10 Fascinating Facts About Double Indemnity

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In the mid-1930s, journalist-turned-novelist James M. Cain wrote a novella about an insurance salesman who falls for another man’s wife, and agrees to help her kill him so they can be together. The story quickly made its way to Hollywood, where the strict moral guidelines of the Production Code placed it on the back burner. Eventually, the story made its way into the hands of then-fledgling director Billy Wilder, who saw something special in it.

Double Indemnity had to fight objections to its content, two screenwriters who hated working together, two stars who weren’t sure they could handle their respective roles, and an ending that had to be changed. But when it finally got released in 1944, film history was made.

The film is a masterpiece in the filmographies of Wilder and stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, and is arguably the first true example of that classic Hollywood subgenre known as film noir. In celebration of its greatness, here are 10 facts about how Double Indemnity got made, and what came after.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL MURDER.

Before he began making serious headway as a writer of fiction, Double Indemnity author James M. Cain worked as a journalist in New York, and it was there that he stumbled upon the real-life murder case of Albert Snyder, who was killed in 1927 by his wife, Ruth Brown Snyder, and her lover, a corset salesman named Henry Judd Gray. Before committing the murder, Brown took out a $100,000 life insurance policy on her husband, then tried to kill him several times, but was unsuccessful. She ultimately turned to Gray for help in the murder plot, and both were ultimately executed for the murder in 1928.

Cain used the case as the inspiration for two of his earliest and most famous stories. His first novel, 1934's The Postman Always Rings Twice, is about a man who falls in love with a beautiful woman and then helps her—unsuccessfully, at first—murder her older husband. The novel quickly made its way to Hollywood, where the Hays Production Code—which provided moral oversight for movie production—was just beginning to be strictly enforced, so the story languished without a film adaptation for years.

In the meantime, Cain wrote Double Indemnity, another story of a man swept up in a plot to murder his lover’s husband, this time with an insurance scam added. The story was serialized in the pages of Liberty magazine in 1936, but was first submitted as a potential Hollywood property in 1935. Double Indemnity finally made it to the screen in 1944, and The Postman Always Rings Twice followed with its own well-received film version in 1946. (It was remade in 1981 with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, from a script by David Mamet.)

2. IT FOUGHT THE PRODUCTION CODE FOR YEARS.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in 'Double Indemnity' (1944)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Double Indemnity was first placed before the Production Code Administration in Hollywood in 1935, the year before it was serialized in Liberty, and the story was immediately met with resistance from PCA head Joseph I. Breen, who noted that a film version would likely be rejected according to the code. Among Breen’s concerns in a 1935 letter that eventually made its way to various studios interested in the property were that "the leading characters are murderers who cheat the law and die at their own hands (Cain’s original story features a double suicide); the story deals improperly with an illicit and adulterous sex relationship; [and] the details of the vicious and cold-blooded murder are clearly shown."

It took eight years for someone to come up with a version of the story that Breen could finally approve, and he wrote to Paramount Pictures—the studio that eventually made Double Indemnity—in 1943 with a few final notes to ensure that the apparently “acceptable” script would pass muster, including making sure Phyllis’s towel covered her enough during her entrance, and ensuring that the actual murder sequence didn’t show too much of the deed itself or the disposal of the corpse (the famous murder sequence ultimately features a close-up of Barbara Stanwyck’s face as the deed is done off-camera). So, after nearly a decade of struggling against the restrictions of the Production Code, Double Indemnity was finally able to move forward.

3. BILLY WILDER’S WRITING PARTNER AT THE TIME TURNED IT DOWN.

It was producer Joseph Sistrom who first brought Double Indemnity to Wilder, believing the filmmaker would respond well to Cain’s hard-boiled story of deception and seduction. Wilder did indeed respond well to the film, and took it on as what was, at the time, only his third Hollywood effort as a director after years of mostly screenwriting work. Wilder, a firm believer in two heads being better than one during the screenwriting process, wanted to work on the Double Indemnity script with collaborator Charles Brackett, with whom he’d already written eight films, including Ninotchka (1939) and his most recent directorial effort Five Graves to Cairo (1943). Brackett declined to work on the film, though, citing the scandalous and amoral nature of its story as reasons for his reluctance to take it on.

