“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
The theatre version of this quote? Shakespeare already did it.
The television version? The Simpsons already did it.
One question that writers of all mediums frequently get asked is where they get their inspirations from, particularly when it comes to creating character. Answers vary, of course, depending on the writer. But ultimately, these answers relate back to this quote by Mark Twain.
“There is no such thing as a new idea.”
Characters don’t just come from thin air – some are taken directly from history, religion or myth – with the same names, same attributes and same story. Think of biopics like A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood about the life of Mr. Rogers or The United States Vs. Billie Holliday. Some characters may be amalgamations of characters that already exist in media – the character of Milhouse in The Simpsons, for example, is caricature of Paul Pfeiffer, a character in the series The Wonder Years played by actor Josh Saviano.
More often than not, characters are created from small fragments of friends, family, neighbors, strangers on the street that have a unique physical feature or way of moving in their bodies or patterns of speech. They are combinations, as Twain says, pieces that come from somewhere.
Christopher Rivas’ The Real James Bond…Was Dominican is one artist’s exploration of this question as it relates to a character that had always fascinated him. His investigation into the inspirations behind Ian Fleming’s iconic James Bond – and the coincidences he unearths with Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa – makes one wonder about other real life figures who have inspired iconic characters in literature, film and television. Who are the characters that we assume are completely fictionalized, a whole created from tiny puzzle pieces in the minds of a writer, when in actuality those puzzle pieces are large, recognizable attributes from one person?
Below is a list of iconic characters that are actually inspired by real people. Do any of these come as a complete surprise? Is there anyone you’d add to the list?
Oh! And don’t forget to get your tickets to The Real James Bond…Was Dominican. Watch on Zoom in real time, live from the Wilson Stage – May 14th to May 29th.
Did you know that early versions of The Little Mermaid villain included a scorpion fish, puffer fish and a manta ray inspired by Joan Collins? Ultimately, it was animator Rob Minkoff’s drawing of a vampy red-lipped octopus that won out. His design was based off of legendary drag queen Divine, known for her 1988 role as Edna in Hairspray. Howard Ashman, lyricist for The Little Mermaid, instantly recognized the inspiration – he was not only drawn to the image itself but also inspired by Divine’s characteristics. Ursula’s personality went from being sharp edged, freaky, punk and lanky to the camp, gravel-toned and larger than life villain we all know and love today.
We all wish we had a little bit of Scandal’s Olivia Pope in us – go getter, crisis manager and all around badass in a fabulous tailored suit. Aspects of Kerry Washington’s notable character is based off of Judy Smith, former press secretary under President George H. W. Bush. Smith not only consulted with show creator Shonda Rhimes but is even a co-producer on the show. One stark difference, though, that I’m sure Smith is tired of having to make clear: she most certainly did not have an affair with the president. We’ll leave that to the tv screen.
Hawaiian-born explorer and Yale professor Hiram Bingham III is known for his (accidental and contentious) discovery of the Machu Picchu ruins in 1911. Although not a trained archeologist, Bingham was known for being a handsome adventurer. The similarities in profession, looks and demeanor between him and Indiana Jones are many but the actual proof is complex and includes a middleman connection: the 1954 film Secret of the Incas, published just a few years after Bingham’s book Lost City of the Incas. Read about the complex story here.
Fun fact: Bingham served as Governor of Connecticut for a single day, the shortest term in history.
Did you know that Miss Piggy’s original and full name was Miss Piggy Lee? Creator Bonnie Erickson, a North Dakota native like the legendary singer, gave the muppet this name both in jest and homage. “As Piggy’s fame began to grow, nobody wanted to upset Peggy Lee, especially because we admired her work. So, the Muppet’s name was shortened to Miss Piggy,” said Erickson in a 2008 interview with Smithsonian Magazine. The other story goes, however, that Peggy Lee (no stranger to law suits) threatened to sue. That did the trick!
