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

April 28, 2021 8.3k views16 items
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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: In the early 1950s, Philomena Lee was an Irish teenager disowned by her strict Catholic father after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. She was sent to live with other unwed mothers at a convent. In return for a financial donation, her son, Anthony, was given away by the nuns to an American couple (who thought they were adopting an orphan) when he was 3 years old. Lee eventually moved to England, became a psychiatric nurse, married, and had children, but for decades, she told no one about her son. When she finally told her daughter, the latter convinced a reporter to help them find Anthony - which they did, only to discover he had succumbed to AIDS several years earlier. On his request, he had been buried at the convent; he had gone there prior to his passing to try and find his birth mother. His hope was that she would one day return to the convent and discover his ashes. Lee has since become an advocate for adoption rights.

    The Movie: The film Philomena is based on a nonfiction book by Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who successfully helped Lee and her daughter search for her son. The film received four Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best actress (Judi Dench). In the film, Lee is portrayed as a woman who has retained her faith, despite the nuns' actions in taking her son away from her years before and their refusal to provide any information in her search to find him. In fact, when Sixsmith angrily accuses an elderly nun who had refused to help Anthony (who had been renamed Michael Hess as a child and grown up to be a prominent attorney) reunite with his birth mother, Lee decides to voluntarily forgive the nun.

    How She Felt About It: In a 2014 interview with The Atlantic, Lee and her daughter admitted they weren't sure what to think of the film the first time they saw it. "It was very hard to judge whether it was good or not because we'd been so involved in it," Lee's daughter Jane Libberton said. "We met the next day at lunch and I said, 'I think it's okay? I think we'll be alright with this film.' But we couldn't tell." It wasn't until after they saw the positive reaction the film received at the Venice Film Festival that they really came to enjoy it.

  • The Person: After high school, Christopher Gardner served as a hospital corpsman in the US Navy for four years before moving to San Francisco and getting a job as a medical lab assistant. But the job didn't pay enough to support his girlfriend and their son, so he quit to become a medical equipment salesman. His career path took a turn when he met a stockbroker named Bob Bridges, who helped set up meetings for Gardner with brokerage firms that offered training programs. He eventually landed a trainee position at Dean Witter Reynolds, but a series of personal and financial setbacks left him and his young son homeless. For about the next year, unbeknownst to any of his colleagues, Gardner and his son slept wherever they could - in shelters, in parks, even in one of the offices at the stock brokerage firm. Gardner's determination and hard work paid off, as he got offered a full-time job as a broker, which allowed him and his son to get off the streets. He eventually became a millionaire after starting his own firm.

    The Movie: The Pursuit of Happyness is based on Gardner's memoir of the same name. Will Smith was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for his performance, while Smith's real-life son, Jaden, made his film debut, portraying Gardner's son. In the film, Gardner's wife leaves him but agrees their son should remain with him; in real life, his girlfriend walked out but initially took their son with her. She later gave custody of the boy to Gardner.

    How He Felt About It: Gardner, who was an executive producer on the film, initially wasn't happy about Will Smith's casting. "I wasn't overwhelmed, honestly. I always thought of Will as the blockbuster, sci-fi movie star." But he came around eventually. "My daughter said, 'If he can play Muhammad Ali, he can play you!'" Gardner spent a lot of time working with Smith on set to try and help the actor get a deeper understanding of his story.

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  • The Person: A long-time educator who became famous for his unorthodox methods, Joe Louis Clark graduated from William Paterson College and earned a master's degree from Seton Hall University. A former US Army Reserve sergeant and drill instructor, Clark became a teacher and eventually moved into administration, becoming the principal of the inner-city PS6 Elementary School in Paterson, NJ. His ability to revitalize the once-failing school was dubbed the "Miracle of Carroll Street."