When searching for a new collaborator, Wilder initially thought of hiring Cain, who was by then already working in Hollywood, but he was occupied at another studio. A friend of Wilder’s suggested Raymond Chandler, whose writing style and knack for dialogue was similar to Cain’s, and Wilder agreed. After Double Indemnity, Brackett would continue to collaborate with Wilder, and the two produced classics like The Lost Weekend (1945), A Foreign Affair (1948), and Sunset Boulevard (1950).

4. WILDER AND RAYMOND CHANDLER HATED WORKING TOGETHER.

Wilder agreed to work with Chandler after reading some of his prose and finding the future author of The Long Goodbye had a knack for clever lines of dialogue and description. Chandler had never written a script, though, and according to Wilder the pulp legend did not understand that the screenwriting process was one that took several months. Instead, Chandler asked for a script on a Friday to familiarize himself with the format, and promised Wilder a draft “a week from Monday.” When Chandler returned with the work he’d done, Wilder declared it “absolute bullshit,” and the two began working together on the script, writing together in an office for about eight hours a day.

Once the two legends settled into close quarters, though, they found that they quickly got on each other’s nerves. Chandler, an alcoholic, was sober at the time the collaboration began, and was annoyed that Wilder would drink around him. Wilder, for his part, kept excusing himself ostensibly to go to the bathroom, but in reality he simply wanted to take frequent breaks from Chandler’s presence. At one point, Chandler drafted a memo to the studio listing his various grievances with his writing partner, including the fact that Wilder wore his trademark hat indoors.

Somehow, though, after several months of work, the pair produced an Oscar-nominated script, and Wilder was pleased with Chandler’s contributions, even though the process was strained.

“I had to explain a lot to him as we went along, but he was very helpful to me,” Wilder recalled. “What we were doing together had real electricity. He was a very, very good writer—but not of scripts."

5. NO ONE WANTED TO PLAY WALTER NEFF.

After the project had weathered the Production Code and the laborious screenwriting process, Wilder hit even more snags when it came to casting. According to Wilder, “everybody turned [him] down” when he was looking for a leading man to play insurance salesman-turned-killer Walter Neff, including crime drama stars Alan Ladd and George Raft, who asked Wilder where “the lapel” in the film was, meaning the moment when Neff would flip over his lapel and reveal a badge. Wilder said no lapel moment was forthcoming, so Raft turned him down.

Wilder then approached Fred MacMurray, an actor then best known for lighter fare. MacMurray protested that he was the kind of actor who made “little comedies,” but Wilder talked him into it, and MacMurray ultimately looked back on Neff as one of his greatest roles.

6. BARBARA STANWYCK WAS SCARED TO PLAY PHYLLIS DIETRICHSON.

Barbara Stanwyck in 'Double Indemnity' (1944)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Neff was not the only role Wilder ran into difficulty with. He wanted Barbara Stanwyck—then the highest-paid actress in Hollywood—to play the role of seductress and murderess Phyllis Dietrichson. Stanwyck was a serious, acclaimed actress with two Oscar nominations to her name already, but the idea of playing such a dark role was intimidating to her. Wilder appealed to her competitive nature, and asked, "Well, are you a mouse or an actress?" Stanwyck wasn’t about to let a remark like that drive her away from a part, so she took the role, and earned her third Best Actress nomination—and a place as one of cinema’s greatest femme fatales in the process.

7. STUDIO EXECUTIVES HATED STANWYCK’S WIG.

Stanwyck’s performance in Double Indemnity was hailed as one of her best even in 1944, when critics and executives were finally seeing the completed film, but there was one complaint that kept going around, and that some viewers still notice: her hair. Though it may seem like an immovable part of the film now, the blonde wig Phyllis wears was a noticeable change to Stanwyck’s overall look at the time, and some viewers complained that it looked too cheap and fake. One executive at Paramount, after seeing some early footage, commented: "We hire Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington."

