What I learned researching this article: I’m not sure anyone in Hollywood actually uses the name they were born with – a fact that perhaps shouldn’t surprise me, since I publish novels under two names, neither of which are legal.
But most backstories to how famous actors chose their stage names are not nearly so strange as these four. Just wait until you read the one about Michael J. Fox.
#4. Albert Einstein (No, not that Albert Einstein)
Albert Brooks’ real name was Albert Einstein. Really. His parents…I don’t even know what to say about his parents, except to mention the fact that his father (also a comedian) died at a Friar’s Club Roast for Lucy and Chachi. One final act of humor?
Back to the point at hand. Albert Brooks never revealed how or why he chose his stage name, but there is a cool story – potentially apocryphal – that some people think points toward the reason, and it has a powerhouse cast: Carl and Rob Reiner, Mel Brooks, and Johnny Carson.
It turns out little Albert Einstein was friends with little Rob Reiner, and when Carl Reiner made an appearance on Johnny Carson, the late night host asked the famous television producer who he thought were the funniest people in the world.
To which Reiner replied, “Mel Brooks and a 12yo kid named Albert Einstein.”
So I guess that’s the best story we’re getting as to how Albert Einstein became Albert Brooks. Arguably still one of the funniest people ever.
#3. David (and Duncan) Bowie
David Bowie is legendary, and he’s already got more than one alter ego (Ziggy Stardust, anyone?), but Bowie wasn’t always his name. He was born David Robert Jones (reminds me of the criminal mastermind in Fringe), and for a while he went by Davie Jones on stage. But as you might recall, if you’re of a certain age, there was another singer popularizing the name around the same time.
Davy Jones was the heartthrob of The Monkees, the 60s version of The Backstreet Boys.
Anywho, our David Bowie wouldn’t have wanted people to confuse him for Davy Jones, so he chose a new name for himself – Bowie, after the hunting knife. Yep.
Fun Fact: The creator of the hunting knife was Alamo hero Jim Bowie…whose mother’s maiden name was also Jones.
Fun Fact #2: David Bowie’s son worked hard to make his name less interesting, not more – which isn’t a surprise once you know that, when he was young, most people called him Zowie Bowie. By age 12 he’d had it with that nonsense, and at some point he convinced everyone to call him Duncan (his given first name). He’s now a successful director in his own right, winning an award for his film Moon.
#2. Michael Douglas x2
There once were two Michael Douglases in Hollywood, but given that one was the son of famous actor Kirk Douglas (who was himself originally named Issur Danielovitch), the second had no choice but to come up with something different.
Which is exactly what Michael Keaton did, choosing his brand-new surname because he liked the way it sounded on Diane Keaton.
Incidentally, Keaton wasn’t Diane’s legal name, either. She was Diane Hall until she also needed to choose a name that no one else was using, so she settled on her mother’s maiden name. She’s also a big Buster Keaton fan (she named her cat after him!) so double win for her, I guess.
#1. Michael J. Fox
This one is going to blow your mind in the best possible way – the long and short of it is that Michael J. Fox was born to play Marty McFly.
Born Michael Andrew Fox, he had no idea that he wouldn’t be able to keep that name until he tried to register with the Screen Actor’s Guild, which – like George Costanza’s boss Mr. Krueger – runs a pretty tight ship, as far as two people not existing with the exact same name.
See, there was already a Michael Fox, and had been for quite some time. He’d already attached his name to hundreds of projects, which left our little Teen Wolf in the position of having to come up with something new. He chose to add the letter ‘J’ and subsequently joke that it stood for “Jenius,” and the rest is history.
Or is it…
In Back to the Future, the writers inform the audience of what a nerdy loser George McFly is by mentioning that he’s a fan of the television show Science Fiction Theatre – and the original Michael Fox starred in several episodes of the show. Not only that, but one episode that aired in 1955 – the same year Marty travels back to in the movie! – features a couple that finds out their son is a time traveler.
Michael J. Fox wouldn’t have existed without the Michael Fox who lived in the 50s. I know.
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