The narrative we’re usually fed is that people achieve fame and fortune through passionately pursuing the future of their dreams. That might be true in the majority of cases. But the world of celebrities is filled with eccentrics and oddly-charmed people, so perhaps in some way it makes sense that the people who go farthest in their fields of choice didn’t get there in the predictable way. Still, even allowing for all that, these stories are enough to leave a fan gobsmacked.
10. Vin Diesel
Today he’s best known for starring in intense films such as the Fast and Furious and xXx films. The beginning of his acting career, by contrast, was so whimsical that it sounds like something straight out of the cheesiest kind of kid’s movie. In 1974, when he was just seven-years-old, he had a gang of friends that were delinquent enough that they broke into the New City Theater, a newly opened Off-Broadway theater. Before they could get started with their intended vandalism, they were caught by one of the production managers.
Instead of taking the obvious course of action and disciplining the youngsters, she offered them acting jobs in one of their upcoming productions for twenty dollars and the condition they show up again at the scheduled time. Since this lead to the beginning of Vin Diesel’s wildly successful career and New City Theater went on to become the most significant of the Off-Broadway area, it follows that this benevolent act did not result in every kid in the neighborhood converging on the New City to vandalize some part of it in exchange for some easy cash as soon as Vin Diesel and company told their friends and family.
9. Mike Tyson
After it became public information that Mike Tyson had gone bankrupt, one of the things cited as an extravagance that lost him his fortune was his large collection of pet pigeons. Since many people with an opinion about pigeons think of them as rats with wings, it seemed like a perfect example of how money makes formerly sane people go crazy by indulging their impulses. But the truth was that pigeons hadn’t just been important to him for years; in a sense, one of them drove him the boxer who became so famous.
In 1976, when he was only 10-years-old, Tyson was living with a single mother in Brooklyn. Despite growing up in one of the toughest times when crime in NYC was especially high since the city was bankrupt with a particularly corrupt police force, Tyson developed a fondness for neighborhood pigeons known as “tippler.” This was used against him in a particularly cruel way when one of the older neighborhood kids got his hands on one and ripped its head off in front of Tyson. Since the animal was described by the future world champion as “the first thing I ever loved” Tyson threw the first punches of his life for that, and it set him on the road to boxing. He’s still not particularly comfortable discussing his love of the animals, saying in a 2011 interview that he feels “ridiculous for saying this.”
8. Bob Hoskins
Whether you remember Hoskins best for starring in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or colorful supporting roles in any number of movies such as Hook or Enemy at the Gates, even by the standards of actors who make it big it was all only by a turn of weird luck that his career happened at all. In the late 1960s, Hoskins was an assistant accountant at his father’s business, and he wanted to be an actor. For awhile the only role he could land was a in a performance in Romeo & Juliet where he didn’t make enough of an impression to be mentioned in any of the reviews (the fact it was a community theater performance was couldn’t have helped).
In 1969 he accompanied his friend Robert Frost (no, not that one) to an audition/drink, with Hoskins intending only to drink. After a few drinks, while Frost was away, the casting director for The Feather Pluckers mistook Hoskins for his friend and asked for him to come to the stage. Since the booze had loosened his nerves and taken away his inhibitions, he gave a natural, if intense, audition and landed the role that would launch him in theater. Frost wasn’t completely cheated by the happenstance: He got to be his friend’s understudy.
7. Vince Gilligan
Before creating the pop culture phenomenon Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan had been a writer for The X-Files (a job he’d landed with a spec script) and a script polisher for Hancock. What set him on the road to creating one of the shows that really captured the popular imagination wasn’t researching the gradual rise of the meth epidemic or any story about how teachers were being less and less appreciated.
In 2005, Gilligan was chatting over the phone with an old friend named Thomas Schnauz about how hard it had been to find work in the three years after X-Files had ended. Schnauz joked that they should look into other careers, such as being Walmart greeters or meth cooks working out of an RV. That mental image from a throwaway joke would stick with Gilligan for years, the heart of the show which would make Gilligan a household name.
6. Edward Furlong
While Bob Hoskins lucked out at the beginning of his career, he was at least actively seeking a film career. Edward Furlong wasn’t even doing that. In 1989 Furlong was just hanging out in a youth center in Pasadena, California. when Mali Finn happened to stop by. Mali Finn was casting for the second Terminator movie, and since that would become then the highest-budgeted movie of all time, you’d think there’d be stacks of applications and headshots back at her office. Evidently she still felt like doing some free range casting and offered the job to Furlong just because she liked his look.
It wasn’t just that he hadn’t ever acted professionally before. When James Cameron asked him what acting experience he’d had, Furlong said that his dad would “video his birthday parties.” which you’d think would be an even bigger red flag. While a number of Terminator fans think his performance of John Connor is the weak point of the movie, if not ruinous, anyone who watched his later turns in films such as Pecker and American History X know that he wasn’t content to simply try coasting on his looks. Finn for her part went on to such casting jobs as putting Leo DiCaprio in Titanic, casting for The Matrix, and LA Confidential.
5. Munro Leaf
The majority of artists have an inspirational story behind how they made their masterpiece, or at least their most famous works, if only because they made one up to make interviews more interesting. The author of The Story of Ferdinand, a 1936 children’s book about a flower-loving bull that resonated so strongly with audiences that Disney made a classic cartoon based off of it in 1938 and Fox made a… not classic cartoon adaptation in 2017. The Nazis gave it the best recommendation they could give when they made bonfires of copies due to a perceived pacifist message. But there was no profound message or cherished memories of a real bull behind it.
