What’s in a name? If you’re one of the ten men below, then a hell of a lot. Box-office success, platinum records, worldwide superstardom — you name it. And all because they shifted some vowels, twisted some consonants, and turned their names into their brands.
But, from Michael Caine to Ralph Lauren, there’s a story behind every one of these new names. Some switched up their monikers to make an impression. Others jettisoned established family names because of the painful memories they held. There are even a handful of men who had new names thrust upon them. Read on for ten of the most famous men who became someone new…
Sir Michael Caine was born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite Jr.
Born in 1933 in Rotherhithe, Michael Caine has changed his name several times. During his early career, he worked the Sussex theatre scene under the names ‘Michael White’ and ‘Michael Scott’. But, upon moving to London, he needed a more distinctive, unique name. He chose Michael Caine.
The decision was made during a call to his agent — from a telephone box outside an Odeon cinema. Caine was instructed to make the change and, peering outside at a poster for Humphrey Bogart naval drama The Caine Mutiny, he made the spur-of-the-moment decision to adopt the USS Caine’s name for himself.
Cary Grant was born Archibald Alec Leach
‘Leach’ was never going to work, was it? And the big-shot Hollywood producers knew it. When Cary Grant first began attracting the attention of studios including Paramount, executives soon took aim at his very ‘British’ name. And, before he starred in his first film — 1932 comedy This Is the Night — ‘Archie’ Leach had transformed into Cary Grant.
His new name was inspired by ‘Cary Lockwood’, Grant’s character in Broadway play Nikki. But Paramount producer B. P. Schulberg wanted “something that sounded more all-American; like Gary Cooper”. He handed the actor a list of surnames pre-approved by the Paramount publicity department — and the actor chose ‘Grant’.
Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman
The Nobel Prize-winning singer-songwriter has also changed his name several times. After growing up in Minnesota, in a close-knit Jewish community, Dylan began performing covers of Elvis Presley songs at his high school. This gained the attention of teen idol Bobby Vee, with whom Dylan performed under the name ‘Elston Gunnn’.
‘Dylan’ came later, when the singer-songwriter began performing on his local folk music circuit. He toyed with spelling his surname ‘Dillon’ — but, upon discovering the works of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, decided to settle on the rarer spelling of the name in the US. “You call yourself what you want to call yourself,” he later said matter-of-factly in a 2004 interview.
Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Lipschitz
Born in The Bronx to to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, Ralph Lauren changed his name relatively early on in life. Enduring bullying and teasing at school, he dropped the unfortunate-sounding ‘Lipschitz’ and began to use ‘Lauren’ in 1955, aged just 16. Another of his long-suffering brothers did the same.
So why ‘Lauren’? In an interview with Oprah, the fashion designer revealed he had “cousins who lived in California had changed their last name to Lawrence. So I just thought, “I’m going to pick a nice last name”—it wasn’t particularly connected to anything or anyone. It had to do with not wanting to be at a detriment for no reason in a world that makes fun of things.”
Dean Martin was born Dino Crocetti
Born to an Italian barber in Ohio, Dean Martin didn’t speak English until his was five-years-old. He began playing music in school, boxed under the name ‘Kid Crochet’ and had jobs including croupier, steel mill worker, blackjack dealer and (somewhat less reputably) bootlegger.
In his early twenties, Dino began singing with local bands — which led to his being discovered by the Ernie McKay Orchestra. During this time, he began calling himself ‘Dino Martini’; a thinly-veiled parody of Metropolitan Opera tenor Nino Martini. The vowels dropped over time, and Dean Martin was born.
Tom Cruise was born Thomas Cruise Mapother IV
Not so much a name-change as a severe name-shortening, Tom Cruise was born to an electrical engineer and a special education teacher in 1962. His father, the actor has since shared, was “a merchant of chaos” who would belittle and bully his children — and Cruise decided to distance himself from his abuse by dropping the name ‘Mapother’ when his career took off.
Allegedly, in private, Cruise still goes by his full birth name — and his cousin, Lost actor William Mapother, has maintained the family name.
Sir Ben Kingsley was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji
Born in Yorkshire in 1943, Sir Ben began life named Krishna Pandit Bhanji. His father, a doctor, was of Gujarati Indian descent, and his mother was an English actress. He inherited his mother’s passion for acting and kickstarted his career on the Manchester amateur dramatics scene.
His name change, however, was a sad result of British prejudice. The actor feared that having an Indian name would hinder his chances of being cast in productions; thus he changed it to ‘Ben Kingsley’. The new surname derived from his spice trader grandfather’s nickname, ‘King Clove’. “As soon as I changed my name,” Kingsley told the Radio Times, “I got the jobs”.
Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch
Kirk Douglas took a little time to settle on his name. Born to immigrants from the then-Russian Empire, his family dropped the surname ‘Danielovitch’ soon after his birth — instead using the name adopted by the wider Danielovitch clan, ‘Demsky’.
Douglas was known as ‘Izzy Demsky’ throughout his entire childhood, during which he developed a flair for performing. Before enrolling in the United States Navy for World War II, he changed his name to Kirk Douglas because, as with Sir Ben Kingsley above, he feared his real name would hold him back. According to the actor, ‘Issur Danielovitch ‘ was “too unwieldy and too Semitic”.
Rock Hudson was born Leroy Harold Scherer Jr.
Iconic Golden Age actor Rock Hudson began life with an altogether less-catchy name. Born in Illinois to a telephone operator and a mechanic, ‘Leroy Harold Scherer Jr.’ graduated in 1943 and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting.
And his name was changed for him. Talent scout Henry Willson approached Hudson in 1947 and, in the vein of other clients including Tab Hunter and Chad Everett, shortened and simplified Scherer Jr’s name. ‘Rock’ was taken from the Rock of Gibraltar; ‘Hudson’ from the Hudson River. Later in life, the actor admitted that he hated the change.
Charlton Heston was born John Charles Carter
Like Hudson above, Heston was born in Illinois. And, like his fellow actor, his name-change appears to be a decision made without his consultation. The 1930 United States Census shows that, at just six-years-old, he was already being called ‘Charlton J. Carter’. ‘Charlton’ was his maternal grandmother’s maiden name.
‘Heston’ was a simpler change. The actor’s parents divorced in 1933, and his mother moved the future actor and his siblings back to Illinois, marrying a man named Chester Heston. Thus, ‘Charlton Heston’ was born — although his lifelong nickname was ‘Chuck’.
Want more tales from the past? Here are history’s most incredible military leaders, and the business lessons they can teach us…
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