10 Best Movies & TV Characters You Didn’t Know Were Based On Real People

Split image showing scenes from The Wire and Fast & Furious

For biographical projects such as The Imitation Game and Welcome to Chippendales, it’s well known that the stories are about people who existed. Sometimes the subjects even serve as executive producers on the projects. However, there are a couple of other movies and TV shows that fans are unaware are based on actual historical figures.

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Rather than give a direct account of the lives of these individuals, the screen projects take a fictional approach, including events that are primarily the imagination of the screenwriters than a reflection of the past. The names of the actual figures are also changed, ensuring no unnecessary comparisons are made.



10 Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Character: Leatherface

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Texas Chainsaw Massacre is considered one of the scariest horror movies, and that’s all thanks to the villain, Leatherface, who finds glee in cutting up victims using a chainsaw. The cannibal is regarded as the first among a long list of slasher villains that simply preferred maiming to talking.

Interestingly, Leatherface isn’t an entirely unique creation. Directors Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper drew inspiration from the Wisconsin killer, Ed Gein (via Biography). Judging the real-life character and the movie character, the fiction always pales compared to the reality of the situation, especially when real lives are at stake. Still, it was a nice touch giving Leatherface a chainsaw – something Ed Gein did not use.

9 Scandal (2012 – 2018)

Character: Olivia Pope

<!–[if IE 9]> <![endif]–>Olivia Pope walking through security to go to the Whitehouse - Scandal

From Annalise Keating to Meredith Grey, Shonda Rhimes has created a long list of powerful and enterprising female characters over the years. However, Scandal’s Olivia Pope always stands out in how she maneuvers the corridors of power and influences national politics.

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While scenes of Oliva cavorting with the President and approving plans to rig elections are all fictional, the character is partly influenced by Judy Smith, who served as George H.W. Bush’s press aid (via ABC News). Like Olivia, Smith also had a crisis management company named Smith & Company.

8 Silence Of The Lambs (1991)

Character: Hannibal Lecter

<!–[if IE 9]> <![endif]–>Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs.

Thanks to Hannibal Lecter, Silence Of Lambs is remembered as one of the movies where the supporting character steals the show. Through his creative choice of words and scary voice, the villain keeps intimidating the protagonist to the point where her mental health becomes affected,

The manipulative cannibal is based on the prisoner William Coyne, who escaped from a penitentiary in the ‘90s and went on a killing spree (via Telegraph). The two individuals share a lot in common, including the fact that they were both hunted down for a while, but the movie character is way more intriguing, thanks to his iconic mask and nonchalance, which makes him appear menacing at all times.

7 Vikings (2013 – 2020)

Characters: Ragnar Lothbrok & Sons

<!–[if IE 9]> <![endif]–>Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok on Vikings

Vikings is wildly entertaining, but it’s also one of the most inaccurate historical dramas, so much so that many have assumed it to be fiction. The creative liberties start with the protagonist, Ragnar Lothbrok, rather than Ragnar Lodbrok, like the Old Norse king that inspired the show. In addition to that, Lodbrok had a wife named Thora Borgarhjort, who doesn’t appear in the series.

Besides that, many of the achievements attributed to Ragnar in the series were accomplished by other historical figures. For example, the Siege of Paris, which defines Ragnar’s fate in the show, was led by Reginherus in real-life. However, Ragnar’s sons, such as Ivar and Bjorn, are taken right out of the history books and are more accurately written.

6 Citizen Kane (1941)

Character: Charles Forster Kane

<!–[if IE 9]> <![endif]–>An image of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane

Widely regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made, Citizen Kane has plenty of surprise ingredients, from themes of anti-fascism and capitalism to words with mysterious meanings. Additionally, the cinematography looks incredibly good, given the time the period the movie was released.

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Charles Foster Kane —the central figure who the story revolves around —is a fictional version of the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst (via The Guardian). Overall, there are multiple parallels between the two characters, down to the little details. For instance, Kane once attempted to turn his second wife into an opera star, something Hearst also tried with his mistress, Marion Davies.

