Contrary to parental warnings, the lack of a high school diploma does not necessarily doom one to minimum wage drudgery. A surprising number of Silver Screen Legends forwent education and began early careers, although not necessarily in acting. Most were not plucked from obscurity, forced to abandon instruction and thrust into the limelight by their astounding talent. Instead, the reasons behind leaving school were often linked to deaths, financial necessity, expulsion and escape from abuse. Perhaps these early tragedies facilitated the Legends’ acting by later providing an emotional reservoir from which to draw.
The following is a list of the Top 10 Screen Legend High School Dropouts, along with the circumstances surrounding their departure from school and later endeavors. Individuals were ranked in terms of their accomplishments, on-screen and off, along with adversities overcome.
10. Greta Garbo
Born in the slums of Stockholm, Greta Lovisa Gustafsson hated school and preferred imaginative playacting with her chums. Her father succumbed to the Spanish flu which ravaged Sweden in 1920, leaving the family destitute. Greta happily left formal education at 14 and began work as a soap-lather girl in a barbershop and later a gofer in a department store. Her unusual beauty was noticed and she began posing for the store’s catalogue. This soon lead to more lucrative modeling jobs and commercial appearances. She studied acting for two years until her mentor’s friend, Louis B. Mayer, placed her under contract and brought Garbo to Hollywood. Despite her Swedish accent, she successfully transitioned from silent film to “talkies” and became known as The Queen of MGM.
Garbomania reached its peak in the 1930s thanks to her roles in Grand Hotel (1932), Queen Christina (1933), Camille (1936) and Ninotchka (1939). After acting in 33 films and receiving 4 Oscar nominations, Garbo’s career floundered due to the critical failure of Two Faced Woman (1941)– a film she later refer to as “my grave.” Over the next decade, she rejected some movies and others imploded financially. In imposed retirement, she hid from publicity but was not reclusive, noting the difference between “wanting to be alone” and “wanting to be left alone.” In 1951, Greta became a naturalized United States citizen and moved to a large Manhattan apartment. She was an avid art collector and could frequently be seen hiding under sunglasses touring the streets of New York until her death at the age of 84.
9. Marilyn Monroe
Born Norma Jean Mortenson but raised Norma Jean Baker, Marilyn Monroe grew up in foster care. Her mother was mentally and financially unfit and her father was absent. Although Monroe was sexually abused in some foster homes, her mother obstinately refused permanent adoption by suitable families. At 16, she learned of her current foster family’s move from California to Virginia and plans to abandon her. Rather than face returning to the system, Marilyn married her boyfriend. She took a job in an airplane factory spraying parts where she was photographed by Yank Magazine. The photographer encouraged Monroe to pursue a modeling career which quickly lead to a Hollywood contract.
There is evidence that Monroe attended some high school but because of her marriage and career, she abandoned formal education. Nonetheless, Monroe was a voracious reader and enjoyed classical music. She eventually became an iconic sex symbol, earning a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy for Some Like it Hot (1959). The bombshell appeared in 33 movies, most notably Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Let’s Make Love (1960). After marrying Joe DiMaggio and having an affair with President John F. Kennedy, Monroe died of a barbiturate overdose at the age of 36.
8. Al Pacino
Alfredo James Pacino was born in East Harlem to Italian American parents who divorced when he was just 2 years old. He moved with his mother to his maternal grandparents’ tenement in the Bronx. Al was a troublemaker who rebelled by smoking cigarettes at 9 and graduated to alcohol and marijuana at 13. Wanting to become a professional baseball player, Pacino did not concentrate on his studies and flunked out of high school at 17. With his dreams of playing ball cut short, Pacino concentrated on performing but was initially rejected by Manhattan’s Actors Studio. Frequently homeless and couch surfing, he studied at less prestigious studios. Not accepting defeat, he was eventually accepted to the Actors Studio. His career skyrocketed after Francis Ford Coppola saw him play a heroine addict in Panic in Needle Park (1971) and cast him as the leading actor in the Godfather (1972).
Along with his Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar for Scent of a Woman (1993), Pacino has received 41 nominations and 34 total awards. Other memorable films include Scarface (1983), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Heat (1995). He is also an accomplished stage actor, writer, director and producer. Despite dropping out of high school, Pacino was awarded Honorary Patronage of Trinity College’s Philosophical Society in 2006. Pacino continues to be a box office draw and received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement and the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 2006.