Having Stanwyck go blonde for the film was Wilder’s idea, and while he told people for years that the wig was chosen to intentionally convey something showy and even trashy about Phyllis, he later admitted that was just the answer he made up after realizing he made a mistake with the choice of wig a bit too late.

“But after the picture is half-finished, after I shot for four weeks with Stanwyck, now I know I made a mistake. I can't say, ‘Look tomorrow, you ain't going to be wearing the blonde wig.’ I'm stuck ... I can't reshoot four weeks of stuff. I'm totally stuck. I've committed myself; the mistake was caught too late. Fortunately it did not hurt the picture. But it was too thick, we were not very clever about wig-making. But when people say, ‘My god, that wig. It looked phony,’ I answer ‘You noticed that? That was my intention. I wanted the phoniness in the girl, bad taste, phony wig.’ That is how I get out of it.”

8. THE ORIGINAL ENDING FEATURED NEFF’S EXECUTION.

Cain’s original novella ends with the two lovers committing suicide together, but since suicide was forbidden by the Production Code, Wilder and Chandler had to develop an alternate ending, and came up with the notion that Neff would shoot Phyllis after she wounds him, and he would then return to the insurance office to record his confession, only to be discovered by Barton Keyes, a claims adjuster and co-worker. The film famously ends with Walter collapsed on the floor, with Keyes lighting a cigarette for him as sirens approach outside, but the original script actually went further, showing Neff’s arrest and his eventual execution in a gas chamber. Wilder even shot the gas chamber ending, but cut it for two reasons: The PCA was concerned the details were too gruesome, and Wilder himself felt that it was ultimately unnecessary to the story.

“I shot that whole thing in the gas chamber, the execution, when everything was still, with tremendous accuracy. But then I realized, look this thing is already over. I just already have one tag outside that office, when Neff collapses on the way to the elevator, where he can’t even light the match,” he recalled. “And from the distance, you hear the sirens, be it an ambulance or be it the police, you know it is over. No need for the gas chamber."

9. WILDER WAS VERY FRUSTRATED BY THE FILM’S OSCAR LOSSES.

Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Oscars in 1945, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress. It won none of these awards, and lost several to eventual Best Picture winner Going My Way. When Leo McCarey was announced as that year’s Best Director winner for his work on Going My Way, Wilder had had enough of losing. As McCarey passed him, according to film noir historian Eddie Muller, Wilder stuck out his foot and tripped him, sending him sprawling in the aisle before he collected himself and went up to claim his trophy.

10. THERE ARE THREE OTHER ADAPTATIONS.

Though its journey to the screen was long, Double Indemnity was critically acclaimed upon release, and quickly developed a reputation as a classic. Today it stands as an essential film for fans of Wilder, Stanwyck, and MacMurray, as well as a seminal piece of film noir. That didn’t stop other adaptations of Cain’s novel from trying to replicate some of that success, though. Stanwyck and MacMurray returned to their respective roles for a radio broadcast of the story in 1950, and Double Indemnity was adapted for television twice, first by NBC in 1954 and then by ABC in 1973. When the latter was broadcast, Wilder called up Stanwyck after it aired—according to USC School of Cinema-Television professor Dr. Drew Casper, who was with Stanwyck at the time—and said, “They didn’t get it right.”

Additional Sources: Shadows of Suspense (2006)

Star Wars Fans Are Petitioning to See J.J. Abrams's The Rise of Skywalker Director's Cut

Joonas Suotamo, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, and John Boyega in Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (2019).
Joonas Suotamo, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, and John Boyega in Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (2019).
Lucasfilm Ltd.

We've all seen the use of petitions in Hollywood before, such as when disappointed Game of Thrones fans signed the now-iconic petition for HBO to remake the final season of the epic series with "competent writers." Unsurprisingly, the petition didn't work—but it did likely cause some mild humiliation for showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

According to ComicBook.com, a new petition has popped up for another major fandom: Star Wars. This one is calling for the release of the supposed three-plus-hour director's cut of The Rise of Skywalker, which is believed to be director J.J. Abrams's personal telling of the final film in the Skywalker Saga. This new plea for the "J.J. Cut" has already amassed more than 6200 signatures on Change.org.

