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Outrageous Film Characters You Didn’t Know Were Based On Real People

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Fiction is full of great writers with great ideas, dreaming up the most fantastical worlds where we can lose ourselves. But sometimes the best stories come from the real world. With a little exaggeration, artistic license, or 'reimagining', these things can be the premise of a bloody good film. After all, some people live remarkable lives, so why spend all that time dreaming up a scenario or character when you've got a good story right there? Here are some very different personalities that you might not know were real (or partly real), ranging from faithfully reconstructed biography to outright fantasy…

*Inspired by: Joaquin Murrieta
**
Film Appearances: Over 40, from The Mask of Zorro (1920) to The Legend of Zorro (2005) Played by*: Among others, Douglas Fairbanks, Tyrone Powers, Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas.

Fictional Bio:
Zorro is the mysterious and heroic alter ego of the wealthy Don Diego de la Vega, a nobleman who pretends to be much less interesting than he really is. Perhaps an early prototype for Batman, Zorro charges about 19th century Spanish California in a not-so-disguising disguise of black suit, sweeping cloak, eyemask, and of course an excellent hat. The combination of a bullwhip, impeccable swordsmanship, infallible chivalry and irresistible charm get Zorro out of all manner of sticky situations in his lawless (yet morally sound) extracurricular activities. Zorro is Spanish for fox, foxes are cunning, and by extension, Zorro is cunning. Very cunning. He outfoxes all manner of villains: corrupt officials, pissed-off military men and the authorities in general (who are always in the wrong, of course). In his spare time he's very keen on slashing Zs about the place, like an early, electricity-deprived Bat signal. Most recently Zorro has been played by the seductive Antonio Banderas, who hypnotises the ladies with his dulcet Spanish tones and suave swordsmanship.

*Real-Life Bio:*
The life of Murrieta is one where legend has substantially got in the way of facts, up to the point where we're not too sure where the man begins and the legend ends. In that way he's a bit like Robin Hood, and, inventively, was also known as the 'The Mexican Robin Hood'. We do know some things for sure: he lived in California in the 1850s, fought the law, tried to get rich off of the Gold Rush, became a symbol of resistance against Anglo-American culture and was eventually (OK, probably) killed by a bullet wound.

How similar is the film character to the real one?
Not very. Joaquin wasn't quite so noble (he was more of a horse thief more than a proto-superhero), opted for gunfire instead of the finesse of a rapier, didn't seem to have an aristocratic alter ego, and probably had fewer qualms about killing people (his armed band used to attack settlers and wagon trains, and in such situations people die). Nevertheless Joaquin and Zorro both became symbolic figures, and we're pretty sure that Joaquin also had a pretty epic accent as well.

*Inspired by: Randy “Duke” Cunningham
**
Film Appearance: Top Gun (1986) Played by*: Tom Cruise

*Fictional Bio:*
'Maverick' is a talented but headstrong fighter pilot with the US Navy, who’s given the opportunity to attend the Top Gun academy at Miramar. The Academy is designed for pilots who are already 'the best of the best', and is a place for egomaniacal fighter jocks to work out their competitive differences to the ringing sound of missile-targeting tones. The film follows the rivalry, testosterone-charged exploits and possibly homosexual longings of the group, focusing in particular on the relationship between Maverick and his principal rival Ice Man, played with appropriate cool by Val Kilmer. From its topless, oiled-up volleyball scene to a karaoke seduction that features the most adorably off-key singing this side of the X-Factor, Top Gun is the quintessential flyboy movie, and more ‘80s than a power ballad (although it has a few of those on the soundtrack too.

*Real-Life Bio:*
Some of Maverick and Goose's exploits are based on the career of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a fighter pilot who went on to a career as a US Senator and eventually suffered a spectacularly public fall from grace over a series of dodgy deals involving large pieces of real estate and some defence contractors for the Pentagon. He's currently hanging out at United States Penitentiary, Tucson, awaiting release in 2013.

How similar is the film character to the real one?
Remember when Viper’s giving that speech about fighter aces, and refers to the fact that there weren’t many in Vietnam? Well one of those there was, was Cunningham. At least one of Maverick’s moves is lifted directly from Cunningham’s playbook – that “hitting the brakes and he’ll fly right past” move worked for Cunningham in Vietnam. He was generally an ace pilot, and received the Navy Cross once, the Silver Star twice, the Air Medal 15 times, and the Purple Heart, before going on to become an instructor at TOPGUN. So while he’s a full generation ahead of Maverick, he’s not a million miles away.

*Inspired by: Frank Abagnale Jr.
**
Film Appearance: Catch Me If You Can (2002) Played by*: Leonardo Di Caprio

*Fictional Bio:*
Some people have a talent for spinning a yarn in the same way that Tiger Woods is all right at playing golf. And the Tiger Woods of yarn-spinning on a grand scale is definitely Frank Abagnale, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. A criminal and master confidence trickster/con man, it's nevertheless hard not to sympathise with the immensely likeable Frank and his almost pathological addiction to constructing hugely elaborate hoaxes. At various different times Frank has people convinced that he's a substitute French teacher, Secret Service agent, airline pilot, doctor and more besides. Frank's conflict is with Tom Hanks' FBI agent, Carl, who follows the convoluted paper trail and tangled web of broken hearts that Frank has left behind. The two eventually become old friends, despite the fact that Carl's put Frank in prison for scamming millions of dollars out of various people and organisations.

