Following Empire’s all-singing, all dancing, ridiculously indispensible guide to Hollywood actor name pronunciation, here’s an equally essential digest of those actors and actresses who have dared to establish careers under names that do not necessarily belong to them. Betty Perske? Johnny O’Keeffe? Phil Clapp? Bryan Trout? All await you among the 50 that follow…
Real name: William Henry Pratt
Reason for change: You’d think it was self-explanatory, but it was actually to avoid his family’s embarrassment over his choice of career (his brothers were all in the British foreign service). He said he chose ‘Boris’ because it sounded exotic, and claimed that ‘Karloff’ was a Slavic branch on his family tree. His daughter said that was nonsense, so we may never know how he landed on it.
Real name: Nicolas Kim Coppola
Reason for change: In a word, nepotism. Keen to avoid accusations of securing an unfair Hollywood advantage via his Oscar-winning uncle Francis, he went incognito as Cage. Famously a comics geek, he lifted the name from Luke Cage, Marvel’s hero-for-hire Power Man.
Real name: Maurice Joseph Micklewhite
Reason for change: Audiences laughed at Caine’s early ‘Maurice Micklewhite’ credits - as did The Muppets, years later (look at the names of the shops here at the 2.47 mark) - so he initially opted for ‘Michael Scott’ as “less risible”, until the fact of another Michael Scott on (actor’s union) Equity’s books forced a rethink. From Caine’s autobiography The Elephant To Hollywood: “I went and sat down on a bench in the middle of Leicester Square. I looked around at all the cinemas… and then I saw it. Humphrey Bogart, my hero, was starring in The Caine Mutiny. Caine I would be – because it was short, because it was easy to spell, because I was feeling very mutinous at the time…”
Real name: Allan Stewart Konigsberg
Reason for change: Jewish performers anglicising their names was simply the done thing in the ‘50s, “to simplify pronunciation, to enhance euphony [and] disarm bigotry”. There are various stories about where ‘Woody’ came from. Allen says it came from his being handy with the wooden Stickball bat as a kid. A friend meanwhile, says he named himself after the dog belonging to his unrequited love Nancy Kreissman.
Real name: Adam Spiegel
Reason for change: Maybe to disguise the fact that he’s related to the billionaire Spiegel catalogue dynasty. He started going by Spike Jonze in BMX and skateboard competitions as a yoot. The name itself seems to have been attached to him in reference to the comedy bandleader Spike Jones. Our guy’s is a more sk8er boi spelling.
Real name: Ashley Tyler Ciminella
Reason for change: Judd’s parents divorced when she was four, so she goes by the maiden name of her mother, country singer Naomi Judd. She didn’t deliberately name herself after a Blue Peter presenter.
Real name: Blake Ellender Brown
Reason for change: Brown is the surname of Blake’s father Ernie, who took the surname of his wife, Elaine Lively, when they got married. So legally you’d imagine ‘Lively’ actually is her name. But for some reason it isn’t.
Real name: Archibald Leach
Reason for change: Grant worked as Archie Leech at the start of his career, but his name was deemed unacceptable by Paramount once he went under contract to them. He wanted to be ‘Cary Lockwood’ after the character in The Last Flight, but Paramount also nixed the Lockwood part. He chose Grant from a list they gave him, reasoning that the initials ‘GC’ had worked well enough for Gary Cooper. See also: John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda.
Real name: Olivia Jane Cockburn
Reason for change: Olivia says she became Wilde while still at school “as an homage to the writers in my family, many of whom created pen names for their careers” (her grandfather was the pseudonymous James Helvick, who wrote Beat The Devil). ‘Wilde’ came from Oscar, obvs.
Real name: Alphonso Joseph D’Abruzzo
Reason for change: Carrying on the family tradition. The first Alda was Alan’s father, actor and singer Robert (born Alphonso Giuseppi Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo). Alda is a portmanteau of the first two letters of Alphonso and D’Abruzzo. We’d assume Alan chose ‘Alan’ as a more neutral ‘Al’ name than Alphonso.
Real name: Charles Dennis Buchinsky
Reason for change: He thought ‘Buchinsky’ sounded too Russian. ‘Bronson’ comes from Bronson Avenue in Hollywood, location of the famous gates of Paramount Studios.