As ComicBook.com reports, the studio cut Abrams's work down to two hours and 22 minutes to adhere to the estimated patience of the average moviegoer. However, on Reddit, user egoshoppe stirred up some controversy by claiming that Abrams was "devastated and blindsided" by the changes that were made to the most recent film, and that they were made without the director's approval. The person claimed to have gotten information after speaking "with someone who worked closely on the production" of The Rise of Skywalker. Whether or not the claim is true, it has made fans even more determined to see the film's original cut.

Though the Game of Thrones petition didn't work, if enough people come together, maybe we could get at least a bit more footage from The Rise of Skywalker than was released in theaters. The Force is strong with these ones.

[h/t ComicBook.com]

The Real Names of 30 Famous Actors

Brad Pitt promotes Ad Astra at the 2019 Venice Film Festival.
Brad Pitt promotes Ad Astra at the 2019 Venice Film Festival.
Maria Moratti/Getty Images

There’s no business like show business for having to leave your birth name behind. Movie stars throughout the past century have often adopted new names for a ton of reasons, from evading racial bias to pure whim. Here are 30 celebrities who you may not know changed their name, and who you may never look at the same way again.

1. Brad Pitt

One of the simplest stage name changes for one of the most famous men on the planet: It’s difficult to think of Brad Pitt as anything other than Brad Pitt, but the Oscar-winning star of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was born William Bradley Pitt. Does Bill Pitt have the same ring to it?

2. Rihanna

Rihanna attends the "Queen & Slim" Premiere at AFI FEST 2019 presented by Audi at the TCL Chinese Theatre on November 14, 2019 in Hollywood, California
Rihanna attends the Queen & Slim at AFI FEST 2019.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Like Brad Pitt, the actor and singer from Barbados goes by her middle name professionally. She was born Robyn Rihanna Fenty. "I get kind of numb to Rihanna, Rihanna, Rihanna," she told Rolling Stone, noting that her close friends and family still call her by her first name. "When I hear Robyn, I pay attention."

3. Michael Caine

English actor Michael Caine, throwing a punch, August 1965
English actor Michael Caine, throwing a punch, August 1965
Stephan C Archetti, Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Some actors streamline their names to be more memorable, which is what Maurice Micklewhite did when he became Michael Caine in 1954. He considered becoming Michael Scott (that’s what she said), but picked Caine because of Humphrey Bogart’s film The Caine Mutiny. In 2016, after a half-century of using the stage name and being unbelievably famous, Micklewhite finally legally changed his name to avoid hiccups at airports.

4. Audrey Hepburn

A photo of actress Audrey Hepburn
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

The daughter of a Dutch noblewoman, Hepburn was born Audrey Kathleen Ruston and baptized as Edda Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston. Her professional name is sleeker, but it still would have been lovely to see "My Fair Lady starring Edda Hepburn-Ruston."

5. Cary Grant

Cary Grant is pictured in a publicity photo circa the 1940s
Cary Grant is pictured in a publicity photo circa the 1940s.
Getty Images

Hepburn’s co-star in Charade played a man with a lot of aliases, which had to have been at least a little familiar since Cary Grant began life as Archibald Leach. In 1931, Leach impressed the general manager of Paramount Pictures, B.P. Schulberg, enough to score a contract with the caveat that he pick a name that sounded more American. They came up with "Cary Grant" together.

6. Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe
A photo of Marilyn Monroe.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Most everyone knows that Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson and that she was a natural brunette. Before acting, she modeled and sometimes flip-flopped her name, going as Jean Norman. But when she signed with 20th Century Fox, an executive there changed her name to "Marilyn" because she reminded him of Broadway actress Marilyn Miller. Monroe is Norma Jeane’s mother’s maiden name.

7. Albert Brooks

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Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TCM

Is there any need to explain why Albert Einstein changed his name to Albert Brooks? The legendary comedic factor and filmmaker was born into a showbiz family. His mom was a singer, and his father was a comedian on the radio. His brother, the late Bob Einstein, didn’t have the same need to change his name.

