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

April 28, 2021 8.0k 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: Erin Brockovich was a single mother working for Ed Masry as a legal clerk in the 1990s. Her research into the Pacific Gas and Electric Company's attempt to buy a customer's home led her to a discovery: PG&E was covering up the fact that the groundwater in and around Hinkley, CA, was contaminated by a poisonous type of chromium used by the company. PG&E even paid for the medical care needed by customers who had developed serious health issues due to exposure to the chemical - which the company had told them was safe. Brockovich was able to obtain proof of how the corporate headquarters of PG&E was complicit in the cover-up, which led to a huge class-action lawsuit.

    The Movie: Julia Roberts won the Oscar for best actress for her portrayal of Brockovich. The Steven Soderbegh-directed film was nominated for a total of five Academy Awards, including best picture. The film portrayed Brockovich as a single mother devoted to her kids who had struggled with her self-worth until she started digging into the facts behind the groundwater in Hinkley. 

    How She Felt About It: Brockovich's main concern seemed to be about how the people of Hinkley were portrayed. On her website, she called the film 98% accurate. In a 2020 interview with Vulture, she admitted she had a hard time wrapping her head around the idea that the film was a big hit:

    I think it's just the meaning of the story. I think that, you know, we can all rise, no matter what level or judgment or idea or perception that somebody wants to label us with. The environmental issues in the movie are real. In some ways I think it might've been ahead of its time.

    When they went to a screening of the film, "Ed (Masry) was focused on Julia's role, I was focused on Ed's role, but both of us were focused on Hinkley," Brockovich told Vulture. "Ed and I were high-fiving each other a lot. I couldn't believe Albert Finney - I kept saying to Ed, like, 'Oh my God, you would do that. Oh my God, you did that.' He never envisioned Julia Roberts, but he would be watching and say, 'Oh my God, that's so you!' That they were actually saying this was Pacific Gas and Electric, we were just blown away."

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  • The Person: Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger served two years in the US Navy and then worked in a power plant before attending college. His grades did not qualify him to attend Notre Dame, so he spent two years at Holy Cross College before finally being accepted into Notre Dame (on his fourth attempt) as a student. Despite only being 5 feet 6 inches, he dreamed of playing football for the Fighting Irish and made the scout team. On November 8, 1975, the 27-year-old Ruettiger participated in a home game against Georgia Tech - and on the final play, he sacked the quarterback. After the game ended, he was carried off the field by his teammates. 

    The Movie: Sean Astin got strong reviews for his portrayal of Ruettiger, but the film took several liberties with the true story. In the film, Notre Dame head coach Dan Devine is portrayed as being unwilling to let Ruettiger suit up against Georgia Tech, relenting only when other players lay their jerseys on the coach's desk and threaten to boycott the game. But in his autobiography, Devine claimed it was actually his idea to have Ruettiger play, and only agreed to be seen as the antagonist in the film to make it more dramatic. Ruettiger agreed the players never laid the jerseys on the desk, but did say that a few players had spoken to Devine on Ruettiger's behalf and convinced him to let the walk-on suit up. The film also portrayed Ruettiger as being homeless and struggling to pay for his schooling at one point; in reality, the GI Bill paid for his education and housing.

    How He Felt About It: Ruettiger has claimed that the film is more than 90% accurate, although he admitted some of the details were exaggerated. To him, what was most important was the film's "timeless message" and the idea that "if you believe in yourself, everything is possible."

    In 2018, he told USA Today that he still gets caught up in the film's ending: "Even though I know Sean Astin is going to make that tackle, I still get emotional. Because he made it. And that tells me the movie still works."

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  • The Person: Frank Serpico joined the US Army at age 17 and served two years in South Korea. In 1959, the 23-year-old joined the New York City Police Department (NYPD) as a patrolman. In 1967, while working undercover as a detective, he reported evidence of systemic, widespread police corruption. After getting little response from the department, he contributed to an April 1970 New York Times article about how cops were getting millions of dollars in payments from mobsters, dealers, and even some small business owners. One month later, Mayor John Lindsay formed the Knapp Commission to investigate the charges made in the article, and in October 1971, Serpico appeared before the commission, becoming the first officer in NYPD history to openly testify about police corruption. A few months prior to testifying, Serpico was shot in the face during an attempted drug bust; 50 years later, parts of the bullet remain in his skull. He retired from the NYPD the following year.

    The Movie: Al Pacino was nominated for the Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal of Serpico. The film closely follows the 1973 book Serpico, written by Peter Mass with the help of the former detective. The movie does suggest that Serpico may have been set up by his fellow officers when he was shot by dealers just a few months prior to testifying before the Knapp Commission (although after The New York Times article had come out) - an allegation that has never been proven.

    How He Felt About It: Serpico was invited to visit the film set. He liked Pacino but argued with director Sidney Lumet over a scene that showed a fellow police officer stuffing a man down a toilet over being late with a payment - something Serpico claimed never happened. "Lumet was directing, and I said cut," Serpico told WNYC in 2011. "And he said, 'Pussycat, what are you doing? I'm trying to make a movie over here.'" The two men continued to argue, and "I grabbed my proverbials and said, 'Pussycat this,' And I walked out. And that was the last time that I saw him."

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  • The Person: Herman Boone began coaching high school football shortly after receiving a master's degree in physical education from North Carolina Central University. In 1961, he became the head coach at the all-black E.J. Hayes High School in Wilmington, NC. He resigned in 1969 when he was informed by the school board that he would be demoted to assistant coach, in an ironic twist of fate, under the new desegregation plan. That year, he became an assistant coach at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA. Two years later, when T.C. Williams merged with two other public schools in Alexandria, Boone was named the head coach over Bill Yoast (who was white), even though the latter had more experience. Yoast remained on staff as an assistant and the two men worked together to win the 1971 Virginia State Championship.

    The Movie: Although Remember the Titans is based on a true story, the film exaggerates or changes many of the details. For example, Alexandria's school system was integrated in 1963, eight years prior to the events in the movie. T.C. Williams High School was created out of a merger of three schools, not two. The star linebacker (Gerry Bertier) on the team was not paralyzed in a car wreck prior to the state championship game - in reality, he played in that contest and was injured months later. And Bertier never fought with Julius - they were friends from the start. However, as shown in the film, some white players did threaten to boycott when Yoast was demoted to assistant coach, and Boone's family did experience some racist attacks like when the film shows a brick being thrown through the family's window. (In real life, it was a toilet, not a brick, but the filmmakers thought showing a toilet being thrown through the window might offend some of the audience.) As in the film, the real Boone and Yoast did manage to work together and coach the team to the state championship in 1971, becoming friends in the process.

    How He Felt About It: Boone passed in 2019 at the age of 84. But in a 2005 interview with The Oklahoman, the retired coach said Remember the Titans did a good job imparting the message he had tried to share with the members of the integrated T.C. Williams High School football team:

    We fought very hard to do that because that was my life. My life centered around respect. Remember the Titans is not about football. It is about how some exceptional young men overcame their fear of the unknown, which is what we now call diversity.

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