*Real-Life Bio:*
Today, Frank Abagnale has mellowed and has reformed his devious ways. He's a louder-than-life character who makes a legitimate living teaching people how to deal with fraud and trickery. He calls himself a 'security consultant'. People who listen to what he has to say include the FBI and the many thousands who've bought books he's written on the subject.

How similar is the film character to the real one?
Frank was actually part of the filming of Catch Me If You Can, and so we'd like to think that he'd have made sure that they got him right for the film. Was he really as likeable a character as Leonardo portrayed? We can't say. We can say though that he was just as cunning, fleet-footed and audacious as the film character. He also did everything that happened on the film and yes, he got the jail time that was coming to him. Carl, however, was an amalgam of several different figures.

*Inspired by: Michelle Philpots
**
Film Appearance: 50 First Dates (2004) Played by*: Drew Barrymore

*Fictional Bio:*
Imagine being unable to remember anything that has happened to you after a certain point in your life. Due to a rare form of amnesia, this is the life Lucy lives. It means that she lives in the past, and wakes up each day unaware of what has happened in the days, weeks and months since the date her amnesia set in. When evidence shows the passage of time and change, she is understandably shaken to the core. In 50 First Dates, Lucy (played by Drew Barrymore) lives in a small village in Hawaii, where well-meaning friends help to reinforce her illusions day after day. One day she comes across the path of womanising marine veterinarian Henry (Adam Sandler), who promptly falls in love with her, reforms his philandering ways and finds new ways to 'meet' Lucy every day. Flash forward past romantic trials and tribulations, plus some Beach Boys music, and we eventually see them married and sailing the Arctic in a yacht. They now have children and Lucy awakes every single day to watch a cassette tape which brings her up to speed on her new happy life. It's a happy ending, and a bloody weird one.

*Real-Life Bio:*
Lucy was inspired by Michelle Philpots, who suffers the same kind of amnesia as the result of brain injuries sustained in two road crashes, 5 years apart. Philpots lives in Spalding, Lincolnshire, and her long term memory ends some time in 1994. Every day she wakes up next to a man, Ian, who has to remind her that she's married, often bringing out the wedding pictures as proof. Once convinced, we presume they head down for breakfast and she gets up to speed on what's been going on. Philpots organises her life quite well with a combination of post it notes, sat-nav, and phone calendar notifications, and apparently neither jokes nor TV re-runs get old for her, which is one advantage to her condition.

How similar is the film character to the real one?
Their predicaments are quite similar, but Michelle and Lucy look completely different, live in totally different circumstances, and do very different things with their lives. Michelle works 3 days a week for a charity, where Lucy, apparently, sails around in a yacht studying Arctic wildlife.

*Inspired by: Mehran Nasseri
**
Film Appearance: The Terminal (2004) Played by*: Tom Hanks

*Fictional Bio:*
Viktor Navorski, travelling to the U.S from Krakozhia (not a real country), finds himself unable to return home after a civil war breaks out and his country breaks down. Unauthorised to enter American soil, and unable to return to a country that no longer exists (at least diplomatically), Viktor is forced to live in the terminal of JFK International Airport. In the process, he has lots of crazy adventures, endears himself to the staff, acts as a romantic matchmaker, gets an (illegal) job as a construction worker and falls in love. Despite attempts by the tyrannical airport overseer to kick him out, Viktor eventually triumphs and is allowed out of the terminal. There follows a magnificent scene where he gets the chance to finally collect the autograph of bebop saxophonist Benny Golson (the reason he came to the US in the first place) in memoriam of his deceased father.

*Real-Life Bio:
Viktor was partly based on the life of Mehran Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived for 17
years in the departure lounge of Terminal One, Charles de Gaulle Airport in France. Mehran, also known as 'Sir Alfred' to airport workers, arrived there in 1988 after the briefcase that contained his papers was stolen and he was refused entry into the UK. Expelled from Iran for protesting against the Shah, he couldn't go home, and lacking the papers to officially enter France, the only place he was allowed to hang out was the airport. And hang out he did. FOR 17 years*. Reading a lot. DreamWorks, who produced The Terminal, actually paid Nasseri for his story. But he doesn’t have a bank account, and apparently can't legally cash the cheques sent to his lawyer.

How similar is the film character to the real one?
Mehran's story was not quite as happy as Viktor's. He finally left the airport in 2006 when hospitalised for an unknown ailment. In March 2007 he was transferred to a homeless shelter in Paris where he apparently lives to this day. He still can't go back to Iran, but is free to travel about France – but doesn’t. His past refusals to leave the airport until medical reasons forced his hand suggest that he may have become institutionalised over those 17 years. Asked what his experience was like when living at Charles De Gaulle, he replied, "Maybe I don't do it like Tom Hanks does it...my day is just like inside a library. Silence."