8. Tina Fey

Tina Fey attends the 2018 Tony Awards Meet The Nominees Press Junket on May 2, 2018 in New York City
Jenny Anderson, Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

It seems appropriate that Tina Fey, who is famous for playing 30 Rock's Liz Lemon, is actually named Liz. Born Elizabeth Stamatina Fey, the former head writer of SNL and creator of 30 Rock has used the shortened form of her Greek middle name since early in her career, which kicked off in grand fashion with a banking commercial (and by "fashion" we mean: "Check out that swell vest").

9. Mindy Kaling

Mindy Kaling of 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' speaks onstage during the Hulu segment of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association Press Tour in Los Angeles in 2019
Rich Fury/Getty Images

Vera Mindy Chokalingam got her start doing stand-up, where she noticed that emcees would butcher her last name or mock it, so she shortened it. She also chose to go by her middle name, which her mother chose for her because she watched a lot of Mork & Mindy while she was pregnant.

10. Spike Lee

Spike Lee attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Radhika Jones at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 09, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California.
Spike Lee attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills, California.
John Shearer/Getty Images

The legendary filmmaker goes by Spike, but his birth name is Shelton, which is also his mother’s maiden name. She gave him the nickname "Spike" when he was a baby because he was tough. With that in mind, "Spike" has been his identity since almost the very beginning.

11. Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman attends the premiere of FOX's "Lucy In The Sky" at Darryl Zanuck Theater at FOX Studios on September 25, 2019 in Los Angeles, California
Natalie Portman attends the premiere of FOX's "Lucy In The Sky" in Los Angeles, California.
Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

Getting a professional start at a very young age, the Israel-born Neta-Lee Hershlag was an understudy on Broadway at 11 and starred in the hitman movie The Professional before she turned 13. To protect her family’s identity, she adopted her grandmother’s maiden name as her stage name.

12. Vin Diesel

Helen Mirren and Vin Diesel attend the 45th Chaplin Award Gala at the on April 30, 2018 in New York City
Helen Mirren and Vin Diesel attend the 45th Chaplin Award Gala in New York City.
Jamie McCarthy, Getty Images

“Vin Diesel? Of the New Brunswick Diesels?” It’s no surprise that “Vin Diesel” is a made-up name, but it’s interesting that Mark Sinclair didn’t come up with it because of his acting ambitions (even though he’s been acting since he was a child). Vin Diesel became Vin Diesel when he was a nightclub bouncer in New York City, which is why his name makes him sound like a nightclub bouncer. He’s the one who made us believe a bouncer could become an international movie star.

13. Helen Mirren

A name like Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironov makes it sound like Helen Mirren was born to Russian royalty, but she was the child of an immigrant diplomat-turned-taxi driver in London. Her father, Vasily, and British mother, Kathleen, Anglicized the family name to Mirren in the 1950s. In 2003, after four decades of stellar work (plus Caligula), Mirren was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, making her name even more impressive.

14. Sir Ben Kingsley

Sir Ben Kingsley arrives for the European premiere of "The Jungle Book" at BFI IMAX on April 13, 2016 in London, England.
Sir Ben Kingsley arrives for the premiere of The Jungle Book at London's BFI IMAX.
Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

The celebrated actor changed his name, like so many actors do, as a survival technique. He wasn’t getting stage work under his birth name, Krishna Pandit Bhanji, but almost immediately got roles once he started going by Ben Kingsley. Unlike other actors, Kingsley has completely absorbed the stage name as his own, even signing his paintings with it.

15. Awkwafina

Awkwafina attends the 2020 Critics' Choice Awards in Santa Monica, California.
Awkwafina attends the 2020 Critics' Choice Awards in Santa Monica, California.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Critics Choice Association

The show is called Awkwafina is Nora From Queens because Awkwafina is Nora from Queens. Born Nora Lum, the rapper-turned-actor chose her stage name at 15 and views it as a full alter ego that embodies that wild, teenage energy that she learned to tone down in college. She carried the name over into her acting career for Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians, and The Farewell.

