TV Villains You Didn't Realize Were Real People

Over 700 Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of TV Villains You Didn't Realize Were Real People
Voting Rules
Vote up the fictional-seeming villains you're surprised were based on real people.

In the era of fairly accurate historical dramas like The Crown and Downton Abbey, it’s no secret that many television characters are directly based on real historical figures. Equally as often, however, thin historical homages are hidden within popular TV shows - characters that are real-life people in everything but name. Sometimes, of course, it’s the TV villains that are based on people.

Somehow, a television antagonist based on a real person is more impactful than when it’s one of the good guys. Knowing that the same character stalking the heroes of our favorite TV shows once stalked - or, occasionally, still stalks - our own world is a terrifying thought, and one that gives brand new meaning to the horrors of reality television. 

  • Hannibal Lecter Was Inspired By A Mexican Doctor With A Dark History
    Photo: NBC / Wikipedia

    Whether on the printed page, at the cinema, or on TV’s Hannibal, Hannibal Lecter is one of fiction’s most horrifying - and yet oddly compelling - figures. The character was created by author Thomas Harris for the 1981 novel Red Dragon, and was based on an actual person whom Harris had encountered years earlier while working as a journalist.

    On assignment in a Mexican prison, Harris learned of a man known as “Doctor Salazar,” famous within the institution for having medically intervened to save the life of a fellow inmate who had been shot. Harris recalled the doctor as “a small, lithe man with dark red hair... and... a certain elegance about him,” but it was only after speaking with him, and being intrigued by his coolly disturbing views on death, that Harris discovered the truth. Salazar was Alfredo Ballí Treviño, incarcerated for killing his lover in a fit of passion and slicing his body into dozens of parts. 

    As the warden informed him when Harris inquired as to the identity of the grim surgeon, “The doctor is a murderer. As a surgeon, he could package his victim in a surprisingly small box. He will never leave this place. He is insane.” Harris would not reveal the name of the original Hannibal Lecter until 2013, four years after Treviño’s passing.

    456 votes
  • The Soup Nazi Is Real - And He Still Hates Jerry Seinfeld
    Photo: Seinfeld / NBC

    Seinfeld may be a show about nothing, but it still has conflict, and you can’t have conflict without antagonists. In one memorable Season 7 episode, the villain of the week is the titular “Soup Nazi,” a restaurateur so cartoonishly uptight that he couldn’t possibly be real. However, not only is he authentic, but he’s also still in the soup business.

    Al Yeganeh ran the popular Soup Kitchen International in New York City, where his infamous posted rules of “THE LINE MUST BE KEPT MOVING. Pick the soup you want! Have your money ready! Move to the extreme left after ordering!” were brusquely and loudly enforced. Jerry Seinfeld barely exaggerated Yeganeh into the Soup Nazi, giving Yeganeh enough notoriety to franchise his business as the “Original SoupMan” - though he still resents the episode, and refers to Seinfeld as an “idiot clown.”

    These days, Yeganeh has stepped back from the business, but his product can now be found on grocery store shelves, where customers can enjoy it with absolutely no verbal abuse required.

    323 votes
  • 3
    397 VOTES

    Lady Gaga’s Countess From ‘AHS: Hotel’ Is Based On Perhaps The Most Prolific Female Serial Killer Of All Time

    The American Horror Story anthology has made a habit of adapting some of history’s worst individuals into its antagonists, and Lady Gaga’s Elizabeth - usually referred to as the Countess - is no different. She’s not just based on any real-life villain, but the most prolific female serial killer to ever walk the Earth.

    The Countess is heavily inspired by Countess Elizabeth Báthory, who terrorized Hungary in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Like Gaga’s character, Báthory was suspected of being a vampire, but the actual truth was far more grisly. Countess Báthory simply enjoyed tormenting young women, and believed that bathing in their blood would keep her youthful. 

    Báthory, born in Transylvania (and partially responsible for its reputation), would engage in acts as depraved as eating the flesh of her still-living victims, forcing them to cook and eat their own flesh, and even smearing them in honey to watch them be devoured by ants. She started out with servant girls and peasants, and her husband supported her, but when he perished, she really let loose and began targeting fellow upper-class women.

