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Top 10 Characters You Didn't Know Were Inspired By Real People

VO: Matthew Wende
Written by Josh Schasny These iconic movie characters seem to be larger than life on the big screen, but did you know that the filmmakers and actors took serious inspiration from true to life people for these roles? WatchMojo presents the Top 10 Movie Characters Who Were Based on Real People! But which character will take the top spot on our list? Norman Bates from 'Psycho', Jeffrey 'The Dude' Lebowski from 'The Big Lebowski', or Apollo Creed from 'Rocky'? Watch on WatchMojo: Big thanks to Lionel Gilmore, Norris Vaughn, Frenchy 17, Oakley.24, Cam Gold, guitar hero player, Jeremy Villanueva, mario2014, booyoudirtywhore143, and to see how WatchMojo users voted, check out the suggest page here: WatchMojo.comsuggest/top+10+characters+that+are+based+on+real+people

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Are they based on a true story? Welcome to and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Characters You Didn’t Know Were Inspired by Real People.

For this list, we’ll be looking at popular movie characters who are believed to be based on real life individuals. While extensive liberties are a given when it comes to creating a fictional character, these picks were at least rooted in history, helping them become characters we know, love, and sometimes fear…

#10: Indiana Jones from the “Indiana Jones” franchise (1981-)
Based on: Hiram Bingham III

For many, the name Indiana Jones is synonymous with the rugged, whip-wielding archaeologist/adventurer from the landmark franchise of the same name. While many people have been said to be the character’s inspiration, one of the most surprising that he’s reputedly based on is the famed American lecturer and eventual re-discoverer of Machu Picchu, Hiram Bingham III. Although George Lucas and Steven Spielberg took great liberties in fleshing out Indiana Jones’ adventures, Bingham’s ruddy fedora-wearing look as well as his love for the sanctity of exploration made him a perfect candidate for the Indy we know so well. Though we highly doubt Bingham ever got launched from a nuclear blast site while hiding inside a fridge…

#9: Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” (1989)
Based on: Divine

A Disney character associated with 1970s exploitation cinema? Preposterous! Digging deep into the mythology of character origins, film buffs have happily drawn comparisons between the curvy and malicious sea witch Ursula from The Little Mermaid with controversial cross-dressing drag queen Divine. The most noticeable resemblances can be found in John Waters’ 1988 musical-comedy “Hairspray,” but any one of Divine’s shocking roles is fair game enough to capture Ursula’s aggressively sultry character. Whether it’s the form-fitting gown, the sassy voice, or the trademark sashay reminiscent of the glam queen, it’s a clear reminder that Disney doesn’t “underestimate the importance of body language” when it comes to thinking up their characters.

#8: Johnny Fontane from “The Godfather” (1972)
Based on: Frank Sinatra

Being associated with the Mafia is never really a good thing, especially when it’s made apparent that said connections helped further your career. Such was the case for Frank Sinatra when the portrayal of Mafia-owned character Johnny Fontane in “The Godfather” seemed to hit a little to close to home. While “Godfather” author and screenwriter Mario Puzo never stated that Fontane was based on Ol’ Blue Eyes, the parallels between the mob-related backstory of the fictional crooner’s career and Sinatra’s seem very obvious. This was enough for Sinatra to attempt a shutdown of production with backing from the Italian-American Civil Rights League, as well as to give veiled threats to break Mario Puzo’s legs…

#7: Lt. Vincent Hanna & Neil McCauley from “Heat” (1995)
Based on: Detective Chuck Adamson & Neil McCauley

1995’s epic team up of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in the movie “Heat,” a daring heist thriller featuring intense action sequences, almost seemed to good to be true. However, more charm lay in the intricate handling of the respective roles of villain and hero for the two Oscar-winning actors. The film is loosely based on a 1960s investigation and pursuit of a real life thief named Neil McCauley by Chicago PD officer Chuck Adamson. Many details from the film, including the famous coffee shop scene featuring the two iconic actors, really happened, and was added in courtesy of Adamson, who served as a technical advisor to director Michael Mann during “Heat”’s production.

