The Real Names of 30 Famous Actors
By Scott Beggs
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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. 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).