One day, his wife Margaret had taken a gig editing a document for twenty-five dollars. Munro had nothing in particular to do, so he started pestering her just for his own amusement, prompting her to tell him to go busy himself just so that she could get her work done. Forty minutes later, he had written a short story in longhand that he sent to his illustrator friend Robert Lawson. So basically what became for awhile the bestselling book in the world was a complete lark. Probably the only lesson to be gleaned from it is that all husbands out there who feel like annoying their wives really do have better things to do.
4. Werner Herzog
Most directors will tell you they were inspired to get into the business by a movie that touched or awed them, but Werner Herzog was never like most directors. Never mind that his greatest film accomplishments, such as Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man, are about eccentric people and in the former case had a crazy story behind the production. Anyone who has seen his appearances on Rick and Morty, Jack Reacher, and Metalocalypse knows the man at least likes to present himself as a bit of an odd duck.
What got him to chase silver screen dreams was a cheap movie serial he saw when he was an adolescent that starred yellow scare villain Fu Manchu. There was a distinctive shot of an extra being shot, falling off a cliff, and doing a somersault. The movie was so slipshod that the shot was used twice. What fascinated Herzog was how he noticed it, but none of his friends did. That inspired the young eccentric to go around stealing milk bottles to pay for movie tickets and feed his movie fascination, all over the equivalent of seeing an IMDb goof.
3. Tommy Wiseau
The 2003 movie The Room is known for being so unintentionally awkward and strange and yet achieving a completely disproportionate level of pop culture visibility. No other film known primarily for being bad achieved having a mainstream film tribute made for it aside from Plan 9 from Outer Space, and even that had to wait more than a generation for its mainstream lionization. It led to lots of speculation that the movie’s bizarre version of a “good man is cheated on by evil fiance with his best friend” plot was based on Wiseau’s feelings about a real romance he had which went south. However, his friend and costar in The Room, Greg Sestero, was there to set the record straight with his book The Disaster Artist and share that it was nothing like anyone expected.
In 1998, Sestero was newly arrived in LA and met Wiseau at an acting class where he admired Wiseau’s uninhibited performance. Charmed by Sestero’s handsomeness (or at least his youth) Wiseau let the fellow aspiring actor rent one of the rooms in his building cheap. Then he was intrusive and paranoid to the point of crossing the line, such as when he opened Sestero’s mail. All while pretending he was about to make it big as an actor. To try and hold a mirror up to Wiseau’s behavior, Sestero dragged him to a screening of The Talented Mr. Ripley, a movie about a man who basically becomes a professional, dangerous freelance impostor.
Wiseau saw the way that Mr. Ripley’s story did indeed reflect his own behavior, but rather than address it aloud to Sestero, he went on a rant about the film industry that wouldn’t let him in and vowed to make his own movie. When Sestero read The Room, he saw it was Wiseau’s self-serving reinterpretation of the message his friend was trying to send him. In short, one of the greatest accidental comedies of the 21st century came from its creator being unwilling to talk out his issues with his friend even as he let the same friend work on and star in the movie.
2. George Miller
This writer-director has certainly had a varied career that has included the Happy Feet films, the Babe films, and The Witches of Eastwick. But if nothing else, his stripped-down, high-octane 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road ensured that the beloved adventures of Road Warrior Max Rockatansky will be the thing he’s remembered for writing and directing. It perfectly captured the rush of being a crazy roadster and all the thrills. Yet George Miller came at from the oddest possible direction.
See, before he made what would become the most successful independent movie for decades, Miller was a resident at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, Australia. There he saw many, many people who were grievously injured in car accidents. A particular standout was someone who came in with a group of five others injured in a wreck. Her legs and limbs had been so badly crushed that Miller wasn’t able to find a vein for the IV unit, and needed to connect it to her neck as she said “die me” to him over and over again.
In these circumstances, where he had to deal with the very worst results of vehicular accidents, Miller was inspired to make his film which would be laden with stunts presented in a thrilling action-packed style. Personally speaking, that would make a movie like Mad Max the last thing we would want to direct. It’s not like it was a reality Miller ever tried to escape either: He continued work as a doctor not just through Mad Max but through Mad Max 2 (aka Road Warrior) because he was obligated to have a doctor on set to treat the injuries that could result from his stunts.
1 Penn Jillette
Penn Jillette, these days, is probably as famous for his status as a mouthpiece for atheism and skepticism as he is for his deconstructionist magic. By his own account, he came by his investment in skepticism through deeply personal but still utterly petty experience. When Penn Jillette was a twelve, he asked his parents to buy him a magic kit sold by the Amazing Kreskin, the self-described “world’s leading mentalist,” on The Tonight Show. When he learned the kit was full of tricks, Jillette flew into a rage that apparently has never ended, rejecting magic, science, and many of his other beliefs. He claimed when he was eighteen and met James Randi, this grudge was a contributing factor to getting him into the profession of being a magician that busts other magicians with fellow neophyte magician Teller. Decades later he wrote a letter to the Skeptical Inquirer calling Kreskin a thief who’d robbed his parents. In response, Kreskin threatened to sue him, and disappointed Penn when he didn’t go any further. Supposedly he even tried to see if there was a way to force Kreskin to sue him. There was not.
Later Kreskin went to Penn and Teller’s show and Penn said Kreskin just being in the audience was his worst experience on the show. Jillette still hated him enough to entitle one of the chapters of his autobiography “God No!” as “Maybe that Thief Kreskin will Sue Me this Time” where he crashed Kreskin’s show and sat through it despite being ordered out by security, daring them to call the police. It all sounds like a supervillain origin story from a particularly silly comic book.
Adam & Dustin Koski wrote an exciting and hilarious fantasy novel. If it made them famous, that clearly wouldn’t be the weirdest way.