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Pat Gallagher

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What's In A Name? Ask Old Hollywood

Posted: 10/11/2012 8:28 am

Back in the day, when the major studios ruled Hollywood, they told their stars what pictures to make, how to dress, who to date and kept unplanned pregnancies by unwed actresses hush-hush.

The same thing happened with names: In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, dozens of big-name actors and actresses changed their birth names, with two of the most notable being Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter. Having the "right" name could mean the difference between superstardom and going back home to work in a meat-packing plant or as a cashier in the local grocery store.

While New Hollywood has taken their cues from their predecessors (a few examples: Natalie Hershlag became Natalie Portman; Margaret Mary Emily Hyra is known as Meg Ryan; Sean John Combs aka P. Diddy, and Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta is, of course, superstar Lady Gaga), the "old Hollywood" icons started the trend. Here are a few Hollywood stars who changed their names for all the right reasons. And as the saying goes in Hollywood: Good career move.

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  • Fred Astaire

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Astaire" target="_hplink">Frederick Austerlitz</a>, arguably one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century, changed his last name to Astaire after his mother suggested that Austerlitz "sounded as though it could be the name of a battle." (Ginger Rogers, who was his romantic interest and dancing partner in a series of 10 Hollywood musical films, dutifully changed her name from <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginger_Rogers" target="_hplink">Virginia Katherine McMath</a> after her mother married her step-father, John Logan Rogers).

  • Rodney Dangerfield

    When <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodney_Dangerfield" target="_hplink">Jacob Cohen</a> spewed out the words "I don't get no respect," did people even pay attention? The hilarious "loser" comedian first began his stand-up career as Jack Roy and joked: "I played one club...it was so far out, my act was reviewed in <em>Field & Stream</em>." Looking for a gimmick that would work, Jacob Cohen picked the name Rodney Dangerfield from "a faux cowboy star by Jack Benny on his radio program who received little or no respect from the outside world."

  • Mike Nichols

    If <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Nichols" target="_hplink">Michael Igor Peschkowsky</a> hadn't changed his name to Mike Nichols, his 1950s comedy act with Elaine May would have been Peschkowsky and May, which <em>may</em> not have worked (sorry, that's all I got). His father changed his name to Paul Nichols, so it seems logical that little Mike would follow suit.

  • Jayne Mansfield

    Mariska Hargitay's mother, <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jayne_Mansfield" target="_hplink">Vera Jayne Palmer</a>, was a Hollywood sex symbol in the 1950s and 60s. There was not a lot of head scratching going on to come up with her stage name -- afer her first marriage to Paul Mansfield, she dropped Vera and became Jayne.

  • Sophia Loren

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophia_Loren" target="_hplink">Sofia Villani Scicolone</a> is an Italian actress. No, really. We're guessing the long Italian name didn't cut the mustard in the big picture (no pun intended); Sofia first changed her name to Sofia Lazzaro but eventually settled on Sophia Loren in 1952.

  • Charlton Heston

    The man best known for his roles in "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur" was born <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlton_Heston" target="_hplink">John Charles Carter</a>. He changed his surname to Heston after his mother remarried following her divorce from his dad. Charlton was his mother's last name.

  • Mickey Rooney

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mickey_Rooney" target="_hplink">Joseph Yule, Jr.</a> has made films for 10 decades, becoming a superstar as a teenager. Before changing his name to Mickey Rooney, young Joseph was known as "Mickey McGuire." After a lawsuit prevented him from using that name, the youngster's mother suggested Mickey "Looney." They settled on "Rooney." Mickey Looney? Seriously? Things really do happen for the best.

  • Lauren Bacall

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lauren_Bacall" target="_hplink">Betty Joan Perske</a> made her acting debut as Betty Bacall at the age of 17. Film director and producer Howard Hawks changed Betty's first name to Lauren after signing the young actress to a seven-year personal contract. Lauren Bacall was born, and her acting career took off like a bullet, acting in three films with veteran actor Humphrey Bogart. She later changed her name once again to... Mrs. Humphrey Bogart.

  • Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis

    Dino Paul Crocetti teamed up with Jerome Levitch to form the world-famous comedy team of Crocetti and Levitch. I think not. <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dean_Martin" target="_hplink">Dean Martin</a> and <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Lewis" target="_hplink">Jerry Lewis</a> made big strides in their careers after changing their names and becoming partners in the 1940s and early 50s, creating one of the most successful comedy teams of all time. The duo eventually went their separate ways, but their names remained up in lights on movie and Vegas marquees for decades after their split as solo acts.

  • Natalie Wood

    With a Russian name like <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natalie_Wood" target="_hplink">Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko</a>, it was only a matter of time before this future, beautiful leading lady would have to find a name that would click with American audiences. Pictured here with actor Warren Beatty, the "Rebel Without a Cause" and "West Side Story" actress accepted the name Natalie Wood (a name she reportedly never liked) after her bosses at RKO Radio Pictures changed her name before she turned eight years old.

  • Cary Grant

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cary_Grant " target="_hplink">Archibald Alexander Leach</a> morphed into the handsome, debonair actor Cary Grant who is considered one of "Hollywood's all-time definitive leading men." He appeared on Broadway under the name Archie Leach, but after signing with Paramount Pictures, the studio bosses insisted he change his name. They allowed "Cary," he picked "Grant," and the rest, as they say, is history.