5 The Sopranos (Tony Soprano)

Character: Tony Soprano

<!–[if IE 9]> <![endif]–>Tony Soprano speaks to Carmela in Kaisha (The Sopranos)

Before Tony Soprano, mob bosses had been portrayed as fedora-loving characters everyone knew and feared. The DiMeo crime family boss, on the other hand, maintained a simple life, lived in an ordinary neighborhood, and avoided both jail time and assassination, at least on screen.

The same cannot be said of the two New Jersey mobsters who inspired the character (via New York Post). Genovese crime family member Richie Boiardo was convicted on gambling-related charges, while DeCavalcante crime family Vincent “Vinny Ocean” Palermo became a turncoat and ended up as a state witness. Furthermore, just as Tony owned the Bad Bing! Strip club, Vinny Ocean also owned Wiggles.

4 The Fast & The Furious (2001 – Present)

Character: Dominic Toretto

<!–[if IE 9]> <![endif]–>The Fast & The Furious Series Film 4

Fast & Furious has become one of the highest-grossing movie franchises of all time, but that might not have been possible if the first movie had been made as a biopic instead of a fictional street race tale. In the late ‘90s, a studio decided to make the movie after an article about a street racer named Rafael Estevez was published (via Autoweek).

As good as Estevez’s story was, it’s simply about racing and automotive engineering with no crime elements. Dominic Toretto was thus born as a version of Estevez, who also doubled as a heist planner. This turned out to be one of the best decisions ever made, and today, Toretto remains one of the world’s most popular movie characters.

3 Peaky Blinders (2013 – 2022)

Character: Tommy Shelby

<!–[if IE 9]> <![endif]–>Tommy assassinates Michael in season 6 of Peaky Blinders

There is little to no love about the Peaky Blinders protagonist, Tommy Shelby. He dresses well, manages his crime outfit with intelligence rather than an iron fist, and is always looking to get to the next level as a person. That’s the reason he ends up becoming the Member of Parliament for Birmingham later in the series.

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All factors considered, the character is a significant improvement from the real-life gangster he is based on. Thomas Gilbert also ran a real-life gang known as the Peaky Blinders, but it was never as big as the organization depicted on the show (via Many of Many). Additionally, Gilbert was never a man at peace. He spent his life on the run and changed his name many times.

2 Goldfinger (1964)

Character: Auric Goldfinger

<!–[if IE 9]> <![endif]–>Auric Goldfinger from James Bond film, Goldfinger

In Goldfinger, James Bond is arguably outshone by the ruthless and ambitious bullion dealer, Auric Goldfinger, who aims to contaminate the US Gold Depository at Fort Knox so that he can have monotony. He has a string of incredible one-liners and is shown to have able lieutenants by his side, specifically Oddjob.

Elements of the character were taken from Charles W. Engelhard Jr., who ran a metal and mining conglomerate (via Time). He also had plenty of horse stables. However, Engelhard Jr. was never to be villainous. Contrary to that, he was a philanthropist who made numerous donations to various organizations.

1 The Wire (2002 – 2008)

Various Characters

<!–[if IE 9]> <![endif]–>Idris Elba as Stringer Bell in the Wire

The Wire is another TV show that plucked elements of its characters from real-life figures. For example, Stringer Bell’s name is an amalgamation of real-life Baltimore drug traffickers Roland Bell and Stringer Reed (via The Guardian). Additionally, Stringer’s focus on both legitimate businesses and drug distribution resembles that of businessman Kenneth A. “Kenny” Jackson.

Several other hoodlums on the show have links to real-life figures. Omar Little’s life closely resembles that of Donnie Andrews, while Avon Barksdale is based on Melvin Williams. Overall, the HBO series does a great job of fleshing out these characters and making them more fascinating than their real-world counterparts.

NEXT: The 10 Most Disappointing Biopics, Ranked


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