7. Clark Gable
Mistakenly listed on his birth certificate as a baby girl, William Clark Gable was born to an oil well driller and a housewife. At the age of ten months, Gable’s mother died from a brain tumor. When he was two years old, his father remarried. Clark was a well-dressed child who enjoyed playing instruments and repairing cars. Because of financial hardship, Gable’s father was forced to relocat and try his hand at farming. Gable was an outcast in the neighboring rural Ohio town and was unhappy with the move. Despite pressure to work on the family farm, 16 year old Gable took a job at a tire factory after dropping out of school. Upon inheriting money from a distant relative at 21, he moved to Portland, Oregon, working as a tie salesman and taking acting lessons. After a new hair style, dental work and lessons to lower his high-pitched voice, Gable left for Hollywood. He flunked his first screen test but managed to get work as an extra until being discovered.
Nicknamed “The King of Hollywood,” Gable is considered the seventh Greatest Male Star of All Time by the American Film Institute. In the 1930s, his popularity was second only to Shirley Temple. He starred in such memorable movies as It Happened One Night (1934), Gone with the Wind (1939), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Misfits (1961). Gable voluntarily took a leave of absence from acting during WWII and served in the Army Air Corps. The Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar he won for It Happened One Night was purchased by Steven Spielberg sixty two years later and donated to the Motion Picture Academy. After performing in 81 films, he died at the age of 59 from a heart attack.
6. Humphrey Bogart
Born to a successful illustrator mother and surgeon father, the Bogarts had high hopes for their eldest child. After attending private New York elementary schools, Humphrey was sent to the prestigious Phillips Academy in Massachusetts to prepare him for Yale Medical School. Bogart was shortly thereafter expelled for some unknown combination of bad behavior– drinking, smoking, throwing a staff member into a lake and/or bad grades. His parents were despondent and Bogie was incredibly ashamed of his failure. With limited career prospects, he enrolled in the Navy. WWI ended soon after and he returned home in reserve capacity. Bogart worked a few mundane jobs until a childhood friend’s father hired him to work at World Films.
Despite never returning for an equivalence degree, Bogart was well-read and enjoyed the company of intellectuals. He appeared in a total of 75 films and is regarded as The Greatest Male Legend by the American Film Institute. Bogie acted in several unforgettable classics including High Sierra (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and Sabrina (1954). Although he received nominations for Casablanca (1942) and The Caine Mutiny (1954), he won the Best Actor Academy Award for The African Queen (1951). After fighting a long battle with throat cancer, with wife Lauren Bacall at his side, he died at the age of 58 in 1957.
5. Julie Andrews
Born Julie Elizabeth Wells in 1935, the actress was the product of her mother’s extramarital affair with a family friend. After a divorce and remarriage an alcoholic, the threesome lived in a very poor area of London. On more than one occasion, Ted Andrews drunkenly snuck into his stepdaughter’s room causing her to put a lock on the door. Both Vaudeville performers, Julie’s mother and stepfather soon realized her talent, got her lessons and put her center stage. Her pitch-perfect four-octave singing voice propelled Andrews to stardom quickly– by the age of 20 she sung at the London Palladium and debuted on Broadway. Her talent also caused her mother to neglect her education and concentrate on performance.
Despite the lack of a high school diploma, Andrews became a remarkable artist, starring in countless stage and film productions. Among her notable films are: Mary Poppins (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and Victor Victoria (1982). Not only was she knighted in 1999, she is an accomplished writer having authored several books under both her own name and the pen name Julie Edwards. Her career was revived by The Princess Diaries (2001) and she continues to enjoy box office success with voice work in youth-oriented films.
4. Marlon Brando
Widely considered one of the most influential actors of the Twentieth Century, Marlon Brando had acting in his blood– his mother was a performer who mentored a then-unknown Henry Fonda. Brando’s sister moved from their home in Nebraska to pursue a theatrical career in New York City. In 1943, Brando dropped out of school and followed in order to escape his miserable childhood caused by alcoholic parents. Brando enrolled in acting classes and was discovered by Stella Adler who coached him in Russian emotional memory acting techniques.