Prohibition, jazz, seduction, jealousy and murder. Good ingredients for a musical, don’t ya think? And for real life too – in 1920s Chicago, jails were filled with women accused of shooting their boyfriends and husbands, including Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan, inspirations for the dual protagonists of the musical Chicago. Belva, a lively cabaret singer jailed for murdering her young lover, was the inspiration behind Catherine Zeta Jones’ Velma Kelly. Beulah, a wispy camera hungry woman jailed for killing the man she was cheating on her husband with and lying about it, inspired Renée Zellweger’s Roxie Hart. Both got off scot free, primarily due to the all male juries in court. Their story not only inspired fiction, but also helped to change the legal system so that women could also serve on juries.
Severe in name and demeanor, Severus Snape is one of the most notable and complex characters in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise. The character was inspired by John Nettleship, a chemistry professor who taught the author. Not only do the two bear strong physical resemblance – the black long hair, paleness, facial features, and intense gaze – they also share a profession – Nettleship, a chemistry professor, and Snape a professor of Potions. In an interview, Nettleship recounts:
“The first I knew was when a someone knocked on the door and said: ‘You’re Professor Snape aren’t you’.
“I suppose I was quite strict as a teacher, but I said to my wife: ‘They think I’m Professor Snape.’
“She said: ‘Of course you are – but I didn’t want to tell you’.”
In another example of students being inspired by their professors, creator of the large Sherlock Holmes franchise Arthur Conan Doyle was the student of Dr. Joseph Bell, a surgeon based in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1877. Bell served as Doyle’s mentor and even hired him as his clerk, in charge of taking down notes. Many of Sherlock Holmes’ features, mainly his observant, analytical ways, his accuracy and his involvement in police cases as a forensic expert, including the Jack the Ripper murders.
Ed Gein, known as the Butcher of Plainfield, inspired not only the character of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but also Leatherface in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Gein’s terrifying and disgusting acts of violence terrorized the town of Plainfield in the 1950s, until he was eventually caught and sentenced to a mental institution, where he would ultimately end up dying in 1984. Like Gein – who took care of his mother until her death – Norman Bates had an unhealthy obsession with his mother. As someone who does not like scary movies, I won’t go into any more details.
On March 24, 1975, heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner went toe to toe with one of the greatest athletes of all time, Muhammad Ali. On the line was a life changing $100,000. It took 15 rounds before Ali would land the final blow, winning him the match. In the crowd watching the match? Struggling actor and writer Sylvester Stallone. More than forty years later, the Rocky franchise continues strong, with Creed III due to come out in November 2022. Stallone acknowledged Wepner as the inspiration for the Rocky character and even wanted to cast him in Rocky II. Wepner’s chaotic behavior at the time saw him drinking and going on benders and he blew the audition. As the Rocky franchise continued to grow, Wepner’s fame continued to decrease. He sued Stallone in 2003 for a share of the franchise profits – the two ended up settling out of court. Two films have been made about Chuck Wepner: The Real Rocky, 2011 documentary, and Chuck, a 2016 movie starring Liev Schrieber.
This one is a bit controversial. In July 1862, mathematician and deacon Charles Dodgson (whose pen name was Lewis Carroll), was visiting his good friend Henry Liddell. One day, while traveling on a boat in order to go on a tea party picnic, Dodgson would tell a fantastical story about a young girl named Alice in order to entertain Liddell’s children – including 10 year old Alice Liddell. The real Alice so loved the story featuring a character with her name that she wanted him to write it down for her. He would call it Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. This would eventually become the Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland story that is popular today. It’s unclear if this is coincidence or if, in crafting the story for her and her sisters’ entertainment – as one commonly does when telling a story to a child – she was his actual protagonist. The controversy, however, isn’t just about whether or not Alice Liddell is the true inspiration behind Alice in Wonderland – it’s about Lewis Carroll’s contentious legacy as a whole. Read more about it here.