Since the early days of Hollywood, actors’ names have been emblazoned on theater marquees, film trailers, and posters. But beyond that, they linger in the minds and memories of cinema fans everywhere. But even so, many of those actors’ names weren’t actually the ones that they were born with. Maybe a pseudonym was necessary to transform an ordinary Norma Jeane into a superstar named Marilyn Monroe. Who knows if her career trajectory would have been different if she had never made the switch.
The reasoning behind name changes are many. Sometimes it’s just a way to simplify a longer, less-memorable birth name. Other times the change-up is an effort to Americanize a more ethnic-sounding name or to even hide one’s religion. How these stage names are actually chosen is also pretty varied. Some names are pulled from fictional characters in books, decided by contests featured in magazines, or even chosen at random by thumbing through the pages of the phone book.
It’s worth asking whether some talented actors that we all know and love would have been as famous as they became if they had kept their original names. Did any of them end up regretting changing their names? Because you know, sometimes it wasn’t even their decision. A lot of stars got their names handed to them by studio executives.
Let’s take a look at some legendary Hollywood stars and starlets who ended up changing their names for the sake of their careers in the spotlight. We’ll also examine how they ended up with their professional monikers. So let’s get started.
John Wayne – Marion Robert Morrison
Marion Robert Morrison or Bobby as he was known in his childhood, was named after both of his grandfathers, Marion Mitchell Morrison and Robert Emmett Brown. When Marion’s little brother was born, his mom named him Robert Emmett, and Marion then became Marion Mitchell Morrison. Confused yet?
The Morrison Family’s beloved Airedale terrier was named ‘Big Duke’ – a reference to Tom Mix’s dog. Whenever little Marion would show up at the local fire station to pick the dog up, the fireman called Marion ‘Little Duke’. Eventually, he shortened that nickname to just ‘Duke’ and began going by that over Marion. So yeah, just like Indiana Jones, he too was named after the family dog.
Morrison received the name that he would eventually become exclusively known by in the industry, John Wayne, after he was chosen by director Raoul Walsh to replace Gary Cooper for 1930s ‘The Big Trail’.
Walsh gave Marion his new name after being inspired by revolutionary war hero ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne. The studio didn’t like the sound of Anthony though as they thought that it sounded too Italian, so they selected John instead in honor of the director who helped jump-start his career, John Ford. And just like that, Marion Robert Morrison became John Wayne.
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And don’t go anywhere just yet. Keep watching to find out how Dean Martin got his iconic name. We’ll get to him in just a moment but first, let’s discover how one of the most famous sex symbols in history got her alias.
Marilyn Monroe – Norma Jeane Baker
Technically, Ms. Monroe’s birth certificate reads Norma Jeane Mortenson. But since her father, Stanley Gifford left her mother as soon as she revealed that she was pregnant, Ed Mortenson, the man Monroe’s mother, Gladys Pearl Baker, was married to gave her his last name.
Gladys named her after the actresses Norma Talmadge and Jean Harlow, and just six months after she was born, Monroe was baptized as Norma Jeane Baker.
When she was 16, Marilyn married her 21-year-old next-door neighbor James Dougherty and ended up taking his surname. For some modeling jobs, she would go by Jean – dropping the E in her first name – or sometimes she would go by Jean Norman. And for some of her more revealing photo sessions, she went by Mona Monroe.
But she wouldn’t get the name that we are all familiar with today until Fox executive Ben Lyon suggested the first name Marilyn inspired by Broadway actress Marilyn Miller. Marilyn then insisted upon adding her mother’s maiden name of Monroe to her stage name, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Judy Garland – Frances Ethel Gumm
Judy Garland or Frances Ethel Gumm as she was originally named, was born on June 10, 1922, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. She was named after her father Francis and her mother Ethel. The Gumms once had a successful singing and musical act that went by the name of Jack and Virginia Lee. Once they settled down, Frank bought a movie theater where Judy made her stage debut at age 2.
With the help of her two older sisters, Virginia and Mary Jane, Frances and the Gumm girls followed in their family’s tradition of performing by forming a singing group called The Gumm Sisters. After a misprint referred to the siblings as ‘The Glumm Sisters’ George Jessel, their vaudeville partner, informed them that their surname sounded too much like the words ‘Crumb, Dumb, or Bum’. Jessel then insisted upon renaming Frances after his good friend, drama critic Robert Garland.
Frances then swapped out her first name borrowing the name Judy from a Hoagy Carmichael song.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – Frederick Austerlitz and Virginia Katherine McMath
Performing side by side in 10 films together, Fredrick Austerlitz and Virginia Katherine McMath were one of Hollywood’s greatest dancing duos.
