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16 Movies That Turned Regular People Into Big-Screen Legends - And How They Felt About It

April 28, 2021 8.1k views16 items

There's a well-known saying that goes, "Everybody has a story." Some of these stories from so-called "regular" people's lives draw the attention of a person who decides - hey! - that tale is a really good idea for a movie. 

Sometimes the story may be one that impacts the lives of thousands of people - like when a hotel manager risks his life trying to protect refugees from being murdered or a legal clerk discovers a conspiracy to cover up the fact that a big corporation has contaminated the groundwater in a small community. Other times it may be a story about perseverance and overcoming obstacles that may not have a huge impact on the world as a whole, but strikes an emotional chord with the audience.

But whether the story is big or small in scope, if a "regular" person becomes the subject of a feature film, there's a good chance they will go from being someone most people probably have never heard of to being someone whose name is suddenly quite recognizable. Sometimes that is a good thing; other times not so much.

Below are 16 examples of regular people who had stories about their lives turned into movies - and how they felt about the film.

  • The Person: Joe Pistone was an FBI agent from 1969 to 1986. In early 1976, he volunteered to try and infiltrate the Bonanno crime family, using the alias of Donnie Brasco, who was supposed to be a low-level jewel thief. Pistone's Sicilian heritage and fluency in Italian aided his successful attempt to be accepted by the Bonannos. He was given tutelage in the family's business by Benjamin "Lefty Guns" Ruggiero. 

    In 1981 he was invited to become a "made man" - but in order to do so, he had to murder someone at the order of Bonanno family capo Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano. Luckily, the intended target (Anthony Indelicato) disappeared before Pistone could carry out the order. Shortly afterward, Indelicato's father and two associates were slain. Napolitano and Ruggiero learned that Pistone/Brasco was an undercover agent when they were arrested for the hits. Pistone's testimony helped uncover a drug distribution network being operated out of New York City pizzerias, while the information he gained from Napolitano and Ruggiero led to more than 200 indictments and 100 convictions of Mafia members. He and his family were placed in the FBI's Witness Protection Program because of various threats against his life.

    The Movie: The film Donnie Brasco is loosely based on the true story. One major fictionalization comes near the end of the film, when Ruggiero, who has found information that makes him suspect Pistone/Brasco is a federal agent, tries to force the latter to commit a murder in order to prove his loyalty. This is averted when the FBI shows up to arrest Ruggiero before Pistone is forced to carry out the hit. In a later scene, it is implied that Ruggiero will be knocked off by his mob bosses for allowing Pistone to infiltrate the organization. In real life, there was no such confrontation - Pistone's undercover identity remained intact until several days after Ruggiero was hauled in. And Ruggiero was not slain - he was imprisoned.

    How He Felt About It: Johnny Depp portrayed the undercover FBI agent, and Pistone was impressed by his performance, reportedly saying that when he closed his eyes and listened, he couldn't tell if it was Depp talking or if he was listening to himself. However, he wasn't as happy with Pacino's portrayal of Ruggiero.

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  • The Person: Christopher McCandless was well-educated and came from a well-off, if allegedly dysfunctional, family. After graduating from Emory College he - apparently having become disillusioned with his world - donated his life savings to OXFAM and began living a vagabond lifestyle, renaming himself "Alexander Supertramp." In April 1992, he decided to hitchhike from South Dakota, where he had been working at a grain elevator, to Alaska, with the goal of living off the land in the Alaskan bush. The last person to see him alive is believed to be Jim Gallien, who drove him to the head of the Stampede Trail on April 28, 1992. McCandless's emaciated body (he reportedly weighed just 67 pounds) was found by a couple of moose hunters inside an abandoned bus on September 9, 1992. He was 24 years old at the time of his passing.

    The Movie: The movie Into the Wild is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer. In the years since its publication, the book has become a huge bestseller that (along with the film) has turned McCandless into a cult hero. It has also been criticized as being more of a work of fiction than an accurate retelling of McCandless's life. Emile Hirsch stars as McCandless and portrays him as a dreamer and idealist who has rejected conventional civilization in the hopes of finding himself. However, he eventually realizes the Alaskan bush is no utopia, and is woefully unprepared for this harsh lifestyle. By the end of the film, he has decided his best path to happiness is to return to civilization and his family. However, through a series of mistakes, he is unable to find his way out of the wilderness and ends up succumbing to the elements.

    How He Felt About It: As the film depicts, the real McCandless perished in the wilderness, although no one knows if the cause was poisoning (as the book and film suggest) or if he simply starved. Wayne Westerberg, a friend of McCandless's and one of the people who identified his body after it was found, believes his friend would have approved of the film. "I'm sure he's sitting up there smiling. He liked to write all those diaries," Westerberg told Men's Journal in 2008. "If he wouldn't have documented it there wouldn't have been a story."