Real name: Dirk Niewoehner
Reason for change: The A-Team’s Face Man changed his name at the suggestion of his agent, presumably on the grounds of pronunciation and spelling. The story goes that Dirk ate some particularly good eggs Benedict at a restaurant on his way to signing up to the Screen Actors Guild. So he literally picked his new surname from a menu.
Real name: Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith
Reason for change: Sylveste McCoy (no ‘R ‘yet) was a character that the future Seventh Doctor and Radagast the Brown played in Ken Campbell’s mad Roadshow act: given to setting his head on fire and hammering nails up his nose. His co-performer Brian Murphy came up with the name. Post-Campbell, McCoy just kept it, but added the R.
Real name: Michael Andrew Fox
Reason for change: There was already a Michael Andrew Fox in the Screen Actors Guild, and the Back To The Future star feared that calling himself Michael A. Fox might sound vain. He went for the initial ‘J’ instead, in homage to Bonnie & Clyde actor Michael J. Pollard. Pollard’s stands for John. Fox’s doesn’t really stand for anything at all.
Real name: Eric Banadinovich
Reason for change: Bana is shorter.
Real name: Caryn Elaine Johnson
Reason for change: The name Whoopi apparently stems from her flatulent antics in early-career dressing rooms, whence her fellow cast mates dubbed her ‘Whoopi Cushion’. However, fearing ‘Cushion’ was too daft a surname she opted for Goldberg instead. Various explanations for this include Goldberg’s own claim that the name is genuinely “a part of my family somewhere”, and the story that her mother thought a serious Jewish name would take her further in showbiz.
Real name: Chan Kong-sang
Reason for change: Chan briefly worked construction in Australia in his early 20s, hanging around a lot with a co-worker called Jack and thereby earning himself the nickname ‘Little Jack’. That then became Jackie, and stuck.
Real name: Bernard Schwartz
Reason for change: Curtis, who served on submarines in WWII, says he “despised the name Schwarz and its German ancestry” during the ‘30s and ‘40s, so changed it when he went under contract to Universal. He initially went by ‘Anthony’, which he got from Hervey Allen’s adventure melodrama Anthony Adverse: “the first novel I ever read”. Curtis, he says, in an anglicised version of ‘Kurtz’, a name from his mother’s side of the family.
Real name: Winona Laura Horowitz
Reason for change: It’s not really clear what was wrong with ‘Horowitz’, but the stage name ‘Ryder’ was an impromptu decision. Her father Michael Horowitz happened to be listening to a Mitch Ryder album, when Winona’s agent called to ask what name she wanted in the credits of 1986 teen romance Lucas.
Real name: Jerome Silberman
Reason for change: Having decided he’d prefer a stage name, Wilder got ‘Gene’ from Eugene Gant, a character in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. ‘Wilder’ he took from American playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder.
Real name: David John McDonald
Reason for change: The old actors’ union chestnut: another David McDonald on the books at Equity. Tennant opted for ‘Tennant’ in homage to his favourite Scottish lager Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys.
Real name: Rolf Peter Ingvar Storm
Reason for change: Another name clash: there was another Peter Storm at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Sweden when Stormare arrived. He seems to have arrived at his new surname as a sort of process of escalation: it translates as something like ‘Stormer’. He apparently considered Mrots Retep (Peter Storm backwards) for a while.
Real name: Simon John Beckingham
Reason for change: No great mystery. Pegg’s parents divorced when he was seven, and when his mother remarried he took his stepfather’s name. Which is cool, because The Beckinghamster doesn’t have quite the same ring as The Peggster.
Real name: James Todd Smith
Reason for change: Showbiz rapper bravado. Not, as David Baddiel has suggested, short for Lionel Lionel Cool J, his moniker is a reduction of Ladies Love Cool James. As we’ve seen, Michael J. Fox was wary of dubbing himself ‘A. Fox’. No such concerns for LL.
Real name: John Charles Carter
Reason for change: You’d think being the namesake of an Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian superhero would be cool, but even before his stage name, John Carter went by variations of his middle name: Chuck and Charlie. ‘Charlton Heston’ is derived from his mother’s maiden name and his stepfather’s surname.
Real name: Frances Ethel Gumm
Reason for change: Frances, Mary Jane and Dorothy performed for a time as vaudeville dancers The Gumm Sisters, before tittering audiences (and at least one mis-billing as ‘The Glum Sisters’) prompted a name change. ‘Judy’ certainly came from a Hoagy Carmichael song popular at the time. The origin of ‘Garland’ is less clear. It was either after Carole Lombard’s character in Twentieth Century, the drama critic Robert Garland, or because their father once said the girls looked “prettier than a garland of flowers”.