Fredrick Austerlitz was named for his Austrian beer-making father Friedrich. His mother helped him launch his career after taking him and his older sister Adele to New York in 1905 leaving behind their home in Omaha, Nebraska.
Under the direction of dance instructor Claude Alvienne, the brother-sister actor found much success, but everyone agreed that they needed a new last name. Austerlitz just sounded too foreign, so they settled on Astaire, which according to Alvienne, reminded him of the goddess Astarte.
Virginia Katherine McMath was named after her mother Lela’s sister Verda Virginia. Her alias came from a shortening of a mispronunciation of her first name by her little cousin Helen who couldn’t say words with the letter V. Helen, at first, called her Ba-Din-Da, then later just Dinda. Eventually, that evolved into Ginga and ultimately Ginger.
After her mother separated from her husband William Eddins, Lela met and married John Logan Rogers. Ginger, who called him ‘Daddy John’ then proceeded to adopt his last name as her own even though he never officially adopted her.
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis – Dino Crocetti and Jerome ‘Joseph’ Levitch
It was on a street corner in New York City in 1945 when Dino Crocetti and Jerome Levitch first met each other. A year later, they formed a comedy act that went on to become one of the most beloved performing duos of the 20th century. Over the next decade, Crocetti and Levitch mesmerized audiences on stage and on-screen appearing in 16 films together before breaking up and not talking to each other for a matter of decades.
Dino’s father, Gaetano Crocetti was from Abruzzi, Italy. Eventually, he migrated over to Steubenville, Ohio where he went by the nickname ‘Guy’. In June 1917, Guy welcomed his premature son into the world but he wasn’t christened as Dino Paul until later that fall.
Dino dropped out of high school and started working odd jobs. He did everything from working at a steel mill to boxing as ‘Kid Crochet’, to working in speakeasies and illicit casinos. Dino was a naturally gifted singer, and when Ernie McKay, a bandleader from Columbus, chose Dino to be his lead singer, he gave him a new name. Dino Martini made his debut in 1939. His new name was a reference to Italian crooner Nino Martini.
Sammy Watkins, a bandleader from Cleveland, hired Dino in 1940 to front his band, but he wasn’t a fan of his Italian-sounding name, so he changed it to Dean Martin.
Jerome Levitch was the son of New Jersey vaudevillers Danny and Rae Levitch who performed under the last name of Lewis. Little Jerome joined the family business at age 5, so it was pretty much a given that he would take their stage last name as well. When he was young, Jerome was known as Joey, but he didn’t want to be confused with the comedian Joe. E. Lewis or the boxer Joe Louis, so he started going by Jerry Lewis.
Cary Grant – Archibald Alexander Leach
Leach’s grandfather was an actor in England and he ended up running away from home when he was 12 and wound up becoming an acrobat. He eventually left behind his home in Bristol, England for America where he got a job as a stilt-walker advertising hot dogs at Coney Island. He proceeded to refine his acting skills, landed several Broadway roles, and ultimately scored a screen test at Paramount Pictures.
The studio insisted that Leach take a new name. Archie Leach might not have been the worst name in the world but it lacked a certain amount of dignity that they desired for the kinds of films that they produced. Since they were the ones paying his bills, Leach really had no room to argue with them about the subject.
Paramount exec B.P. Schulberg wanted his new name to be something like Gary Cooper while Leach’s former ‘Nikki’ co-star Fay Wray suggested that he take the name from his last role in their 1931 Broadway play, Cary Lockwood. Schulberg thought the first name sounded good since it was close to the name he preferred, Gary, but he was less thrilled about the last name since there was already another actor with the last name Lockwood under contract with the studio.
After handing him a list of pre-approved surnames, Cary ended up choosing Grant.
Cary Grant went on to become one of the most celebrated and acclaimed actors of his time, but he never lost his love for his real name. He later named his Sealyham terrier Archie Leach just to keep the name alive.
Well, we’re just about of time for this facts-filled video, but it’s been fun digging through Hollywood history and discovering the real names of some of Tinseltown’s finest. It’s a little strange how with a stroke of a pen, a studio executive can give someone an entirely new moniker to go by, but at the end of the day, who cares what people call you as long as they know who you are and like what you do.
Would you change your name if it meant having a chance at achieving fame and fortune? Or would you insist upon keeping your given name no matter what some Hollywood executive thought about it? Let us know in the comments section below.
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