#6: Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver” (1976)
Based on: Arthur Bremer

While “Taxi Driver” has the legacy of being one of the influences for the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, it’s less widely known that the film’s anti-hero, Travis Bickle, is based off another would-be assassin. Arthur Bremer, an unemployed criminal with severe issues, shot and wounded Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace after a failed attempt at assassinating Richard Nixon in 1972. Screenwriter Paul Schrader didn’t deviate too far from Bremer in his characterization of the taxi-driving vigilante. Similarities include Bremer’s relationship with an underage girl, pornographic obsessions, as well as an abnormal haircut that inspired Bickle’s eventual mohawk look at the film’s conclusion.

#5: Francis ‘Frank’ Costello from “The Departed” (2006)
Based on: James ‘Whitey’ Bulger

Aside from sharing a name with a famed Italian-American Mafia Don, “The Departed”’s Frank Costello, played to terrifying perfection by Jack Nicholson, is a fictional portrayal of famed Irish-American gangster, Whitey Bulger. Known for his short temper and violent retribution to those who cross him, Bulger ruled Boston with an iron fist, using his politically allied brother and connections with the FBI to gain higher clout, as well as become a working-class icon in his neighborhood. Director Martin Scorsese fused William Monahan’s script with many similarities to the Beantown gang boss, most notably his alliance with corrupt law officials and the Feds.

#4: ‘Dirty Harry’ Callahan from the “Dirty Harry” franchise (1971-88)
Based on: Dave Toschi

Yes, one of America’s most badass movie cops is based on a real man. Renowned in San Francisco even before the release of the first “Dirty Harry” film, Detective Dave Toschi received national attention for his investigation into the Zodiac Killer case from the late-60s to the early-70s. While he was heavily scrutinized for the unsolved cases, film producers saw an image of a worthwhile investigator in Toschi, inspiring them to base their unorthodox Magnum-wielding 1971 anti-hero Dirty Harry Callahan on him. Despite “Dirty Harry”’s obvious nod to Toschi, the real-life detective’s use of quick-draw pistol holsters was first mimicked by Steve McQueen three years earlier in the film “Bullitt.”

#3: Jeffrey ‘The Dude’ Lebowski from “The Big Lebowski” (1998)
Based on: Jeff Dowd

Ever watched “The Big Lebowski” and mused aloud, “I think I know someone like the Dude!” And as matter of fact, so did the Coen Brothers when they came up with this wacky, bowling-obsessed, stoner-turned dimwit detective in their 1998 cult classic. The Dude’s nickname and political resume were both appropriated from film producer and former member of the “Seattle Seven,” Jeff Dowd, whose energetic and peculiar lifestyle inspired the character that would go on to launch a cult phenomenon. Among other pastiches of real-life people in “The Big Lebowski” is the Dude’s short-tempered buddy Walter Sobchak, who is based on movie director John Milius.

#2: Apollo Creed from the “Rocky” franchise (1976-)
Based on: Muhammad Ali

The eccentric Apollo Creed served as the main opponent for underdog Rocky Balboa in the first two “Rocky” movies. The epic faceoff depicted in the films were actually fictional retellings of an actual fight between world champion boxer Muhammad Ali and the relatively unknown brawler Chuck Wepner. Actor Carl Weathers expertly adapted Ali’s unique mannerisms and ability to provoke his opponents through rhythmic trash talk. And while Rocky Balboa himself is an amalgamation of both Chuck Wepner and lifelong Ali rival Joe Frazier, it’s fairly obvious that Weathers’ homage to The People’s Champion was one for the books.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:

Biff Tannen from the “Back to the Future” franchise (1985-89)
Based on: Donald Trump

Dr. Evil from the “Austin Powers” franchise (1997-2002)
Based on: Lorne Michaels

Jabba the Hutt from the “Star Wars” franchise (1977-)
Based on: Sydney Greenstreet

#1: Norman Bates from “Psycho” (1960)
Based on: Ed Gein

Sometimes a villain comes along that is so creepy, you hope they could never really exist. Filmgoers in 1960 must have been thinking this upon seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s controversial “Psycho,” in which he introduced the cinemagoers to Norman Bates, a lonely serial killer with severe mommy issues who enjoys stabbing women in showers. Shockingly enough, Bates was based on notorious real-life killer Ed Gein. Along with his complex psychological problems, he killed at least two women and robbed graves, using the skins to create a “woman suit” following the death of his mother. Gein would later serve as an inspiration for other chilling fictitious serial killers, including Leatherface and Buffalo Bill.

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