*Inspired by: Chuck Wepner
**
Film Appearances: The Rocky Series (1976-2006) Played by*: Sylvester Stallone

*Fictional Bio:*
The story of Rocky Balboa is now the stuff of legend. The series tells the life story of the down-to-earth and likeable Rocky Balboa. Rocky goes from scratching a living in Philadelphia to heavyweight champion of the world. Famous people he beats up in various scenarios and locations along the way include Dolph Lundgren (the towering Soviet punching machine Ivan Drago). Mr. T (the mouthy and pugnacious Clubber Lang), Hulk Hogan (Thunderlips; need we say more?) and Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed, also very mouthy and possibly modelled on Muhammad Ali). 6 films give us about 3 decades of Rocky's life. We see him starting out as a fresh-faced debt collector, beating people up, ascending to fame, becoming a father, beating more people up, and finally running a small Italian restaurant named Adrian, after his wife. Oh, and coming out of retirement to beat up the heavyweight champ (but not regain his title, as that'd probably demand even more sequels..).

*Real-Life Bio:*
Stallone got the idea for Rocky after seeing footage of the heavyweight title fight between Chuck Wepner and Muhammad Ali at the Richfield Coliseum in 1975. Wepner, the clear underdog, lost by KO near the end of the 15th round, but before he did, he put up quite a fight and even knocked down the The Louisville Lip in the ninth. Nicknamed 'The Bayonne Bleeder', Wepner was a former US Marine working as a security guard before turning professional as a boxer. He’s also a pretty funny guy: “The day before the fight, I bought my wife a powder-blue negligée, because I told her, 'You need to look right when you sleep with the heavyweight champion of the world'. The night I lost, my wife is sitting on the edge of the bed in the negligée and she asks, ‘So, am I going to Ali’s room or what?'”. Citing the fact that he basically inspired the Rocky franchise, he successfully sued Stallone in 2006 for a piece of the proceedings (the series has made more than $1billion so far). There's also a film about Chuck's life set for release in 2012, entitled The Bleeder.

How similar is the film character to the real one?
There are a few similarities, but not many. Both are pretty good at punching people (Chuck won a lot more fights than he lost). Both fought a wrestler (Chuck squared up to Andre the Giant but lost when he was chucked out of the ring), and both had day jobs before they got their shot at the heavyweight title. But they're different in other respects. Chuck is from New Jersey, not Philly. And Chuck fell foul of the FBI in 2002 for selling counterfeit Muhammad Ali merchandise (whereas Rocky is, obviously, as clean as a whistle). Chuck is also adamant that his story is a lot different to the films, “No turtle cufflinks, no ice skating... I mean, this is partying down the Jersey Shore. This is the real deal!”. Guess we'll see for sure when The Bleeder comes out.

*Inspired by: Arthur Bremer
**
Film Appearance: Taxi Driver (1976) Played by*: Robert de Niro

*Fictional Bio:*
Travis Bickle is a psychologically-disturbed Vietnam veteran who deals with his terrible insomnia by taking a job as a late shift New York taxi driver. He spends many of his days in porn theatres. Travis' periods of introspection begin to turn violent after his advances towards Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), a political campaign volunteer, are spurned (their romantic date is to a Swedish sex education film, which she leaves in disgust; go figure!). Continually observing the seedier sides of New York's nightlife whilst on the job, and gradually growing more disgusted with it all, he decides to call upon his old Marine Corps training and a whole load of guns (purchased illegally) to do his part for justice. Cue Travis shooting an armed robber in the neck, persuading a child prostitute to give it up, and then eventually shooting her pimp and some other (presumably bad) people hanging out in a brothel. In the aftermath, he tries to kill himself (but has run out of bullets). After his arrest and some time recuperating, the media hail him as a vigilante hero and he's back to driving a cab again (we're not sure how that works). The film ends with him, presumably still a little edgy and not quite as sane as you'd like your driver to be, looking out of his taxi with paranoid eyes as heads off to his next fare.

*Real-Life Bio:*
Travis was apparently modelled on Arthur Bremer, another slightly edgy guy who is best known for the attempted assassination of U.S Democratic Presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972. Though Bremer failed to kill him, the gunshot wound left Wallace paralysed for life and effectively ended his political career there and then. Bremer was no social butterfly either, spending much of his life being ostracised, first at school and later in a series of menial jobs. Declaring in his diary that, "It is my personal plan to assassinate by pistol either Richard Nixon or George Wallace...", he followed both of them at various times in their campaigns all around the country, and eventually took his shot at George on May 15, 1972.

How similar is the film character to the real one?
Somewhat similar. Both where pissed off / insane enough to actually shoot somebody and had a stalker relationship with an unfortunate romantic interest that involved a bit too much porn for her taste. But Arthur didn't have a military background or any vigilante ambitions, and didn't endear himself to the media. Shooting political candidates purely to make a name for yourself is just not cool. Like Travis, Arthur was also released eventually: they let him out in 2007 where, we assume, he was no longer considered a menace to society. But could we say the same about Travis?