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Movie Characters Inspired By Real-Life People

Hollywood loves to make movies based on true stories. Sometimes, though, even fictional films contain characters inspired, albeit loosely, by people from the real world. Here are a few unforgettable examples of big-screen characters whose creators relied on a little more than pure imagination.

Jabba the Hutt - Sydney Greenstreet

The original Star Wars trilogy didn't show filmgoers the sluglike gangster known as Jabba the Hutt until 1983's Return of the Jedi, but that had as much to do with special effects as storytelling. Lacking the budget to do his concept of the character justice, franchise mastermind George Lucas filmed a Jabba scene for the first Star Wars, but instead of the slimy alien appearance he'd later take, he was human—played by actor Declan Mulholland. Decades after Lucas cut that sequence, he inserted it in the "special edition" of the movie, with Mulholland digitally replaced by a CGI version of the character (instead of the prosthetic Jabba seen in Episode VI).

Lucas' inspiration for Star Wars ran far and wide—he wasn't just inspired by other stories and movies, but also actors. While Jabba the Hutt ended up looking like a monster, the original inspiration for the character came from legendary actor Sydney Greenstreet, who appeared in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. Lucas told the stop-motion animators that he needed something that was "Alien and grotesque... just like Sydney Greenstreet," recalled effects supervisor Phil Tippett. "I had kind of gotten this idea down to this big, slug-like thing that was just pulsating, massive flesh." Tippet said at one point he had a fez on one of the models, just like the one Greenstreet used to wear.

Nacho Libre - Fray Tormenta

How far would a priest go to protect his flock? In Mexico, Sergio Gutiérrez Benítez supported his orphanage for 23 years by moonlighting as a Lucha Libre wrestler. He was so good in the ring that he earned the name Fray Tormenta, and over the years, several video game developers have taken inspiration from his exploits for their characters in fighting games. In 2006, Jared Hess brought Benitez's story to life on the big screen in Nacho Libre, starring Jack Black. In the movie, Black's Nacho Libre is a cook at an orphanage that faces closure, and in order to keep it open, he becomes a luchador to earn money for the monastery, despite wrestling being outlawed. Hollywood took a few liberties with Benitez's story for the movie, but make no mistake, without Fray Tormenta, there would be no Nacho Libre.

The Dude - Jeff Dowd

Jeff Bridges got his start in Hollywood at an early age, starring in dozens of movies (and racking up four Oscar nominations) before he appeared in the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski in 1998. For all that success, Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski might be Bridges' most recognizable character—and although the movie's story and all of its characters are fictional, the Coen Brothers based the Dude on their friend Jeff Dowd.

Joel and Ethan Coen met Dowd, a Hollywood producer, while promoting their first film, Blood Simple, in the '80s. Over the course of their friendship, they discovered Dowd's quirky personality and mannerisms and eventually decided to write a script around him. "[The Dude's] body language is one hundred percent me in the movie," Dowd told Huffington Post. However, he admits that he doesn't always go bowling or drink White Russians. "Things like that are things that Joel and Ethan [Coen] put in there for satire, but barely."

Frank Costello - James 'Whitey' Bulger

Martin Scorsese's The Departed is a loose remake of the Hong Kong crime flick Infernal Affairs, but when transporting the story to the U.S., he centered it on organized crime in Boston. He based two of the film's main characters, Frank Costello and Colin Sullivan, on the infamous Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger and his friend and accomplice, FBI Agent John Connolly. A notable difference: in the film, Sullivan is much younger than Costello and is treated somewhat as a son, instead of a brother.

Scorsese has made a number of gangster films, so when he and writer William Monahan were gearing up for The Departed, they wanted to create something different. According to Scorsese, Monahan suggested they base the story on Bulger while adding a narrative spin all their own. That's where Jack Nicholson's Costello and Matt Damon's Sullivan came in. Interestingly, at the time the film was released, Bulger was still on the run—but authorities finally caught up with the notorious gangster in 2011, in Santa Monica, CA.

Viktor Navorski - Mehran Karimi Nasseri

One of several hit collaborations between Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, 2006's The Terminal follows Viktor Navorski, a man who, upon arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, discovers his home country has fallen into civil war and as a result, his passport is no longer valid. Viktor can't leave the airport—nor can he be sent home—and he spends the next nine months trapped inside one of JFK's abandoned terminals. Does spending three-quarters of a year inside an airport sound harrowing? Imagine doing it for years.

