What's in a name? Fame, fortune and a fat fee

There are very few film stars who end up with a more interesting name than the one they dropped

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Yesterday, I was speculating on what the new Pope might call himself, though I suppose he already knows his secret preference. When it comes to an actor changing his name, though, things are not so clear-cut.

Yesterday, I was speculating on what the new Pope might call himself, though I suppose he already knows his secret preference. When it comes to an actor changing his name, though, things are not so clear-cut.

If you have an ordinary-sounding name, the odds are that some member of Equity is already called that. So you will have to change your name. But there is no use choosing one in advance, because there is a great possibility that that will be booked as well.

So you might as well go for something exotic. Indeed, when I was a kid, actors did tend to choose exotic names like Victor Mature and Rock Hudson, and singers gave themselves new handles like Billy Fury and Tommy Steele, so I had always assumed that people welcomed a chance to get away from their humdrum identity into something more exciting.

And quite recently I expounded on this theory in a book I was working on, pointing out that theatre directors and playwrights (who stick to their original monickers ) tend to have prosaic names like David Hare and Peter Hall and Richard Eyre, whereas actors have exotic names like Dirk Bogarde, Vanessa Redgrave, Marlon Brando, and Dinsdale Landen.

Unfortunately, the editor who was handling my speculation before it found its way into print brought me up sharply with a reminder that Vanessa Redgrave was also her real name, and Dirk Bogarde was almost the same as his real name, and Marlon Brando's real name was also Marlon Brando.

She added that she thought, too, that Dinsdale Landen's real name was Dinsdale Landen, and that if I wanted to come up with film stars who had deliberately chosen exotic stage names, I would have to try a lot harder than that, because none of this lot would qualify.

So, stung by this, I looked up several lists of the real names borne by stage and screen performers to back up my hunch that they liked to ditch their boring original names and go for wild and wacky new names, and I found that I couldn't have been further from the truth. It was the other way round. Scores of famous people had started life with a really interesting and different name of their own, and had then ditched it for something much more banal.

I suppose the famous one is Marion Morrison turning into John Wayne, but that was only the start of it.

Frederick Austerlitz had become Fred Astaire.

Walter Matthau had shortened his name from Walter Matuschanskayasky.

Doris Day was initially Doris von Kappelhoff.

Ben Kingsley was originally called Krishna Banji.

Burl Ives - ah, Burl Ives! That looks unusual to start with, does it not? However, it is not half so unusual as the name he was given at birth, which was Burle Icle Ivanhoe.

And when Thomas C Mapother IV went into acting, he, too, decided to drop the interesting half of his name (Mapother IV) and to keep his banal first two names (Tom Cruise).

There is a pattern here, almost as if stars use their change of name to go into disguise. They set out in life with a gaudy name and then, faced with the prospect of fame, pull on an everyday name as if it were a pair of dark glasses or a coat with the collar turned up.

There are very few film stars who ended up with a more interesting name than the one they dropped. Bo Derek is fractionally more interesting than Mary Cathleen Collins, I must admit, but it is much more typical to find Lucille Le Sueur reducing herself to Joan Crawford (or Michael Dumble-Smith, for that matter, reducing himself to a mere Michael Crawford).

Even Victor Mature, I now discover, started out as Victor Maturi.

And whenever I find myself wavering in my adherence to my new theory, I only have to remind myself of Alan Alda's orginal name. Which was Alphonso d'Abruzzo.

Alphonso d'Abruzzo!

You would have to have well-nigh papal humility to abandon a great name like that.

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