16. David Tennant

David Tennant speaks onstage during the ‘Call of Duty: WWII Nazi Zombies’ Panel at San Diego Convention Center on July 20, 2017 in San Diego, California
Joe Scarnici, Getty Images for Activision

The guy who became an actor because of Doctor Who—and then became The Tenth Doctor and married his favorite Doctor’s daughter, who played his cloned daughter in an episode of Doctor Who—was originally named David McDonald. He picked a stage name for the rather boring (and common) reason that there was already another actor named David McDonald in the union. Since Tennant started working at 16, he did the 1980s teen thing and named himself after Neil Tennant, the lead singer of the Pet Shop Boys.

17. Demi Moore

Actress Demi Moore attends the signing of her memoir "Inside Out" at Barnes & Noble Union Square on September 24, 2019 in New York City
Demi Moore at a book signing of her memoir, Inside Out, at Barnes & Noble Union Square.
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for ABA

Model Demi Gene Guynes changed her name when she married musician Freddy Moore at the age of 18 and held onto the name after their divorce a few years later, having used it for her role on General Hospital. There’s also some confusion about her first name, with some publications referring to her as Demitria despite Moore confirming that Demi is indeed her birth name. Of course, the more popular confusion about her first name can be cleared up like this: It’s pronounced Duh-Mee, not Dimmy.

18. Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton arrives at the 31st Santa Barbara International Film Festival in Santa Barbara, California.
Michael Keaton arrives at the 31st Santa Barbara International Film Festival in Santa Barbara, California.
Jennifer Lourie/Getty Images

Batman star Michael Keaton is an example of an actor who needed to change his name because there was already an actor in the Screen Actors Guild with his birth name. Since actors’ names are their trademarks, it’d be like someone named Coca-Cola wanting to join the Soda Union. When you know that Keaton’s birth name is Michael Douglas, you can probably imagine why he had to pick a new moniker. He thought about becoming Michael Jackson. Ultimately, he went with “Keaton” and not for any particular reason (though there is one pervasive rumor—more on that below). Yet to this day, he has never legally changed it; he still goes by Michael Douglas in real life.

19. Diane Keaton

Diane Keaton at the 2020 Writers Guild Awards West Coast Ceremony in Beverly Hills, California.
Diane Keaton at the 2020 Writers Guild Awards West Coast Ceremony in Beverly Hills, California.
Amy Sussman/Getty Images for WGAW

Ever since Michael Douglas changed his name to Michael Keaton, a rumor has floated around that he chose his now-famous name because of an attraction to Annie Hall actress and all-around titan Diane Keaton. Michael has dismissed the rumor, but not even Diane Keaton is actually a Keaton. The actress was born as Diane Hall; she chose her mother’s maiden name as her stage name. (And yes, the fact that she shares a surname with one of her most famous characters was very much intentional.)

20. Chevy Chase

Chevy Chase attends the premiere of The Last Movie Star in Hollywood, California.
Chevy Chase attends the premiere of The Last Movie Star in Hollywood, California.
Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

The former SNL star's nickname/stage name was given to him by his grandmother, who took it from the medieval English ballad "The Ballad of Chevy Chase." But Cornelius Crane Chase is named for his grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt Crane. It turns out that Chase's Community character’s father being named Cornelius was a nice inside joke.

21. Whoopi Goldberg

Whoopi Goldberg attends Netflix’s ‘Quincy’ New York Special Screening on September 12, 2018 in New York City
Brad Barket, Getty Images for Netflix

Whoopi. Funny name for a funny person (and a serious actress with an EGOT under her belt). She started life as Caryn Elaine Johnson, and her silly nickname-turned-stage name means exactly what you think it means. “I was a bit of a farter!” Goldberg admitted during an interview with Graham Norton. “The theaters I was performing in were very small, so if you were gassy you had to walk away farting, and people would say I was like a Whoopee cushion.”

22. Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers star in Carefree (1938).
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers star in Carefree (1938).
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With a natural gift for performance, Frederick Austerlitz became the most famous American dancer of the 20th century. Like Spike Lee, it was Fred Astaire's mother who changed his name: When the family pursued a vaudeville career for their two children, she dropped the last name and replaced it with Astaire when he was 18.