Spielberg based The Terminal on the story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who spent 18 years inside Terminal One of Paris' Charles de Gaulle International Airport. In 1988, he planned to settle in the UK, but while traveling to the airport in Paris to board his flight to London, he was mugged and his briefcase was stolen, along with his passport and refugee documents. When he reached London, immigration officials sent Nasseri back to Paris; when he arrived in France, the police wouldn't let him leave the airport. He spent nearly two decades stranded inside Paris' airport, until he required hospitalization in 2006.

Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell - Randy 'Duke' Cunningham

Though not officially confirmed by the producers, Tom Cruise's character in Top Gun, Lt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, is reportedly based on former Navy pilot Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Cunningham has claimed to have inspired Maverick many times, and there are several pieces of evidence from Top Gun proving that—at least in some part—he's telling the truth. The movie even uses specific fighter jet moves Cunningham himself performed during the Vietnam War.

What's interesting is that, in 2006, Cruise purchased the film rights to Cunningham's story—not just his military exploits, but the post-war years when he went from respected veteran to Congressman to being convicted of bribery. Cruise referred to the film project being a sort of homecoming for him, which sounds like further evidence that Maverick was, indeed, inspired by Cunningham.

Quint - Frank Mundus

Steven Spielberg pioneered the summer blockbuster with his 1975 film Jaws, based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley. Benchley confessed that his inspiration came from a 1964 story in the New York Daily News, about a fisherman catching a 4,550-pound great white shark off the coast of Long Island. Benchley told BBC in 2004, "I thought right then, 'What if one of these things came around and wouldn't go away?'" That real-life fisherman was Frank Mundus, who, after catching a few sharks in his prime, became locally known as Monster Man. According to screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, Mundus was the inspiration for the character Quint, played by Robert Shaw.

In William Bear's book Classic American Films: Conversations with the Screenwriters, Gottlieb talked about the connection. "Mundus was the model for the Quint character, and I think he sued the studio because Steven [Spielberg] had interviewed him before the shooting began," he explained. "He felt that his life story was being expropriated—which people tend to do." Despite Mundus being the inspiration for the character, Gottlieb says various aspects of Quint's personality derive from Craig Kingsbury, who actually had a role in Jaws.

Lucy Whitmore - Michelle Philpots

Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore have appeared in their fair share of romantic comedies together, but Peter Segal's 50 First Dates might be their saddest. Barrymore's character, Lucy Whitmore, gets into a car accident and, due to a rare form of amnesia, suffers from short-term memory loss. She remembers everything from before the accident, but every 24 hours, her mind essentially resets, forgetting the past day. Sandler's character, Henry Roth, falls in love with Whitmore and they proceed to have a full life together, with kids and all. Unfortunately, Whitmore needs to be reminded of their marriage (and family) every day.

Going through something like that, every day for the rest of your life, must be daunting—and, at times, traumatizing. Although this form of amnesia is rare, at least one real-life person suffers from it: Michelle Philpots, who also happens to be the inspiration for Barrymore's character. After being a victim in two accidents—one on a motorcycle in 1985 and once in a car in 1990—Philpots now suffers from anterograde amnesia, forgetting the past 24 hours every day and unable to make new memories. In 1994, Philpots started to have regular seizures and eventually stopped remembering anything new. For more than two decades, her mind has been stuck in 1994.

Rocky Balboa - Chuck Wepner

Sylvester Stallone is responsible for a ton of action hits, but he'll always be remembered for his role as the Italian Stallion, Rocky Balboa—a role he created for himself. Early in Stallone's career, nearing 30 and nearly broke, he felt the only way he could make a name for himself was to create his own script and cast himself in the title role.

The thing is, Stallone couldn't figure out what he wanted to write. Looking for a way to cheer himself up, he watched the Muhammad Ali-Chuck Wepner fight on TV—it wasn't supposed to be a great fight, because Wepner seemed to have no chance against a great like Ali. "But as the fight progressed, this miracle unfolded. He hung in there. People went absolutely crazy," Stallone recalled. "Wepner went 15 rounds and established himself as one of the few ever to go the distance with the great Ali. We had witnessed an incredible triumph of the human spirit, and we loved it. That night, Rocky Balboa was born." Different aspects of the character stemmed from various boxers, but the original inspiration came from Wepner.