19 Iconic Movie and TV Characters That Were Based On Real People

Movies have this great way of making characters so vivid, they stick with us, often leaving us surprised to find out some of them were inspired by real people. It’s fascinating how filmmakers transform these real-life stories into on-screen magic. Here’s a rundown of 19 iconic movie characters and the real inspirations behind them.

Thomas Shelby from Peaky Blinders (2013)

Photo Credit: BBC

Thomas Shelby from Peaky Blinders wasn’t just a figment of someone’s imagination. He was inspired by an actual guy named Thomas Gilbert, who led the real Peaky Blinders gang back in the day. However, the real Thomas wasn’t quite the charismatic leader we see on screen; he was more about staying under the radar and constantly changing his name to avoid the law.

Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989)

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios

Ursula from The Little Mermaid is as iconic as villains come, and believe it or not, her character was inspired by the drag queen Divine. There’s a striking resemblance, from her theatrical makeup to her larger-than-life personality, making Ursula one unforgettable sea witch.

Olivia Pope from Scandal (2012)

Photo Credit: ABC

Strong, powerful females are no strangers to our screens, but Olivia Pope truly stands out. Known for her powerful outfits and strong negotiations, the character of Olivia Pope was inspired by Judy Smith, who served as George H.W. Bush’s press aid.

Zorro from Zorro (1998)

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing

Maybe there is a Robin Hood story on every continent? I particularly remember watching Zorro multiple times on TV, with the Mexican tune playing in the background. Zorro’s character was based on the Mexican Robin Hood, Joaquín Murrieta, a bandit who sought revenge after his family was killed unjustly.

Lucy from 50 First Dates (2004)

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures

One scene from 50 First Dates that lives rent-free in my head is Henry replaying clips for Lucy. Lucy’s character was based on Michelle Philpots, who was suffering from the same illness. Since her husband couldn’t take her out on dates, she had to settle for notes and wedding clips.

Pocahontas from Pocahontas (1995)

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios

It should be no news that Pocahontas is a real Native American character. She was based on the daughter of a Native American chief whose real name was Amonute, and she did indeed save an Englishman, John Smith, from being killed.

Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s main character, Sherlock Holmes, was inspired by his old medical professor, Dr. Joseph Bell. Dr. Bell was an unconventional teacher who would challenge students to bring out details from patients’ appearances and mannerisms.

Molly Brown from Titanic (1997)

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

Margaret Brown, aka Molly Brown, was an actual survivor from the real-life sunken ship. The human rights activist and socialite was one of the few survivors who wanted to return to the ship to rescue others.

Hazel Grace from The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

The Fault in Our Stars broke our hearts in every way. Unknown to many, Hazel Grace’s character was based on real-life YouTuber Esther Earl, who blogged about her life with cancer. Esther was friends with John Green, and her death at the age of 16 inspired the story.

Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976)

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures

Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver was inspired by real-life Arthur Bremer, who assassinated the presidential candidate George Wallace. Bremer had also attempted to assassinate former President Richard Nixon but got captured by the Secret Service.

Frank from Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Photo Credit: DreamWorks Pictures

Criminal turned consultant Frank Abagnale Jr. was the muse for Catch Me If You Can. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio, the real Frank Jr. posed as a doctor, lawyer, and pilot before the age of 19. After escaping police custody twice, he served five years in prison, and he’s now an FBI consultant.

Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008)

Photo Credit: Marvel Studios

Who does Tony Stark remind you of? Someone who is super rich, innovative, and is a philanthropist? Perhaps Elon Musk or Howard Hughes? You guessed right. The characters of Tony Stark were going for a Howard Hughes/Elon Musk vibe.

Hannibal from The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Photo Credit: Orion Pictures

Disturbing as it sounds, the character of Hannibal Lecter was based on the life of Alfredo Balli Trevino, a Mexican surgeon and murderer. Alfredo was known for killing his victims and dismembering them. There are also claims that he ate his victims. Truly spooky!

Tony Soprano from The Sopranos (1999)

Photo Credit: HBO

The character of Tony Soprano portrayed the domesticated life of mob bosses, but the original mobsters did not live a simple life. Richie Boiardo and Vincent “Vinny Ocean ” Palermo were as criminal and wild as it gets.

Ghost Face from Scream (1996)

Photo Credit: Dimension Films

The gripping character Ghost Face was based on the Gainesville Ripper. Daniel Harold Rolling was a serial killer who murdered five students in Gainesville, Florida, over four days in 1990. He also confessed to assaulting several of his victims.

Auric Goldfinger from Goldfinger (1964)

Photo Credit: United Artists

Auric Goldfinger from the James Bond film Goldfinger was inspired by the character of Charles W. Engelhard Jr., who ran metal and mining businesses. However, Engelhard Jr. was not a villain. Rather, he was a philanthropist who made numerous donations to various organizations.

Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Photo Credit: Vortex

One would wish all these horror characters remained fictional, but they are not. Leatherface, who found glee in cutting up victims using a chainsaw, was based on Wisconsin killer Ed Gein. Unlike Leatherface, Ed did not actually use a chainsaw with his victims.

Rocky from Rocky (1976)

Photo Credit: United Artists

Rocky was based on a real-world boxer. The Sylvester Stallone film was inspired by Chuck Wepner. He was an alcohol salesman and a boxer who fought Muhammad Ali, as opposed to the film’s Apollo Creed, for the World Champion.

Severus Snape from Harry Potter (2001)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros

Who says you cannot make a character out of your professor? That’s exactly what J.K. Rowling did. Severus Snape was based on her secondary school chemistry teacher John Nettleship, who was “a short-tempered chemistry teacher with long hair” and was as bright as he was unforgiving.

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Image Credit: Warner Bros

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Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

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