Brando’s Broadway performances soon led him to Hollywood where he acted in 43 movies and television shows and enjoyed a career which spanned over 50 years. Some of his greatest performances were in the classics A Street Car Named Desire (1951), On The Waterfront (1954), The Godfather (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979). Along with 30 other acting awards, Brando won 2 Oscars and became a political activist, supporting American Indians and African Americans. He died at the age of 80, suffering from diabetes, liver cancer and pulmonary fibrosis.
3. Mary Pickford
Perhaps the most significant female pioneer of film, Mary Pickford was thrust onto the stage at the age of 6. Although she was born Gladys Marie Smith in Ontario, Canada, early in her career she was known as Baby Gladys, The Girl with the Golden Hair and America’s Sweetheart. Performing became second nature to this beautiful child thanks to her acting parents. Both her childhood and education were neglected for film. After the stage, Mary’s teenage years coincided perfectly with the dawn of film making and she starred in a whopping 51 movies in 1909 alone. In particular, D. W. Griffith took a liking and cast her in many silent projects.
Pickford is best known for roles in The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Stella Maris (1918), Daddy-Long-Legs (1919) and Coquette (1929). By the age of 20, America’s Sweetheart had acted in 176 films and she thereafter cut back her schedule drastically. She traded acting for writing and producing films and lobbied for actors’ rights in contracting. Despite her lack of formal education, Pickford was a savvy businesswoman: she helped found United Artists Pictures and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. In 1935, after 236 films, she was exhausted and left Hollywood completely. Mary was awarded the 1976 Oscar for Lifetime Achievement and died three years later at the age of 87.
2. Charlie Chaplin
The son of an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother, Charles Chaplin bounced around the streets of London living as a child pauper. After his father died of cirrhosis and his mother was institutionalized, the abandoned boy supported himself by performing in acting troupes. His talent was soon recognized and he toured America twice, eventually staying at the age of 23. Just a year later, he was discovered by Fatty Arbuckle and placed under contract with Keystone Film Company. In 1914, he created his famous Tramp character, partially based on his youthful experiences.
While he had very little formal education due to childhood hardships, Chaplin eventually wrote an autobiography and 86 screenplays. Considered one of Hollywood’s great pioneers, he helped co-found United Artists Pictures. Chaplin acted in 86 titles, directed 73, edited 56, produced 37 and composed the scores to 18. Chaplin was best known for his acting work in The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Although he only won one Oscar for the Best Score of Limelight (1952), he received two honorary Oscars over 40 years apart. Dying at the age of 88 in 1977, he was knighted in 1975 by Queen Elizabeth II.
1. Sidney Poitier
Born premature in Miami to Bahamian parents, Sidney Poitier was not expected to survive the night but was nursed to health over a three month period. He grew up the son of a poor farmer on Cat Island and dropped out of school at 13 to assist his parents. Seeking a better life, Poitier was sent to live with his brother in Miami at the age of 15. Sidney soon grew tired of the racial tension in Florida and moved to New York City. He worked a string of menial jobs and lied about his age to join the Army. Becoming disillusioned with the military, Poitier drew on his inborn acting skills to feign mental illness and was discharged. Because of his accent and poor reading skills, he failed an audition to the American Negro Theater and was told to become a dishwasher. Incensed, he bought a radio, listening to it for countless hours to improve his accent. Rejected a second time, he agreed to work as a janitor in exchange for acting lessons and minimal pay. Poitier became an understudy for Harry Belafonte because of his similar accent and was finally taken seriously.
Poitier’s breakthrough role was in Blackboard Jungle (1955) and he went on to act in The Defiant Ones (1958), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and In the Heat of the Night (1967). He was the first African American to win an Academy Award for a lead for Lilies of the Field (1963) and also received the 2002 Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his accomplishments as “an artist and human being.” He is a skilled writer, political activist and director. Enjoying dual citizenship, he has acted as the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan since 1997. In 2009, Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest attainable civilian honor.
If you have a highschool dropout to add to this list (must be a film actor and famous) or a favorite video of one of the legends on this list, please leave a comment and we will add it to our Screen Legend Highschool Dropouts playlist on YouTube: