For awhile, it was a cliche to portray screen actors who played tough characters as effete people behind the scenes. That’s not what this list is about. No, we’re going so far in the other direction that we’re going to highlight people who made movies with pulse-pounding, high octane action, and yet it was still nothing compared to the things they did in real life. Truth might not necessarily be stranger than fiction, but it can often be more hardcore. The stories might have been related making a movie, but in the majority of cases they had nothing to do with any film production.
Honorable Mention: There would have been a full entry devoted to the fact that former firefighter Steve Buscemi worked in the wreckage of the World Trade Center right after the 9/11 attacks. However, despite the fact he did not attempt to publicize his service, it seems to have become an overexposed news story in recent years.
10. Rob Cohen
Rob Cohen was the script reader who led to the production of the 1973 classic The Sting and the director of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Dragonheart in the ’90s. Yet today his best known accomplishment, by far, is the writing and directing the first entry of the multi-billion dollar high octane, over-the-top series The Fast the Furious. But in 1992, he did something that sounds more ridiculous than anything in that series.
During a rainstorm, Cohen suffered a heart attack. Since he didn’t feel there was time for an ambulance in notorious Los Angeles traffic, Cohen drove himself to the hospital. During a storm. He claimed that the experience was practically “out-of-body” for him. But six weeks later, he was back directing Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. So far, neither Dwayne Johnson or Vin Diesel’s characters in The Fast and the Furious series have been driving themselves while having heart attacks. But the series is running out of ridiculous ideas, so there’s still time.
9. Clint Eastwood
After years of thrilling audiences in front of the camera as Harry Callahan for five movies, Eastwood got to excite and amaze sell out crowds from behind the camera with such films as American Sniper, not to mention getting to do both in his 1992 masterpiece deconstruction of the Western genre, Unforgiven. But none of these films reflected Eastwood’s real life experiences as closely as his biopic of Hudson River hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger.
After the Korean War broke out, Eastwood found himself drafted. He might have felt like he dodged literal bullets when he got a job as a swimming instructor at Fort Ord, near Salinas, California. For awhile the closest he got to serious danger was when he worked as a bouncer at a local bar for noncommissioned officers. In 1951, he was on a flight home to Seattle. The plane crashed during a storm roughly two miles from shore outside San Francisco. It was nearly night when the plane crashed, leaving him with such limited visibility in the choppy water that he could hardly see the shore. Even a swimming instructor like Eastwood said that it seemed like he had to swim 50 miles to safety.
8. Johnny Weismuller
Today he’s best remembered for playing the first Tarzan audiences can remember any aspect of, thanks to his trademark Call of the Jungle/Yodel in the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man. He also starred in a full 11 sequels even though he himself said of his performing abilities, “the public forgives my acting.” Before that, he was a swimmer who’d seemed determined to hog all the world’s records while also winning a staggering six gold medals in the field and one bronze medal for water polo. But most significant of all was when he was just a teenager working on Oak Street Beach in Chicago.
One day, a severe boating collision occurred that put dozens of lives in danger. Working with his brother Peter, Weissmuller removed twenty people from Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, such had been the horrible nature of the accident that nine of them did not survive. Still, saving 11 lives was a greater act of heroism than Tarzan ever pulled off.
7. Samuel Fuller
From the 1930s to the ’80s, he directed some low budget but gutpunching films that include The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor, and The Big Red One. They’re all highly influential films about the darker side of human nature in conditions ranging from insane asylums to World War II battlefields. He wasn’t just considered a B-movie director, despite his often low budgets; he’s been honored by such film institutes as the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. His acolytes include such directors as Steven Spielberg, who give him a bit part in 1941. This hardcore attitude was come by very honestly.
Before he worked in films, at the tender age of 17 Fuller was a crime reporter who visited morgues and covered executions. After Pearl Harbor, Fuller enlisted with the army, bringing his film camera with him from North Africa, to Omaha Beach on D-Day, to liberated death camps. Among the medals he earned for his service were the Bronze Star and the Silver Star. Still, he didn’t glamorize his service in the slightest, saying that he “never saw heroic acts in three years” of military service, and that in his opinion “the average professional soldier is the most anti-war person in the world.”
6. Lexi Alexander
This writer/director had the honor of being Academy Award-nominated for her 2002 short film Johnny Flynton. It was based on a true story of a boxer accused of murdering his pregnant wife. General audiences were first introduced to her through something a bit lower brow: the very violent 2008 comic book film Punisher: War Zone. Like most cult films, it initially completely bombed, but the film’s extremely arch tone eventually found a devoted following, which led her to jobs directing episodes of Arrow and Supergirl.
Yet the most interesting story was Alexander’s origin. She was a German immigrant who, at 19, had already become a karate and kickboxing world champion. She also taught martial arts to U.S. Marines. In a momentous brush with celebrity, she gained the U.S. citizenship that would make her name through a green card sponsorship by Chuck Norris himself. He also got her into a showbiz career, though she quickly gravitated to directing instead of being the next female martial arts star.
5. Larry Cohen
He’s not the most famous name in movies, but his impact is deep and wide. He wrote the script for the Colin Farrell hit Phonebooth. He wrote and directed the killer baby movie It’s Alive, which became one of the most successful (and oddest) horror films of the 1970s, and that same decade directed one of the biggest hits of the “blaxploitation” wave, Black Caesar.
Early in production for Black Caesar, Cohen and his small crew arrived in Harlem and were confronted by a group of six gangsters who had recently shook down a larger Hollywood production. Since Cohen didn’t have the money, he hit upon a crazily brilliant idea of offering acting jobs to the gangsters that were threatening him. It worked so well that the movie shoot had the run of much of the neighborhood and the gangsters became local celebrities, even having their faces featured on the posters for the movie. This was 20 years before Get Shorty.
Even that wasn’t his boldest move ever, though. That would be for his 1977 film The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover. For a shoot of cars driving up to the Capitol Building, Cohen had arranged for a local car club to have 40 vintage cars drive down Pennsylvania Ave. To block off the street off from modern vehicles, without permission, he took traffic blockers used for parades and placed them along the ends. Whenever police drove by, he waved at them, which gave the impression that the whole shoot must have been legitimate because, otherwise, who would have the gall to do such a thing?
4. Jamie Foxx
In which movie was Jamie Foxx at his coolest? As the righteously vengeful title character in Django Unchained, as the deeply unsettling villain of Baby Driver, or as Ray Charles in Ray? The answer is, it doesn’t matter. All pale before his real life experiences.
Foxx was in Moorpark, California on January 18, 2016. That night, Brett Kyle lost control of a truck (he was suspected of driving under influence), ditched the vehicle, and rolled it several times. A fire started, and was spreading quickly. Foxx and an anonymous off-duty emergency medical technician were able to enter Kyle’s truck and cut the seatbelt that was trapping him. If they’d taken less than a minute longer, by which time emergency services had arrived, the vehicle would have been completely ablaze.
3. Audie Murphy
Audie Murphy was a triple threat: a national bestselling author, a hit country musician, and a star of 44 films. Many of those films were Westerns, and they include classics of the genre such as The Quiet American. He also did war films, most notably 1958’s To Hell and Back. It was significant because it was based on his bestselling book. And yet it did not capture the staggering reality of his real accomplishment during WWII, and that was actually by design, as it was felt by the filmmakers that the true story would not be believable.
The exploits by which Murphy became the most decorated American soldier of World War II, a title he disliked because he felt it snubbed all the soldiers who deserved more awards but didn’t live to be recognized, culminated near St. Tropez, France on August 15. He was just landing as part of Operation Dragoon, the campaign to liberate Southern France. Murphy had already demonstrated that he was unusually willing to engage the enemy (less common than you might think: only 25% of US soldiers engaged in active combat).
After seeing his friend Lattie Tipton be cut down by a German soldier who’d been feigning surrender, Murphy completely lost his cool, charged, and killed the German. He then single-handedly attacked and cleared first one machine gun nest, and then several others, using the same machine gun he’d just captured. That wasn’t all: at a battle near Holtzwihr on January 25, 1945, after his company was reduced to 19 men out of 100, he ordered the rest to retreat, climbed aboard a burned out tank, and used the machine gun mounted on it to hold the advancing Germans at bay, even though they had tanks with them.
These heroics brought him fame and fortune, but they also took a personal toll that showed that his stated disaffection for being called the “most decorated soldier” wasn’t merely false modesty. Murphy suffered from an extreme case of post-traumatic stress disorder and would develop an addiction to sleeping pills until his death in a plane crash in 1971.
2. Gene Roddenberry
Gene Roddenberry is best known for writing the film Genesis II in 1973, which was a story about a scientist who awakens in a world on the brink of apocalypse after hundreds of years in suspended animation. He also wrote and produced a less savory film called Pretty Maids All in a Row, which starred Rock Hudson as a murderous football coach.
Just kidding. Of course Roddenberry is most famous for launching the multi-billion dollar Star Trek franchise, remaining a producer on the film adaptations for decades after the original series ended its three season run in 1969. But even that achievement was less of an accomplishment than something he did decades earlier. In 1947, to be precise.
Roddenberry was the third officer on Pan Am Flight 121 on June 18, along with Anthony Vulpe and Jane Bray. Having departed from Calcutta, they were flying over the Syrian Desert when two of the engines failed and then burst into flame. The plane made an emergency landing as the fire spread, and the three crew members had to rush to evacuate their passengers, which included Indian royalty. One was a woman whose seatbelt jammed as she attempted to leave her seat. With no time to spare, Roddenberry was forced to cut through the belt. The heat was so intense that as Roddenberry left the plane, the passenger he was carrying perished. Other passengers were aflame with fires that needed to be smothered with pillows. Roddenberry had to send two Englishmen on board to look for a Syrian military base they had flown over before the crash, and thankfully a Syrian search plane found them before the elements could claim the passengers. In total, Roddenberry and his crewmates saved 22 people.
1. Akira Kurosawa
By now you might have noticed that some of these entries have had a more melancholy side to them. That’s going to be the case with this final entry, too. While Akira Kurosawa as one of Japan’s most acclaimed directors, thrilling audiences and helping to shape cinema for decades with classics such as Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo (1961), and Hidden Fortress (1958), one of the most formative experiences of his life was too intense for any of his movies.
In 1923, the 13-year-old future auteur survived an Earthquake in Tokyo that killed between 140,000 and 150,000 people. Naturally, when they came upon an area strewn with dead bodies, animal and human, Akira wanted to look away. However, he was accompanied by his older brother, who forbade him to avert his eyes from the hideous sight. In words fit for an epic, he told Akira, “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything head on, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” Both critics and Kurosawa himself believed that this harrowing situation was one of the formative events in shaping who he would become as an artist, though he never portrayed literal devastation on such a massive scale even in his most tragic films.
Dustin Koski is very happy for his comparatively uneventful life, and invites you to share in it by following him on Twitter.