FROM LEE MARVIN to R. Lee Ermey to The King of Marvin Gardens, cinema history is littered with colorful monikers. Some outrageous, some clearly manufactured, some seemingly perfect. Although most of our truly iconic actors lived in an era when few went by their given names, often the real names are as good or better than the pseudonyms.
What comprises a “great name”? The following list is the result of a highly scientific survey screened by focus groups of linguists, marketers, Hollywood executives, agents, and fans of unusual nomenclature across the country. While there is certainly a great deal of room for dispute (after all, one man’s Tallulah Bankhead is another man’s Tallulah Belle Willis) for the purposes of this article we relied on five main points of data:
Fit– Dom Deluise is a great name, because what else could that beret-rimmed sack of wheeze possibly be called? On the other hand, Skeet Ulrich, although pleasantly alliterative, could just as easily be a brand of penis tongs or an unreleased Metallica bootleg.
Elan– A great name confers style, wit, street cred, humor, prestige, and stature all at the same time–best summed by the notion of rousing French enthusiasm. Or lunching with Keir Dullea over a fine Bordeaux.
Glottal Stop– Does Mantan Moreland stick to the tongue? Does Nastassja Kinski read like a lesser Russian novel? Is Sigourney Weaver two-word poetry? Does Richard Roundtree make you want to ride across country in a shitty panel van with the person bestowed with such a funky appellation? Yes, yes, yes, and almost certainly yes.
Paragon Rating– The nexus where the mere whisper of a name meets the collective conferral of fame. For instance, “Pitt”, “Cruise” and “Cher” all have paragon ratings of 99.7. Mrs. Sarkasian doesn’t make the list, but it was close, if only because even “Karen Silkwood” has her own transpired cachet. Conversely, “Pauly Shore” has a paragon rating of .06.
Cool Breeze- A perfect name is like an ideal performance; a lick of tart sherbet. Evocative, eternal, light-filled, transporting. It’s like a fossil, a Frisbee, a word game, a gentle waft from the gently lapping waters. Think Hedy Lamarr. Or Zazu Pitts. Or Humphrey Bogart. Or Claude Rains. It makes sense, like so few things in the modern world do.
And so, armed with the above statistical and qualitative tools—and after several rounds of bitter disputation—a final list was compiled:
50. Treat Williams—His best role, by far, was in The Substitute III, where he played a perfectly-feathered teacher who took zero shit from the pop-and-lock era blackboard jungle.
49. Hugh Quarshie— Killed it in classic trash like Highlander and The Church. Always a semi-believable presence amongst the beheadings and random burnings of reasonably sacred texts. Plus, sports the rare Q.
48. Rip Torn—real name: Elmore Rual Torn Jr. Fantastic in the massively underrated Baby Doll, as well as Sweet Bird of Youth. Disturbingly believable as Judas Iscariot in King of Kings.
47. Mads Mikkelson—Too many K’s to be denied, basically a chin and a package, but imbued with a certain Copenhagen-ish gravitas.
46. Fatty Arbuckle—real name: Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle. Embroiled in the original Hollywood sex scandal–supposedly lounged upon the too-perfectly named Virginia Rappe until she expired. Three trials later, most concluded it was a set up.
45. Theda Bara—real name: Theodosia Burr Goodman. Eyes to smolder away a thousand dirty sins.
44. Armie Hammer—Tough to place him in any role, but easy to conflate him with the little yellow box keeping your Frigidaire from smelling like prosciutto and gherkin water.
43. Marcello Mastroianni—The original Daddy Cool. Wore sunglasses like a prosthetic cock. A walking plume of blue smoke, grayscale vowels, and Italian suavite.
42. Michael Ironside—The perfect name for a B-movie heavy with garrote eyebrows and a delivery that could curdle yogurt. Slyly exploded a head or two in Scanners, ensuring decades of steady day rate jobs in the lucrative straight-to-Betamax market.
41. Charlton Heston—real name: John Charles Carter. His constipated political stance(s) and loathsome NRA rhetoric cannot deny or retard the sheer excellence of “Damn dirty ape!”-era Chuck. He absolutely owned the dystopia/chest hair belt of 70’s cinema, primarily expressed in Omega Man and Soylent Green, but flashing the requisite toothy rage in many other fine and iconic films.
40. Rock Hudson—real name: Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. If you’re gonna drop the albatross of Roy Scherer, why not invest to the hilt in Rock Hudson? So ballsy it hurts, but it worked. Hey, it’s hard to look bad in a towel when you’re named after an igneous amalgam.
39. Stepin’ Fetchit—real name: Lincoln Theodore Andrew Perry. It must have required some long, soul-scorched nights to carry around the handle of what is essentially “Step quick and fetch my slippers, boy” and still be able to show up on set the next day for a fresh round of humiliation. On the other hand, he parlayed his “laziest man on earth” schtick into dozens of films, a million dollars, and the first African American acting credit. It’s either the story of complete capitulation or true bravery.
38. Gene Hackman—It is entirely possible that no name more perfectly suits an actor in all of cinema than The Hack. Pug-faced, ruddy, thick through the shoulders when steroids were solely for Bulgarian clean-and-jerkers, Gene was an intimidating ’70s everyman with an impressive taste for porkpie, beatdowns, and sequels full of pure, uncut heroin.
37. Judy Garland—real name: Frances Ethel Gumm. Judy Garland is nothing. A wrapper. A layer of frosting. A bad Steven Stills song left on the cutting room floor. It’s Frances Ethel Gumm who deserves this spot, encapsulating the shimmering mess that Vincent Minnelli mopped up with a sponge and put to sleep every night.
36. Slim Pickens—real name: Louis Burton Lindley Jr. Ride an ICBM like a Brahma Bull into the Siberian wastes and you have certainly cemented your place in the annals of cinema glory. But do it while named Slim Pickens? You’re more than just a clever man in a yokel mask—you’re one stray pomade from genius.
35. Djimon Hounsou—Admit it, you want to say his name over and over (and over) again while taking a bath and sipping Merlot—you luxuriate in the hot liquid while uttering a soft, ecstatic whisper that cuts a prow through the bubbles and your steeping desire.
34. Joaquin Phoenix—A slash of linguistic beauty, Qs and X’s meeting and retreating, Sonora and golf pants dancing in the alley, switchblades and cardigans at high noon.
33. Angus Scrimm—A rude haircut with a legal title, a shaggy maned moniker, the loose hippie/molester tresses of the truly dangerous and deranged—the perfect name for an undertaker with a taste for his own wares.
32. Prunella Scales—So ideally British it hurts, just the brand of Prunella only a cockney bouffant could live up to, down to, or spread upon lomticks of toast.
31. Yaphet Kotto—Pleasantly sibilant, utilizing the rare Y with distinction, Kotto almost stole Alien as the cynical, cash-obsessed scow mechanic—in a better world he and Jones the cat would have curled up in the suspension chamber alongside Ripley in the final cut.
30. Roddy McDowell—Fey, wan, weary, clearly a product of an all-boy school system dominated by institutionalized groping, always convincing as a learned ape or dim London banker, the perfect Roddy for our times.
29. Woody Strode—Sprinting off the gridiron and straight into the center of the gladiatorial ring, cut like a cruel strapling oak, nearly stealing Spartacus from the Marianas-depths of Kirk Douglas’s cleft—in the final estimation should have gone by Woodrow, but still elevating every film he was in with an undeniable sense of will and purpose.
28. Rutger Hauer—Beyond iconic as Blade Runner‘s Roy Batty while never quite achieving those oxygen-less heights again, the ultimate Aryan handle breathtakingly transformed himself into a battle model replicant, down to the last manufactured cell in its Nexus Six eyes.
27. Sterling Hayden—Tall when everyone else was short, gruff when it mattered, convincingly unshaven at all times, a believable hard-ass in a world where a guy with a shabby suit and a ten dollar hat could never get a break—a sterling slab of disdain tarnished in all the right ways.
26. Ione Skye—Shot from the hippie depths of Donovan Leitch’s soul, if not his vas deferens, just another girl in a family with names like “Oriole Nebula” and “Coco Sian Ryder,” leaving only the faintest mark on cinema but an indelible pair of lips in Say Anything—a Hurdy Gurdy girl at the edge of the river and perfect Cusack-foil.
25. Walton Goggins—So packed full of Goggins it’s like he was pulled teeth-first out of the Blarney Stone, spanked in the ass, and handed a Walton to live up or down to.
24. Maxie Rosenbloom—A wrestler and brawler and frequent scene-chewing heavy, every ounce a Maxie, with cauliflowers blooms on both ears and enough scar tissue above his eyebrows for Christo to wrap the Pont Neuf with twice.
23. Crispin Glover—the very definition of arty insanity, honed to a Crispin tip, a quivering needle of insecurity, brilliant in River’s Edge except he was playing himself, now stuck inhabiting a poet or some such imposed pose that no one else cares to find out more about, either.
22. Cary Grant—real name: Archibald Leach. Makes the list for both the real and the fake, each brilliant and perfectly suited to the man, so clearly an Archibald—but with too much beauty for even Cary to contain, the best manufactured accent in the history of film.
21. Titus Welliver—A satisfyingly deep-chested, hawked up loogie of a moniker ideally signifying the lawyer-cop-lawyer career of a man with a Joker’s grin and the heavy-lidded eyes of a Gila about to sink its incisors into the webbing between your big toes.
20. Viggo Mortensen—“Viggo” is that guy you met in Berdoo who gave you a ride all the way to Colorado in one burst of speed-fueled Volkswagon intensity, and then insisted you pay his entrance fee into the Rocky Mountain Tranny Appreciation Day and Meth Festival, whereupon he promptly disappeared into the crowd with your tent and last packet of freeze-dried oatmeal.
19. Benicio Del Toro—Pure genius as Fenster in The Usual Suspects, a mumbling riot of Cajun inanities and slick bullshit. Hollywood has always been desperate for true Hispanic names, as each Jo Raquel Tejada became Raquel Welch and every Margarita Cansino became Rita Hayworth, Del Toro is a proud finger straight up for Aztlan Power.
18. Melvin Van Peebles—Sweet Sweetback was the original indie bad-ass and so clearly not a Van Peebles—which should be the name of the guy whose father made a fortune turning down loans to half of America during the Depression—that it works perfectly in his favor.
17. Red Buttons—real name: Aaron Chwatt. Sure, it’s a cheap pun, but the dude really did have a smile like a shiny button and if he were any more Red his nickname would have been Trotsky. The perfect sobriquet for his brand of gentle, puce, hash-brownie humor.
16. Ving Rhames—Like a Roman cognomen for ultra badass-ish-ness, it fits like a velvet glove cast in ebony iron. It’s not just Marcellus Wallace gettin’ all medieval that seals the deal, it’s every spare syllable of Ving crammed under the furious Rh shoulders of that suit.
15. Adolphe Menjou—It takes a special man to carry off the Adolphe, even plus e, especially if you’re French and of a certain generation. But Monsieur Menjou manages it nicely indeed. Along with his fabulous style, Adolphe was a mustache of pure class in the midst of any proceeding, but especially brilliant in Paths of Glory.
14. Joy Bang—Necessitating zero comment.
13. John Wayne—real name: Marion Morrison. That The Duke’s true handle could be such a feminine mess is one of the great hidden treasures of cinema. In today’s world he’d be lucky to get a role in a vacuum commercial, but for a time Lady Marion was the rawest slab of Real Man in all of celluloid. Of course, his non-serving armchair hawk Vietnam stance didn’t help much in the Winchester Tough Guy department. But could anyone else have carried off Rooster Cogburn? Highly unlikely.