Real name: Eric Marlon Bishop
Reason for change: Foxx adopted his stage name in 1989 when he started playing comedy clubs. He hit on ‘Jamie’ as something gender ambiguous, having noted that female performers usually got called to the stage first. ‘Foxx’ is a tribute to comedy legend Redd Foxx.
Real name: Frederick Austerlitz
Reason for change: At their mother’s suggestion, Fred and his sister Adele adopted a new surname, fearing that their real one sounded too militaristic (it’s a famous Napoleonic battle). ‘Astaire’ possibly comes from an uncle whose name was L’Astaire, though it seems that might be family myth.
Real name: Michael T. Williamson
Reason for change: On the surface simply a creative re-spelling of ‘Michael T’. The story goes, however, that he was dubbed ‘Mykelti’ by his grandfather, and that the name is Blackfoot Indian, meaning ‘Spirit’ or ‘Silent Friend’.
Real name: Althea Rae Janairo
Reason for change: ‘Tia’ is obviously a shortened ‘Althea’: it’s apparently the only way her younger sister could pronounce the name when she was little. She describes herself as being of “Filipino, Spanish and Chinese descent, raised in Hawaii’, and took the stage-name ‘Carrere’ as a homage to Nicaraguan Bond girl Barbara Carrera. Just to be confusing, Asia Carrera took her name from Tia, but spells it Barbara’s way. And Barbara’s real surname is Kingsbury. Carrera was her mother’s maiden name.
Real name: Joseph Yule Jr.
Reason for change: The ‘Mickey’ comes from the 78 comedy shorts Rooney starred in as ‘Mickey McGuire’ between 1927 and 1936 – he even legally changed his name to Mickey McGuire for a short time to (unsuccessfully) try and stave off a law suit from the owners of the comic strip on which the films were based. He was always Mickey from then on, although he wasn’t allowed to keep on using the McGuire bit. His mother suggested ‘Mickey Looney’, but he altered it to Rooney, feeling it slightly more sensible.
Real name: Jean-Claude Camille Francois Van Varenberg
Reason for change: Fearing that Van Varenberg was too unwieldy for his intended American audiences, Van Damme initially opted for ‘Frank Cujo’ until association with Stephen King’s rabid St. Bernard made it untenable. He retuned to his original first name, and rightly hit on ‘Van Damme’ as a punchier surname, although its origin is disappointingly ordinary: it comes from a friend of his father.
Real name: Susan Alexandra Weaver
Reason for change: Perhaps thinking ‘Susan Weaver’ was not a name that would stand out on a marquee, the future Ripley started going by ‘Sigourney’ in 1963. She lifted it from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: Sigourney Howard is Jordan Baker’s never-seen aunt.
Real name: James Scott Bumgarner
Reason for change: Nobody likes ‘Bum’ in their name, although the decision was actually made for him. Warner Bros. credited him as ‘Garner’ in Toward The Unknown without even asking him. He was clearly fine with it though, and later dropped the ‘Bum’ legally.
Real name: O’Shea Jackson
Reason for change*:* ‘O’Shea Jackson’ wouldn’t have looked right in an NWA line-up that also included Dr Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, Arabian Prince and, later, MC Ren. Cube says the name came from “My brother, when I was little, because I was too cool for my age. I was always trying to talk to his women.”
Real name: Philip John Clapp
Reason for change: A surname that sounds like an STD is clearly not a good idea for showbiz, hence the adoption of his middle name and his hometown, Knoxville, Tennessee.
Real name: Arthur Stanley Jefferson
Reason for change: Laurel headed for the American vaudeville stage (in the Fred Karno troupe, along with Charlie Chaplin) as Stan Jefferson in 1910. He apparently dropped that moniker due to superstition, realising that it had 13 letters. He’s thought to have picked Laurel at the suggestion of his commonlaw wife Mae, who was inspired by a picture of a Roman general wearing a laurel wreath.
Real name: Betty Joan Perske
Reason for change: Howard Hawks changed Betty Perske’s un-glamorous name when he cast her in To Have And Have Not, as part of “building” the unknown model into a star from the ground up. Bacall was her mother’s maiden name (actually Weinstein-Bacal, but she too changed it to Bacall later), and Hawks must just have liked ‘Lauren’.
