10 Unlikely Movie Stars

We expect stage and TV stars to make the leap to Hollywood hot stuff.

But what about war heroes? Sports reporters? Errr…Army dogs?

We've mined the CVs of Tinseltown’s less-likely famesters and uncovered some serious surprises...

The War Hero: Audie Murphy

Previous experience:

You can’t throw a grenade in Hollywood without fragging someone who’s played a war hero. But Audie Leon Murphy was the real thing – in fact, he was the most-decorated GI in World War Two.

His 24 commendations included the Medal Of Honor, which he won for single-handedly facing down a German tank and infantry attack.

Famed or shamed?

Famed. When Universal adapted Murphy’s autobiography in 1955, he was the obvious hard man for the job. To Hell And Back was the studio’s biggest-grossing movie until the release of Jaws , 20 years later.

Murphy suffered for his success, mind – he was a gambler, a manic depressive, an insomniac, had post-traumatic stress disorder and a sleeping-pill addiction, which he cured by going cold turkey in a locked motel room.

Today, Murphy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC is the second most-visited (after that of assassinated US pres JFK’s).

Next: The Criminal


The Criminal: Danny Trejo

Previous experience:

In 1985, ex-junkie and recidivist Danny Trejo visited the set of the Jon Voight/Eric Roberts actioner Runaway Train . The grizzled Latino-American dropped by to visit a struggling addict mate, but was promptly hired as a convict extra.

When scriptwriter and former con Edward Bunker spotted Trejo’s distinctive tattoo on film, and remembered him as a boxing champ in San Quentin prison, Trejo was promoted to Eric Roberts’ boxing coach at $350 a day (“How bad do you want this kid beat up?”).

Having racked up more than 10 years’ worth of porridge for drugs and robbery convictions, Trejo had found his calling.

Famed or shamed?

Famed. If you need a scary-looking bad guy, Trejo’s your man – as he’s proved in Heat , Con Air and most of his cousin Robert Rodriguez’s films. Trejo justifies the cash-in on his shady past because, er, his roles show the young’uns that crime doesn’t pay. Usually.

Next: The Olympian


The Olympian: Johnny Weissmuller

Previous experience:

Five-time Olympic-champ swimmer Johnny Weissmuller was spotted splashing around the Hollywood Athletic Club pool by MGM scriptwriter Cyril Hume, then on the lookout for someone to play Tarzan in the first flick (1932’s Tarzan The Ape Man ) of the long-running franchise.

Weissmuller was no actor… But he looked good in a loincloth (“The public forgave my acting because they knew I was an athlete”).

He was also a champ with chimps – when the first ape to star as Cheetah started playing up, big Johnny stamped his alpha-male credentials by threatening it with a knife.

Famed or shamed?

Famed. For a while, anyway. Weissmuller never managed to shake off his Tarzan typecasting, and the furthest he got from the character was the safari-gear-garbed Jungle Jim, a role he was forced into after he got too flabby to go topless.

Still, you’ve gotta love a guy who insisted his trademark Tarzan yell be played as his coffin was lowered into the ground…

Next: The Millionaire's Wife


The Millionaire’s Wife: Pia Zadora

Previous experience:

At the Golden Globes in 1982, Pia Zadora was handed the newcomer gong for her performance in Butterfly . The award, for an incest-themed stinker that hadn’t even been released Stateside, caused uproar.

Little wonder, when the extent of multi-millionaire businessman hubbie Meshulam Riklis’ schmoozing on his wife’s behalf became clear – taking Golden Globe voters to Las Vegas to see Pia’s stageshow and ‘entertaining’ journos at his Beverly Hills mansion.

Pia didn’t see things quite that way. “I felt so bad that I was sorry I won,” she snivelled. “It hurts me terribly and it’s not true.”

Famed or shamed?

Shamed. And ridiculed, particularly by late-night chat-show hosts. In 1990, Zadora was given the Razzie for Worst New Star Of The Decade after a procession of clunkers.

She responded by going back to what she knew – singing backing vocals for old crooners like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

Next: The Porn Star


The Porn Star: Traci Lords

Previous experience:

In 1984, Nora Kuzma went for an audition with the World Modelling Agency. One name-change later, ‘Traci Lords’ was born (Traci after a school friend, Lords in a tribute to Hawaii Five-O’s Jack Lord).

The first hardcore actress to earn $1,000 per day, she appeared in more than 80 X-rated flicks, including Beverly Hills Copulator , Hot Cum Orgy and Open Up, Traci .

In 1986, it emerged that Lords was underage, but she escaped prosecution when the FBI admitted she had fooled them by leaving the country on a fake passport.

She then clawed her way into the mainstream, cannily retaining control over the distribution rights to her only ‘legit’ skinflick, Traci I Love You .

Famed or shamed?