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  • The Person: Dr. Jeffrey Wigand is a biochemist who worked on developing reduced-harm cigarettes while he was the VP of research and development at tobacco company Brown & Williamson. He claimed he was fired by B&W in 1993 because he knew that high-ranking executives knowingly approved the addition of additives known to be carcinogenic and/or addictive to their cigarettes. On February 4, 1996, he appeared on the CBS news magazine show 60 Minutes, where (among other things) he accused B&W of having added chemicals like ammonia to its tobacco blends in order to increase the amount of nicotine. Wigand alleged that B&W later started a smear campaign meant to discredit him and that he even received death threats.

    The Movie: The film, which was adapted from the Vanity Fair article "The Man Who Knew Too Much," earned seven Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best actor (Russell Crowe). Although the film deals with Wigand (Crowe) testifying in a Mississippi lawsuit against the tobacco industry and the threats and smear campaign against him, its central focus is the interview Wigand did for 60 Minutes and producer Lowell Bergman's (Al Pacino) subsequent fight to get CBS to air the segment. It could be said that the film is as much about ethics in broadcast journalism and investigative reporting as it is about Wigand's exposure of the tobacco industry.

    What He Thought Of It: While Wigand did visit the set on two occasions, he had no say in the content of the film. He did request that smoking not be glamorized in the movie, and that request was honored.

    Mike Wallace said that while two-thirds of the film was accurate, it was also heavily dramatized. He also didn't totally agree with how he was portrayed by Christopher Plummer. "The basis of the film was that I had lost my moral compass and had gone along with the company and caved in for fear of a lawsuit or something like that. Also Don Hewitt, who is the Executive Producer of 60 Minutes, but mainly me," Wallace said in an interview for the Academy of Achievement in 2002. "That was utter bulls***. It was done for the drama involved. Then finally, at the end, I found my moral compass again, except it was not true."

    Just prior to the film's release, B&W released a statement saying it had found evidence proving Wigand had lied about receiving threats. Although the tobacco company didn't ask for the film to be pulled from release, it did warn Disney to be careful about maligning the company or its employees and wondered how the studio could continue to promote a film "based on fabrications and lies."

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  • The Person: Paul Rusesabagina was the manager of a Belgian-owned luxury hotel in Rwanda when a brutal civil war between the Hutu government and Tutsi rebels broke out in 1994 following the demise of the country's president (whose plane was allegedly shot down). As the conflict escalated into a genocide of the Tutsi population, the hotel manager was able to use his negotiation skills and out-and-out bribery to protect his family and give refuge to hundreds of Tutsi and Hutu refugees, all while trying to maintain the facility's appearance as a functioning four-star resort. When UN peacekeeping forces, who were not allowed to intervene in the conflict, attempted to evacuate a group of refugees (including Rusesabagina's family), the hotel receptionist betrayed them to the Interahamwe, a brutal local Hutu militia group. Because the hotel manager had been able to gain favor with Rwandan General Augustin Bizimungu, he was able to bribe him into arranging passage for his family and the other refugees to get safely behind Tutsi rebel lines.

    It is estimated that Rusesabagina's actions saved at least 1,200 Hutu and Tutsi refugees. However, in recent years, he has become a controversial figure in Rwanda; some survivors of the genocide have disputed his version of the events, while Rwandan officials have accused him of funding a Hutu rebel group whose leaders were active participants in the genocide.

    The Movie: Don Cheadle earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Rusesabagina. The film itself has been criticized by some for only giving one side of the story and diverting from the facts. For instance, while the film claims the Rusesabagina family and other refugees ended up being transported to safety by a UN convoy, in the hotel manager's memoir, he states that his family was actually transported by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, not the UN. The treatment of the refugees in Kabuga was also not as pleasant as shown in the film.

    How He Felt About It: "I met Terry George and Keir Pearson, we sat together for a couple of days. I told them my story, they wrote a script," Rusesabagina told IGN in 2004. "We sat down and talked about it, and some things we changed. Until they started filming, I was there, but I never got used [to it], even now. You know, whenever I see the movie, it just reopens the wounds of the genocide."

    The former hotel manager had high praise for Cheadle's performance. The actor met with Rusesabagina prior to the start of filming. "We stayed together for almost a week, and then I went back. So he [Cheadle] does what he used to me, to my manners, my behavior, my way of dressing, to know who I was really," Rusesabagina told IGN. "And then also, for the shooting time, I was there. I went back to Johannesburg and I stayed for two weeks. And later on, I also went back, so we became closer. His performance is perfect. He did it properly, sometimes in the Hollywood way, but just perfect."

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