12. Parker Posey—She’s such a Parker and such a Posey, it’s a miracle the two were wedded–let alone in the correct order. Ms. Posey Parker would not cut the slightest ice, and would be so much more expected, although probably make the discerning gentleman want to bite her cheeks only 22% less.
11. Clu Gulager—real name: William Martin Gulager. The dude makes the list on the back of the deep Caucuses tongue-slam of “Gulager” alone, but add “Clu” to the mix? Genius. Was fantastic in numerous shady bit roles, but excelled in Last Picture Show, Don’ Siegel’s version of The Killers, and most especially 1985’s punk-zombie opus The Return of the Living Dead.
10. Butterfly McQueen—The better-named of the McQueens, leaving Steve-O in the dust, Butterfly most famously helmed the unenviable role of Prissy in Gone With The Wind. “I don’t know nothin’ bout’ birthin’ babies!” Appeared uncredited and/or generally demeaned in numerous films, including Mildred Pierce and Duel in the Sun.
9. Wings Hauser—real name: Gerald Dwight Hauser. Wings takes the flight designation straight to the bank, having hammed his way through a career’s worth of grindhouse crap (including the awesome Death Street USA) with genuine aplomb. Has a daughter named “Bright Hauser.”
8. C.C.H Pounder—One question: do you have the balls to sport three initials? No? Didn’t think so. Add a random Pounder, and it’s pure nomenclature bliss.
7. Kirk Douglas—real name: Issur Danielovitch Demsky. Spartacus appears here primarily for the vast, airless space between the excellence of his given and name and the mediocrity of his adopted one. But who’s gonna argue with those thighs?
6. Cubby Broccoli—real name: Albert R. Broccoli. Produced many of the best and worst of the James Bond films. Responsible for the George Lazenby debacle. Looks like he hasn’t eaten a stalk of anything green that wasn’t deep-fried in duck fat since Ursula Andress skulked out of the gently lapping Aegean and buried her face in Connery’s chest angora.
5. Fairuza Balk—90’s ingenue now largely forgotten, but eyelined her way into many a heart at one time, riding a wave of exotica evoked by the lovely “Fairuza”, an oasis of a name, redolent of the spice trade and the rude pleasures to be found in many a hastily pitched silk tent.
4. Skelton Knaggs—The face that launched a thousand Skeltons, a pure raw-boned Knaggs if there ever was one, almost unspeakably well-suited as a terrifying designation for an adolescence worth of late night cheekboned nightmares.
3. Tuesday Weld—real name: Susan Ker Weld. No January Jones or April Wine here. Pulling off a day of the week with such effortless allure is a truly rare feat, and worthy of much praise. Possibly the sexiest name ever. Without question an honorary Weekling.
2. Clint Eastwood—No longer needs the “Eastwood”, even though it’s the perfect sequel, all anyone has to say is “Clint.” A deceptively angry, un-P.C. rooster let loose on the confusion of 70’s manhood, pecking away, firing the occasional .44 Magnum, frenching the odd Orangutan, aging gracefully—if not with political acumen—a purebread original whose name sums him down to the very sideburned molecule.
1. Scatman Crothers—real name: Benjamin Sherman Crothers. The entire reason The Shining works, the voice of Hong Kong Phooey, Louie the Garbage man on Chico and The Man, and a largely underrated early roadhouse guitar player and singer. He is not a Scatman, he is the Scatman, owner of the hippest and most perfect name in all of cinema.
(Honorable mentions: Benedict Cumberbatch, Cyd Charisse, Goldie Hawn, Ricardo Montalban, Dolph Lundgren, M Epatha Merkerson, Chill Wills, Honeysuckle Weeks, Bela Lugosi, Fay Wray, Faye Dunaway, Adrian Zmed, Elisha Cook Jr., and Gale Storm.)