Think you know your favorite actor or singer? Check their birth certificate. You don’t know Jack…or Tom or Helen or John.
We’ve covered the plight of Arnold Schwarzenegger, rejected by agents because of his surname, at one point changing his name to “Arnold Strong” either to sound less weird or just because his name took up too much space. The change was short-lived. It finally worked out for him, as his distinct heritage set him apart in a sea of bodybuilders. At this point, it’s no secret that Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jean and Cary Grant wasn’t always called Carrie. But you are unlikely to know who Carlos Irwin Estevez or Belcalis Almanzar are.
Some change their legal name, others simply change their stage name, but whether or not you file the papers officially, your name makes all the difference. This is usually the first thing anyone sees or hears. And at the cost of selling your soul, it’s advised to drop a syllable or two.
Your name is your brand, but half of what you’re known for is marketing. You only get one first impression, and we all know Stefani, Joanne Angelina Germanotta, and Thomas Mapother just don’t cut it.
Most Jews, of necessity, needed to conceal their identity in order to break into the acting industry. Kirk Douglas came into the world as Issur Danielovic. Before she was Winona Ryder, she was Winona Horowitz. Whether it’s Lauren Bacall (Betty Bersek) or Jerry Lewis (Joseph Levitch), the desire to hide Judaism never goes out of style. The tradition survives even if the stigma of not being Anglo-Saxon is gone. Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman was named Neta Lee Hershlag when she immigrated to the country in the mid-1980s, making for some pretty awkward conversations right off the bat. Interestingly, this trend creates some confusion. Jon Stewart (born John Leibovitz), cites his bad relationship with his father for changing his name, not wanting to cover up his heritage as he often believed.
Ironically, anti-German sentiment after World War II pushed German actors (many of whom had no connection whatsoever to the Nazis) in the unusual position of pretending to be another nationality, Americanizing their accents and names. Many young actors found it humiliating to experiment with nicknames, but there was no recourse. The alternative was once again fading into obscurity.
To deflect any questions about his loyalty, Charles Bronson dropped his surname Bochinsky in 1954 for fear of contact with the Communists. Likewise, Helen Mirren’s name sounded so Russian that it had to be changed drastically in order to accommodate upper-class British acting society, although with more blue blood, Mirren was descended from European nobility. Bruce Lee morphed his Chinese birth name, Li Jun Fan (Li is his last name), into the somewhat dull Bruce Lee. It may seem more suitable for a chiropractor than a martial artist, but you can’t argue with the end results.
We could go on all day, but long story short, having a name that Westerners can pronounce is a blessing. We have come a long way when people can pronounce Ke Huy Quan correctly. But he even briefly turns into Jonathan. “I was working on a sitcom and the warm-hearted comedian was slaying my name every week,” GQ recalled in 2022.
Not everyone can be Bob Smith
David Bowie and Michael J. Fox are just a few cases of performers who fear being confused with more famous people by their names. Casting directors still debate this practice, but in the case of Michael J. Fox, the decision may have been made for him. Actors’ unions like SAG (Screen Actors Guild) routinely force anyone with the same name as a current member to modify their surname to prevent confusion, though there are several other theories why he changed his middle back in the ’80s just to make things more murky.
Not wanting to be confused with Michael Douglas (actor) or Michael Douglas (TV host) Batman Actor Michael Keaton settled on a name at random. “Everyone knows me as Michael Douglas,” he told Grantland in 2012. David Bowie chose his new name to avoid any comparison or misidentification with Davey Jones of The Monkees (more popular at the time). Albert Brooks wisely chose to change his original last name as well, dropping the last name Einstein (no relation). Don’t worry about his father being offended, he didn’t use the family name either.
On rare occasions, actors distance themselves as much as possible from their families to avoid accusations of nepotism. Nice Cage changed his surname, Coppola, to make sure no one thought his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola, was calling out his favor. The same cannot be said of his cousin Sophia. For the record, Jamie Foxx and Redd Foxx are not related, and are not actually called Foxx.
Starring: Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi
Sometimes it’s against your will, and sometimes it’s about survival. And sometimes your name is bad. Maurice Micklewhite fits his Cockney accent perfectly, but it’s no wonder why Michael Caine runs away with that name, not wanting people to think he’s a Charles Dickens character. Tim Allen was born Tim Dick. He was lucky. John Wayne was christened with the less imposing name Marion Morrison, ensuring a childhood of constant bullying. There is some compensation going on. Severing ties with their religious group, River Jude Bottom and Joaquín Rafael Bottom’s parents chose the cooler last name Phoenix.
It’s not really clear why his family decided to change their name, but Fred Astaire’s acting family has renamed themselves, ignoring the Austerlitz surname. Miley Cyrus ditched her birth name Destiny on a whim. Portman co-star Lyon ProfessionalJean Reno—who went by the name Juan Moreno y Herrera-Jiménez—adapted his Spanish name to a gentler stage name when taking up acting in France. As for Rudolph Valentino, simplifying his Italian heritage and ditching Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi was a no-brainer. Signing autographs would have given him a wrist tunnel.