23. Ginger Rogers

Astaire’s dance partner didn’t go by her birth name either: Virginia Katherine McMath changed her name after winning a Charleston (the dance, not the city) competition in 1925 and heading on tour. Ginger comes from her first name, and Rogers is her stepfather’s last name. She initially toured as "Ginger and her Redheads."

24. Queen Latifah

Queen Latifah attends the 2020 NBA All-Star Game in Chicago, Illinois.
Queen Latifah attends the 2020 NBA All-Star Game in Chicago, Illinois.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

When Renaissance woman Queen Latifah released The Dana Owens Album in 2004, she was being true to her roots. Born Dana Elaine Owens in 1970, she changed her name when she was eight years old after finding Latifah (meaning delicate, sensitive, or kind) in a book of Arabic names at a time when others in her New Jersey neighborhood were switching to names with Arabic origins. When it came time to go pro, she added the “Queen” to evoke strength.

25. Jamie Foxx

Jamie Foxx attends a screening at Cinemark Baldwin Hills in Los Angeles, California
Jamie Foxx attends a screening at Cinemark Baldwin Hills in Los Angeles, California.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

When Eric Marlon Bishop was starting out in comedy, he felt that female comics were put up on stage first since there were fewer of them. Looking for a somewhat androgynous name to misdirect emcees picking which stand-up hit the stage next, he chose Jamie, and he landed on Foxx as an homage to comic legend Red Foxx.

26. Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur at a podium on stage.
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Two things that might surprise you about The Golden Girls star: One, she was in the Marine Corps. Two, she was born Bernice Frankel. She married another Marine, Robert Aurthur, after she was honorably discharged, and modified that new last name to act as her stage name.

27. Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga attends Lady Gaga Celebrates the Launch of Haus Laboratories at Barker Hangar on September 16, 2019 in Santa Monica, California
Lady Gaga attends the launch of Haus Laboratories in Santa Monica, California.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Haus Laboratories

It’s appropriately mysterious that there are conflicting accounts as to how Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta came by her stage name. The root of it stemmed from producer and then-boyfriend Rob Fusari comparing Germanotta’s sound to Queen’s "Radio Ga Ga." Fusari takes credit for the full name, saying his phone autocorrected “Radio” to “Lady” when he texted her one day. (He relayed this version of the story when he sued his ex back in 2010.) Gaga disputes that recollection, however; she says she liked how the stately elegance connoted by “Lady” offset and played with the craziness evoked by “Gaga.”

28. Jackie Chan

Actor Jackie Chan makes a public appearance
Kiyoshi Ota, Getty Images

Peerless as a modern martial arts star, Chan was born Chan Kong-sang in Hong Kong. He picked up "Jackie" while working in construction during college, where he worked with a man named Jack who thought highly enough of Chan to call him "Little Jack." More surprisingly, Chan’s mom called him Pao Pao ("Cannonball") as a baby, and it’s slightly disappointing that it didn’t became his stage name. Pao Pao Chan is an ideal martial arts movie star name. Jackie’s cool, too.

29. Portia De Rossi

Portia de Rossi attends the Nate and Jeremiah for Living Spaces Upholstery Collection Launch at Casita Hollywood on October 3, 2018 in Los Angeles, California
Portia de Rossi attends the Nate and Jeremiah for Living Spaces Upholstery Collection Launch in Los Angeles, California.
Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Living Spaces

Usually aspiring actors will change a name they find clunky to something almost blandly inoffensive. The opposite is the case for Amanda Lee Rogers, who legally changed her name at the age of 15 to the Shakespearean "Portia." "In retrospect, I think it was largely due to my struggle about being gay," de Rossi told The Advocate. "Everything just didn’t fit, and I was trying to find things I could identify myself with, and it started with my name."

30. Kirk Douglas

Some of the time you learn an actor’s real name, and it makes perfect sense why they wanted to make the change. Other times you learn that Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch and wonder why he abandoned the raw power of that name. He grew up extremely poor but was able to attend the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts on scholarship where one of his classmates was Betty Joan Perske (a.k.a. Lauren Bacall).

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