorer Capt. James Cook, who claimed to have traveled “farther than any man has been before.”
Cook wasn’t kidding. His career in England’s Royal Navy began with his participation in the Seven Years’ War, after which he spent several years charting the coast of Newfoundland. Apparently his superiors eventually decided that he deserved something more exciting than Canada and sent him on three consecutive voyages to the Pacific. (The first voyage’s ship was called the Endeavour—sound kinda familiar?) He and his crew ended up becoming the first Europeans to chart the coasts of New Zealand, eastern Australia, Hawaii and numerous islands.
Like Kirk, Cook tended to be somewhat hot-blooded. In 1779 this trait finally got him killed when he lost his temper and got into a scuffle with natives on the Hawaiian coast. We like to think that he whispered “It was—fun!” just before he died.
2. Chuck Wepner
The Character: Rocky Balboa
Chuck Wepner, nicknamed the “Bayonne Bleeder,” started boxing while he was in the Marines and eventually punched his way into a professional career, becoming a state heavyweight champion and getting defeated by such fighters as George Foreman and Sonny Liston. Wepner was still working as a liquor salesman when he got the chance to get in the ring with world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, who was looking for an easy warm-up match in preparation for harder fights. True, Wepner wasn’t quite as much of an underdog as the protagonist of 1976’s Rocky, but, on the other hand, we’d go up against Carl Weathers over The Greatest any day. No offense, Mr. Weathers.
[Warning: Rocky/real-life spoilers ahead.]
The Ali-Wepner fight took place on March 24, 1975 and, against most expectations, lasted a full fifteen rounds. Wepner even managed to knock Ali onto the canvas at one point in Round 9. Like the Italian Stallion, however, the Bleeder couldn’t quite pull off a victory and finally lost by technical knockout in the last 19 seconds of the match. Nevertheless, his tenacity inspired countless Americans—including a little-known B-list actor and aspiring screenwriter named Sylvester Stallone.
1. Jeff Dowd
The Character: The Dude
To be fair, there are probably a lot of Los Angeles slackers who resemble the Dude, Jeff Bridges’ laid-back bowler from the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. Jeff Dowd, however, is the real deal. In the early 1970s Dowd was an actual member of the Seattle Seven, a group of Vietnam War protesters which the cinematic Dude claims to have been part of. The Coens met Dowd in 1984 and ended up using many of his characteristics in Lebowski, including his love of White Russians, his “Dude” nickname, and the just-hanging-out approach to life that he adopted for a while after the end of the protest movement. Bridges even met with Dowd in order to better mimic the man’s fashion sense, speech and overall demeanor.
However, the real Dude has been much more productive than his movie counterpart. Dowd eventually developed a career in Hollywood and has served as a producer on several films, including FernGully: The Last Rainforest. There’s an Avatar joke in there somewhere…
About our writer: Matt Hoffman grew up in Connecticut and is currently majoring in Film and International Relations at Boston University. He contributes regularly to buquad.com and is not a pro BMX biker.
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