  • Troy Donahue

    Drop-dead-gorgeous actor <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troy_Donahue" target="_hplink">Merle Johnson, Jr.</a>, became Troy Donahue (swoon!) by the time he made the movie "A Summer Place" with Sandra Dee in 1959, later making waves on the hit TV series "Surfside 6" and "Hawaiian Eye." As irony would have it, Donahue would later play a character named <a href="http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0041338/">Merle Johnson</a> -- Connie Corleone's fiancé -- in "The Godfather Part II."

  • Jack Benny

    Comedian <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Benny" target="_hplink">Benjamin Kubelsky</a> may have been a penny-pinching miser all his life (not!), but it was "Jack Benny" who got the tightwad reputation. In a skit, Mr. Benny was approached by a mugger who said, "Your money or your life!" He paused for several seconds... and finally replied, "I'm thinking it over!" It obviously didn't take much thought for Kubelsky (sounds so wrong) to give himself the proper stage name, which propelled his career straight to the top.

  • Lana Turner

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lana_Turner" target="_hplink">Julia Jean Turner</a> became "Lana Turner" when she decided to pursue a career in film. This "Imitation of Life" actress, who, legend has it, was discovered at a Hollywood drug store, changed her first name after being signed to a contract in 1937 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for $100 a week.

  • Rock Hudson

    This hunky romantic leading man began life as <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_Hudson" target="_hplink">Roy Harold Scherer, Jr.</a>. He later took his stepfather's surname and was known as Roy Fitzgerald, but changed his name to Rock Hudson when he began his acting career. It worked oh so well.

  • Doris Day

    Born <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doris_Day" target="_hplink">Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff</a>, this very popular "girl-next-door" singer and actress definitely made the right career move with this name change. "Pillow Talk" starring Rock Hudson and Doris Kappelhoff just doesn't have the same ring to it.

  • Kirk Douglas

    This "golden age" actor's birth certificate may still say <a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000018/bio" target="_hplink">Issur Danielovitch Demsky</a>, but we will always know him as the indomitable Kirk Douglas.

  • Sandra Dee

    "Look at me, I'm <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandra_Dee" target="_hplink">Alexandra Zuck</a>." Nope, just doesn't work. Sandra Dee is the perfect name for this popular "Gidget" actress who was later immortalized in the movie "Grease." "Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee." Ah, so much better! (And now that song is stuck in my head for the rest of the day.)

  • Tab Hunter

    Born <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tab_Hunter" target="_hplink">Arthur Andrew Kelm</a>, this former teen idol and boy-next-door movie star was given his stage name by his first agent, Henry Willson. Sooooo handsome, and the name was not really too cheesy for the man who owned it. The name had "movie star" written all over it.

  • Don Adams

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Adams" target="_hplink">Donald James Yarmy</a> is best known for his role as Maxwell Smart (aka Agent 86) on the popular television sitcom "Get Smart." His most popular catch phrase "Missed it by 'that much!'" may have never been spoken by this actor if he hadn't changed his name to -- "Would you believe?" -- Don Adams.

  • Boris Karloff

    In what seems like a backwards move, <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Karloff" target="_hplink">William Henry Pratt</a> became Boris Karloff, which could not have been more perfect for a guy who made "Frankenstein" a household name. Karloff didn't sing the "Monster Mash," but he was the narrator of Dr. Seuss's animated television special "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" -- loved his rich "monster" voice.

  • Danny Thomas

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danny_Thomas" target="_hplink">Amos Alphonsus Muzyad Yakhoob</a> was a wise man. He changed his name to Danny Thomas, which looked much better, quite frankly, in the title of his television show: "The Danny Thomas Show." Can't quite picture "The Amos Alphonsus Muzyad Yakhoob Show," and we're pretty sure Marlo feels good about the name change.

  • Nat King Cole

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nat_King_Cole" target="_hplink">Nathaniel Adams Coles</a> would have been one of the best romantic singers of any generation even if he hadn't adopted the name Nat King Cole. His stage name captured the essence of his musical aura and his phenomenal poetic voice.

  • Judy Garland

    Somewhere over the rainbow, someone had the good sense to change <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judy_Garland" target="_hplink">Frances Ethel Gumm</a>'s name to Judy Garland. Maybe it was the great Wizard of Oz who stepped in to get the stage name just right, but no matter who did, it was definitely a name made in Hollywood (or Kansas).

  • Bobby Darin

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Darin" target="_hplink">Walden Robert Cassotto</a> sang one of my favorite songs of all time: "Mack the Knife." And, he married one of the most popular movie stars of their time: Alexandra Zuck. Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee were their aliases' and that's all we had to know. On the popularity chart, they were the Jolie-Pitt couple of their day (minus five kids). We loved them then... and we miss them now!

  • Marilyn Monroe

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Monroe" target="_hplink">Norma Jeane Baker</a> is almost as famous as Marilyn Monroe thanks to Elton John's hit song "Goodbye Norma Jeane." Marilyn's fame has not diminished since the day she died. When you look up the word "legend" in the dictionary you'll see the name "Marilyn Monroe" in big bold letters.

  • Jack Palance

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Palance" target="_hplink">Volodymyr Palahniukv.</a> Whoa! Now that name change is a no-brainer when it comes to the bright lights of Hollywood. Try getting that autograph if he had stuck with his birth name! The name Jack Palance just rolls off the tongue and fits on the movie marquee so much better.

 

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