The Real-Life Inspirations Behind 8 Cartoon Characters
You might think that your favorite cartoon characters began life as a quick sketch guided by an artistic mind, but the truth is that many of the animated characters we see on TV and on the big screen have some basis in reality. Whether they're based on an everyday person, a popular actor or actress, or a live-action character from another TV show, the cartoons we grew up with owe just as much to flesh and blood as they do to pencil and paper. Here is just a sampling of the real-world inspirations behind some of your favorite cartoon characters.
1. YOGI BEAR // ART CARNEY
There's not a whole lot of real-life inspiration you can use for a bipedal talking bear in a hat and tie, but there's a bit of sitcom royalty in Yogi Bear. His voice and mannerisms were taken, in part, from Art Carney—more specifically, Carney's The Honeymooners character, Ed Norton. It's common knowledge that The Flintstones was based on the classic sitcom, with Barney Rubble playing the Norton role, but Hanna-Barbera also used him as the foundation for Yogi.
Hanna-Barbera was well-known for using popular actors and actresses of the day as the foundation of their own characters. In addition to The Flintstones and Yogi Bear, Snagglepuss is little more than Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion, and Jabberjaw doesn't even try to hide the fact that he's a rip-off of Curly from The Three Stooges.
2. POPEYE // FRANK "ROCKY" FIEGEL
According to local legend, Popeye creator E. C. Segar based the iconic sailor man on a hometown staple: Frank "Rocky" Fiegel. In Segar's hometown of Chester, Illinois, Fiegel was known to pretty much everyone as a bruising fighter who once tangled with five locals at once, emerging victorious even without the aid of a can of spinach.
In the earliest Popeye comics, the Fiegel inspiration is clear, with their bald heads and affinity for pipes being nearly identical to each other. The character reached even greater acclaim when he was adapted by Fleischer Studios into a cartoon series that helped the animation revolution of the '30s and '40s. The story of a local tough guy inspiring one of the great cartoon characters of the 20th century is so embraced by the town that Fiegel's tombstone in Chester even has an image of Popeye on it.
3. ALADDIN // TOM CRUISE
When the design for Aladdin was originally cemented, he was supposed to exude a boyish charm, similar to Michael J. Fox. However, during production, this mindset was changed and the team at Disney decided to go for the more mature look of a matinee idol. Their inspiration? Tom Cruise. However, because this was a late change, there are moments when the younger Aladdin design is still visible.
Disney lore also suggests that Princess Jasmine's appearance was partially based on actress Jennifer Connelly. Though that rumor has never been outright confirmed, there is another major Disney character who was ripped right from real life and put on the screen...
4. URSULA // DIVINE
If you know anything about Divine's filmography, there's certainly not much about his work that screams "Disney." Despite building a career off the risqué comedies of director John Waters, Divine wound up in the Disney family as the inspiration behind Ursula, the main villain from 1989's The Little Mermaid.
The bright red lipstick, arched eyebrows, and shock of white hair are all taken from Divine's own larger-than-life persona. Ursula went on to become one of the studio's most memorable villains, but while Divine was aware of the character, he would pass away before The Little Mermaid hit theaters. There's little doubt he would have been the perfect choice to bring the villainous sea witch to life.
5. CHUCKIE FINSTER // MARK MOTHERSBAUGH
It's probably surprising enough to find out that Mark Mothersbaugh—co-founder of Devo—actually provided the music for Rugrats, but did you know that the eccentric musician also inspired the design of Chuckie Finster? Just take a look: the wavy, unpredictable hair, the thick-rimmed glasses—it's all there. Mothersbaugh even confirmed in an interview that Chuckie “gained some of his characteristics from observations of me."
Still, Chuckie isn't the only NickToon to have his roots in the real world: Rocko was pitched to Nickelodeon as an anthropomorphized wallaby that was basically Woody Allen, and Ren and Stimpy's voices were modeled after Peter Lorre and Larry Fine, respectively.
6. HARLEY QUINN // ARLEEN SORKIN
It's not often that the real-life inspiration behind a cartoon character goes on to voice the actual character, but then again, nothing about Harley Quinn is what you would consider normal. Originally created for a one-off appearance on Batman: The Animated Series, Quinn was the brainchild of writer Paul Dini. He got the idea for the character from actress Arleen Sorkin's strange appearance in a fantasy sequence on Days of Our Lives, where she played a court jester on roller skates.
Dini and Sorkin are real-life friends, and he brought her on board to provide the voice for Harley after it clicked to model the Joker's main henchwoman after this nightmarish clown on skates. Sorkin's distinct voice work helped Harley Quinn go from an afterthought on Batman: The Animated Series into a comic book icon and movie star. And it's all weirdly thanks to Days of Our Lives.
7. MOE SZYSLAK // AL PACINO
There are numerous rumored inspirations behind Springfield's surly bartender, Moe Szyslak, but before the character was fully fleshed out, actor Hank Azaria first had to find a voice. Azaria, being the world-class impressionist that he is, went to one of his favorites: Al Pacino. But not just any Pacino would do—this was specifically Dog Day Afternoon-era Pacino. Though the voice has lost that distinct Pacino vibe as the show has progressed, in the early days it's impossible not to hear.
It's also been rumored that the character's most memorable running joke has its roots in an actual bar in Jersey City, New Jersey. That was the site of the Tube Bar prank calls—a series of pranks perpetrated by John Elmo and Jim Davidson. Similar to the pranks Bart would pull on Moe during the show's early years, the duo would call the bar, where owner—and former boxer—Louis “Red” Deutsch would answer. The pranksters would then ask for the whereabouts of nonexistent customers, like Al Kaholic and Ben Dover, oftentimes concluding with Deutsch unleashing an obscenity-laced tirade at the two before hanging up.
Though Matt Groening is a known fan of the Tube Bar pranks, no one from the show's production has ever come out to confirm that the pranks served as the show's inspiration.
8. ROGER SMITH // PAUL LYNDE
Anyone who was alive during the '70s, or just has a love for old Hollywood game shows, should instantly recognize the distinct voice and sharp tongue of American Dad's Roger Smith. The character, who is basically a sociopathic, alcoholic alien who lives in an attic, was modeled off of one of television's most memorable comedians and roasters, Paul Lynde.
Remembered for being the center square on Hollywood Squares—as well as roles in Bye Bye Birdie (1963) and Bewitched—Lynde was always known for his piercing wit. American Dad co-creator Seth MacFarlane didn't just use Lynde's voice as a springboard to Roger; he used Lynde's entire aura, from his onscreen persona to his personal life. MacFarlane isn't shy about the origin of Roger, either, because, well, it's not exactly subtle.