    In 1982, he became principal of Paterson's troubled Eastside High, an inner-city school known for its dangerous drug and crime culture and poor academic record. Clark roamed the hallways of the school with a baseball bat (which he said wasn't a weapon but a symbol of choice - a student could either strike out or hit a home run depending on his actions) or a bullhorn, using unorthodox tough-love methods to try and raise the expectations of the students. His tactics earned him both supporters and critics. In 1988, the attention surrounding his methods and the positive change in Eastside High's culture landed Clark on the cover of Time magazine, in addition to other national media coverage.

    The Movie: Lean on Me was loosely based on Clark's methods as principal and diverts quite significantly from the facts. To start with, the film suggests Clark became the principal of Eastside High in 1987 - he actually got that job in 1982. Clark is also shown being arrested and jailed for locking the school's doors, which is a violation of the fire code. While the real Clark did lock the doors to try and keep pushers away, he was never arrested or imprisoned - instead, he took the chains off the doors after the city took him to court.

    The movie suggests Clark first started teaching at Eastside High in 1967, and that his students were mainly white. Clark actually didn't start teaching at Eastside until 1972, and his students were primarily Black. Despite the historical inaccuracies in the movie, Morgan Freeman received very strong reviews for his portrayal of Clark.

    How He Felt About It: In the immediate aftermath of Lean on Me's release, some accused Clark of getting a swelled head. In March 1989, he threatened to quit as Eastside's principal after being suspended for a few days for approving a racy school show. "Mr. Clark has gotten caught up in the Hollywood hype," Essex County school board attorney Robert Rosenberg told The New York Times. "He's obviously been affected by someone making a movie about him. It's a natural reaction." Referring to the principal's numerous media appearances to promote the film, Paterson mayor Frank X. Graves Jr. was so upset by Clark's behavior that he threatened to take out a full-page newspaper ad telling Clark to "cool it."

    "I want him to get back to the educational process," the mayor told the Times. "I'm asking him to remember that he's in charge of a whole generation and it needs him to be there, not all over the country. We're losing all that we've gained." For his part, Clark denied that fame and fortune had gone to his head. "My achievements are pretty awesome for a poor Black welfare boy from Newark, but... I never let things get out of proportion," he told the New York Times.

    In 2012, author and motivational speaker Dr. Pinky Miller, who was a student at Eastside HS when Clark was the principal, told Tap Into Paterson that she considered Clark a father figure: "He was the person I could go to with anything. That's why we loved him so much."

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  • The Person: John Laroche is a horticulturist who was operating a plant nursery for the Seminole Tribe when he was arrested in Florida in 1994 for trying to poach a rare species of wild flower called a ghost orchid (along with other flowers) from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. Laroche, whom the Seminole nicknamed "Troublemaker" and "Crazy White Man," was charged with trying to clone the ghost orchids for profit. He ended up reaching a plea deal that had him fined and sentenced to six months of probation. Laroche's story came to the attention of reporter Susan Orlean, who first wrote about him in an article for The New Yorker, then in her nonfiction book The Orchid Thief

    The Movie: Adaptation is a meta-comedy centered around screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's struggles with writer's block as he attempts to adapt Susan Orlean's nonfiction book about John Laroche's arrest for poaching rare orchids into a feature film. Adaptation incorporates elements from Orlean's book while also introducing the completely fictional character of Kaufman's twin brother Donald, and invents a romance between Orlean and Laroche. It also invents a murder plot in which Laroche and Orlean conspire to do away with Kaufman before he can reveal their adulterous relationship and their attempt to use the rare orchids to manufacture a mind-altering drug. While the film shows Orlean being arrested and Laroche being taken out by an alligator, neither of those things, of course, happened in real life. Nicolas Cage played the dual role of Kaufman and his fictional twin, while Meryl Streep played Orlean, and Chris Cooper won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Laroche.

    How He Felt About It: Laroche claimed, "During the 'Orchid Thief/Adaptation Period,' I was hated. Threatening phone calls, death threats, people calling or knocking on my door demanding how to make dope from Ghost Orchids. There was lots of bullsh*t, and this got old quick." To give his family some peace and protection, he decided to change his name to John Stafford and became a computer programmer.

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