    This led to her being caught in the act in 1610, and sentenced to life in isolation, where she lasted for three years. 

    397 votes
  • Though its extreme violence and profanity mark it as a very modern Western, Deadwood is set in the 1870s in the real-life town of Deadwood, SD, and the series is home to several of Deadwood’s actual residents from that time period.

    That includes series protagonist Seth Bullock and his primary rival, Al Swearengen. The name might sound like it was specially crafted for a curse-word-filled TV show, but Ellis Swearengen was the real owner of the Gem Theater saloon/brothel in Deadwood. If anything, the real Swearengen, who regularly assaulted and intimidated vulnerable women into working for him, was a more villainous figure than the one portrayed by Ian McShane.

    In reality, Swearengen lived in Deadwood for a couple of decades, unbothered by the law, until his brothel burned down for the third time and he left town, only to perish under mysterious circumstances years later in Denver. 

    198 votes
  • Arleen Sorkin IS Harley Quinn
    Photo: Fox Kids / NBC

    Though she eventually moved on to comic books and the silver screen, Harley Quinn first appeared on TV as the sidekick and primary love interest of the Joker on Batman: The Animated Series. Even before she showed up in cartoon form, however, Harley existed in the real world as character actor Arleen Sorkin. She, for all intents and purposes, is Harley Quinn.

    During the course of her 1980s stint on Days of Our Lives, Sorkin participated in a series of dream-centric episodes that transformed her character Calliope Jones into a medieval-era clown. She taped the performance and passed a copy on to her friend, Paul Dini, who happened to be looking to create an original villain for the animated Batman series he was writing.

    Taking a shine to Sorkin’s portrayal of a whiny, manic harlequin, Dini made a few adjustments and ended up with Harleen Quinzel, named in honor of Sorkin. And when it came time to select a voice actor, Sorkin was the only possible choice. She went on to voice Harley for more than a decade, further defining a character that was entirely based on herself. As Dini recalled:

    I knew I wanted a henchgirl in that episode, and I thought there was a character that my friend Arleen Sorkin could play really well. Shortly around that time she was on Days of Our Lives. I was home sick one day and I was watching Days on TV, and she was playing a jester-type character in a fantasy sequence. I said, "That's really kind of funny. Maybe I'll use some of that for the henchgirl character." [...] Harley's accent is pretty close to the way Arleen talks. She's from Washington, DC, originally, but I guess between spending time in Boston and New York it evolved into a bit more of a classic New York type of accent. She was doing pretty much her own voice, but she kicked it over a little bit into the ['50s actress] Judy Holliday range...

    273 votes
  • 6
    234 VOTES

    The Shapeshifting Killer From The ‘X-Files’ Episode ‘Irresistible’ Was Based On Firsthand Accounts Of Jeffrey Dahmer

    The Shapeshifting Killer From The ‘X-Files’ Episode ‘Irresistible’ Was Based On Firsthand Accounts Of Jeffrey Dahmer
    Photo: Fox / Wikipedia

    The episode “Irresistible,” from Season 2 of The X-Files, is notable for being one of the only episodes in the series to not feature a paranormal or supernatural plot motif. It did, however, include a scary sequence in which Agent Dana Scully imagines serial killer Donnie Pfaster’s face shapeshifting into several demonic configurations. However, in keeping with the episode’s grounded nature, this was also based in reality.

    As director David Nutter recounted in X-Files Confidential

    There are reports of people who had been under the spell of Jeffrey Dahmer, who actually claimed that he shape-shifted during those hours when they were held hostage; that his image actually changed... In many ways, [writer] Chris [Carter] wanted to sell the idea that, as established in Mulder's closing dialogue in the show, not all terror comes from the paranormal. It could come from the person next door. 

    Pfaster’s portrayal as a dangerously escalating fetishist was also based on Dahmer and his horrific crimes. 

    234 votes