Real name: Juan Moreno y Herrera-Jiminez
Reason for change: Reno was born in Casablanca, Morocco, where his Spanish-Andalusian parents had fled to North Africa to escape Franco’s dictatorship. They relocated again in 1965, this time to Paris, where Reno attended drama school and began his acting career. So the process here is basically the Gallicising of his Spanish-sounding name. Juan becomes Jean, and Reno takes the weight for the rest.
Real name: Ramon Antonio Gerardo Estevez
Reason for change: Finding that his genuine moniker was attracting prejudice at auditions, Ramon felt a stage name was in order. He chose ‘Martin’ after Robert Dale Martin, the CBS casting executive. ‘Sheen’ comes from the Catholic televangelist Fulton J. Sheen, whom Estevez considered ‘a magnificent actor’. He’s since said he regrets not sticking with his family name, and that the change disappointed his father. His son Emilio, of course, kept it, while Charlie Sheen has just been “introduced” as ‘Carlos Estevez’ in Machete Kills.
Real name: Natalie Hershlag
Reason for change: Natalie did some early childhood work as Hershlag, but adopted ‘Portman’ for Luc Besson’s Leon. She says she took on the stage name for the privacy of her family. ‘Portman’ is the maiden name of her paternal grandmother.
Real name: Margaret Mary Emily Anne Hyra
Reason for change: Divorce again. Ryan’s parents separated when she was 16, so Ryan opted to use her mother’s maiden name professionally. Her brother Andrew of the folk-rock band Billy Pilgrim, kept the Polish Hyra.
Real name: Maud Solveig Christina Wikstrom
Reason for change: The former model and twice Bond girl (much beloved of Roger Moore, who names her his favourite) still goes by the surname of her first husband, the photographer Roy Adams, though they divorced in 1975. She’s now married to retired judge Charles Rubin.
Real name: Elizabeth Irene Mitchell
Reason for change: The Screen Actors Guild. Banks was forced to change her name because Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell, four years her senior, was already on the books. She says she wanted a single-syllable surname to contrast with the longer Elizabeth, “so I made a list and then alphabetised it, and Banks was the first one on the list. And I called SAG and they said it was available, so I said, ‘I’ll take it!’ I just wanted it over with!”
Real name: Virginia Katherine McMath
Reason for change: The future dancing partner of Frederick Austerlitz was dubbed ‘Ginger’ in childhood by her younger sister, who could only approximate ‘Ginga’ for Virginia. The surname was her stepfather’s: her mother remarried when Ginger was nine.
Real name: Bonnie Bedelia Culkin
Reason for change: See what she did there? The sister of Kit Culkin and aunt of McCauley, Kieran and Rory, simply dropped the ‘Culkin’, presumably to carve a niche separate to her acting sibling’s.
Real name: Bryan Ray Trout
Reason for change: Bryan Trout? C’mon. ‘Skeet’ is a nickname the actor picked up in childhood, playing little-league baseball: his coach dubbed him ‘Skeeter’ (diminutive/slang for ‘mosquito’) because he was small and skinny. ‘Ulrich’ comes from his stepfather, the NASCAR owner and driver DK Ulrich.
Real name: Thomas Michael Moore
Reason for change: There was another Tom Moore in the Actors’ Equity Association (the stage version of SAG), so change was necessary. He adopted ‘Berenger’ from his best friend at high school (actually Behringer).
Real name: Robert Bartleh Cummings
Reason for change: The rocker-turned-director’s original band was White Zombie, so as frontman and founder, ‘Rob Zombie’ was how he became known (see also Dani Filth, Clint Poppie, Monk Lewis etc.). Like Alice Cooper, he kept the name into his solo career. His wife Sheri Moon Zombie was born Sheri Lyn Skurkis, and his brother Michael David Cummings is Spider One from the industrial metal band Powerman 5000.
Real name: Jonathan Michael Francis O’Keeffe
Reason for change: He says he wanted to make a distinction between the public Jonathan Rhys Meyers, “this different person who I suppose doesn’t really exist”, and the private Johnny O’Keefe, “who sits at home and plays his guitar badly”. ‘Meyers’ is his mother’s maiden name. It’s unclear where the ‘Rhys’ comes from.