Shamed. Her highlights are Cry-Baby and Blade ; otherwise Lords has been a paid-up member of the Straight-To-Video Club.

Next: The Pooch


The Four-Legged Friend: Rin Tin Tin  

Previous experience:

On 15 September 1918, Lt Lee Duncan discovered a 10-day-old German shepherd whelp, the offspring of a German Army dog, on a French battlefield.

Duncan trained the dog and, inspired by an offer of $350 for footage of his not-so-dumb chum performing, hawked Rin Tin Tin around the emerging movie business.

Everyone thought the ex-soldier was barking until Duncan happened upon a Warner Bros crew trying, unsuccessfully, to film an uncertainly motivated wolf for a scene in 1922’s The Man From Hell’s River . Rinty nailed it in one take.

Famed or shamed?

Famed. In the silent era, the public fell in love with Rinty’s doggy doings, which included disguising himself with a beard and putting on little boots. Awww, etc.

Known as “the mortgage lifter” because his 24 films saved Warner Bros from bankruptcy, Rin Tin Tin was regularly fed tenderloin steak for lunch.

When he died in 1932, he made sure to do it in actress Jean Harlow’s lap.

Next: The Mermaid


The Mermaid: Esther Williams  

Previous experience:

For strapping 17-year-old swimming champ Esther Williams, 1940 threatened a washout when the Olympics were cancelled due to war.

Help was at hand in the form of showman Billy Rose, who hired her as Aquabelle No.1 in his extravagant Aquacade – a Broadway musical performed in a swimming pool.

Esther was a success and MGM execs, looking for an athlete to compete at the box office against 20th Century Fox’s ex-skating champ Sonja Henie, signed her in October 1941.

Famed or shamed?

Famed. Williams’ screentest was with Clark Gable, who jokingly gave her a good snogging and then told his other half, Carole Lombard, “Well, baby, I told you I was gonna kiss me a mermaid today.”

The mermaid moniker stuck as Esther starred in such hits as Bathing Beauty and, ahem, Dangerous When Wet .

But she faded with the aqua-musical novelty. As Broadway legend Fanny Brice said of Williams: “Wet, she’s a star. Dry, she ain’t.”

Next: The Footballer


The Footballer: Eric Cantona

Previous experience:

The creative hub of the all-conquering Manchester United side in the mid-‘90s, Eric Cantona was the personification of the footballer as mercurial artist.

After a tetchy and nomadic early career, he arrived at United, where he was banned from the game for eight months after kung-fu kicking a taunting crowd member.

In 1997, aged 30, he decided to quit football in order to concentrate on acting and painting. His brief appearances in Elizabeth and a string of French films shows that the initial stages of his acting career were solid, but never inspired.

That is, until Ken Loach came along…

Famed or shamed?

Famed … eventually. After a few years floundering in the wings, Cantona struck gold with this years’ Cannes underdog, Looking For Eric . The film was well received, and Cantona was given particular applause for his subtle and confident performance.

For the first time, we can honestly say we’re looking forward to his next offering…

Next: The Sportscaster


The Sportscaster: Ronald Reagan 

Previous experience:

On the basis of his sports reports, the reputation of the 40th President of the United States as a doddering half-wit needs revising.

Starting out in radio in 1932, Reagan became a commentator for the Chicago Cubs baseball team. The fact that he couldn’t get to the ballpark was never a problem. Reagan simply fleshed out his commentaries from a tickertape printout.

Even when the wire went dead during a 1934 game, he improvised like a pro until it was restored. In 1937, Reagan bunked off a radio gig to attend a screentest and sign for Warner Bros.

Famed or shamed?

Shamed. In a series of abysmal pictures, Ronnie’s lowest low came in Bedtime for Bonzo , where he was out-acted by a chimp.

He later rediscovered the gift for improv when, as President, he ordered the invasion of benevolent Caribbean paradise Grenada on the ridiculous grounds that it was a Communist hotbed.

Next: The Stuntman


The Stuntman: Richard Farnsworth

Previous experience:

In 1979, so-called ‘newcomer’ Richard Farnsworth got his first Oscar nomination for his role as ranch-hand Dodger in Alan J Pakula’s Western Comes A Horseman .

In fact, fiftysomething Farnsworth had been in the movies for 40 years, most of them as a stuntman. After getting his start in the Marx Brothers’ A Day At The Races (1937), Farnsworth did dangerous gee-gee stuff for the likes of Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda and Roy Rogers.

Under helmer Howard Hawks, he even taught Montgomery Clift how to do cowboy for the classic Red River . Later, looking like “a crane in a short skirt” (his words), Farnsworth doubled for Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus .

Famed or shamed?

Famed. Two Oscar nominations (his second came for David Lynch’s The Straight Story , where he brought a remarkable dignity to Alvin Straight’s struggle across America via lawnmower).

Suffering from terminal cancer, Farnsworth committed suicide in October 2000.

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