5 Famous Celebrities With Insane Family Backgrounds
In the world of action movies, every character has some kind of crazy backstory, but there are only so many times a character can turn out to be the son of an infamous assassin or a child tragically orphaned by the mob and raised in an inner city dive bar before the movie officially becomes a comedy. Then you find out that those things happened to Woody Harrelson and Dylan McDermott in real life, and you realize actors' lives are sometimes way crazier than any character they played in a movie ...
Woody Harrelson's Dad Was a Contract Killer
Woody Harrelson has enjoyed a long and fruitful career, with such memorable roles as Woody on Cheers and a recent turn as a detective on True Detective. He also frequently plays Jesse Eisenberg's stepfather. Woody is such a likeable, laid-back guy that it's hard to believe his father was a cold-blooded contract killer who murdered people at the behest of criminals.
Charles Harrelson walked out on his wife and three sons in 1968, which was only the third worst thing he did that year. After being acquitted for a murder he probably committed thanks to a bush league prosecutor, Charles was hired to kill another person so the victim's business partner could collect insurance money. Amazingly, he got off again, this time on a mistrial, because Texas' judicial system in the '60s was apparently the equivalent of a first-turn guess in a game of Clue. Let that sink in -- Charles Harrelson killed two people in one year and got away with it both times.
The state got their shit together and tried Charles again five years later, sentencing him to 15 years in jail. Prison straightened Charles out, and he dedicated the rest of his life to his family. This is another way of saying that he got out of prison after serving only five years of his sentence and immediately murdered a judge. The parole board was batting a thousand that year.
The judge in question had a reputation for tough sentences, and Charles was hired to kill him by a drug dealer who was about to stand trial. Shockingly, their plan to avoid punishment for a major crime by committing a second major crime didn't work out, and everyone involved went to prison. This story was actually referenced in No Country for Old Men, a film that featured Woody Harrelson getting murdered by a character who, according to the brother of one of Charles' victims, is eerily similar to Charles himself. That's like an Escher painting brought to horrible life.
Charles also claimed that he shot JFK during a six-hour standoff with the police while he was high on cocaine. The incident got Woody's attention, and upon learning that his father was a multiple murderer, Woody promptly befriended him and sunk several million dollars into trying to get Charles a retrial. Before his death in 2007, Woody described Charles as "one of the most articulate, well-read, charming people I've ever known," and also said, "I look at him as someone who could be a friend more than someone who was a father." And now we're scared of Woody Harrelson.
And while we're on the subject of Cheers alums ...
Everyone Kelsey Grammer Has Ever Loved Has Died Tragically
Kelsey Grammer's neurotic radio therapist Frasier Crane (featured in both Cheers and the aptly titled Frasier) taught us that stuffy, rich intellectuals are hilarious. But it's painfully ironic that Grammer found success in comedy, because his biography reads like the most excruciatingly tragic hero's trial we've ever seen.
Kelsey's father, Frank Allen Grammer, Jr., was shot to death on his front lawn by a deranged cab driver for absolutely no reason. The man had no connection to Frank whatsoever -- he showed up at Frank's house, lit the family car on fire to lure him outside, then shot him to death. Just for the hell of it. Then, when Kelsey was 20 and had just been expelled from Juilliard, his younger sister Karen was waiting for her boyfriend in a Red Lobster parking lot when a gang of thieves showed up to rob the place. When they spotted Karen, they decided they couldn't leave a witness and brutally murdered her to cover their tracks.
You might think this would be the point where we say, "But luckily things began looking up for Kelsey," but you would be wrong. Dead wrong. Just five years later, Grammer's two half-brothers, Stephen and Billy, were killed in a bizarre scuba diving accident wherein one of them was probably eaten by sharks. That's not a glib joke at the expense of Kelsey Grammer's family -- one of his two half-brothers was almost certainly killed by a fucking shark.
Because the universe just couldn't stop shitting on Kelsey Grammer, his good friend and longtime producer David Angell was killed in the terrorist attacks on September 11. And Ben Novack, one of Kelsey's best friends for over 40 years, was murdered by his own wife in a double-homicide inheritance scheme. We kind of want to track Grammer down and give him a great big bear hug.
Two of his wives were physically abusive and emotionally unstable (nothing against Kelsey, but that's kind of what happens when you marry a stripper immediately after meeting her). When he tried to leave his former exotic dancer wife, she locked herself in a hotel room and attempted suicide. She survived, but the couple's unborn child did not. Kelsey Grammer's life has essentially been one extended Greek tragedy.
Dylan McDermott Lived a Scorsese Film
Dylan McDermott is famous for playing a sexy lawyer on The Practice and a string of roles as sexy villains in American Horror Story, Hostages, and Olympus Has Fallen.
As it turns out, there's a reason he frequently gets cast as Handsome Bad Guy -- Dylan was born Mark Anthony McDermott to the teenage girlfriend of a gangster named John Sponza (although Sponza was not his biological father). Unfortunately, Sponza wasn't a singing and dancing gangster like in West Side Story or Guys and Dolls so much as a heroin addict racketeer like in Donnie Brasco and Goodfellas. In 1962, when Dylan was 5, Sponza further challenged his reputation by murdering Dylan's mother, a crime he wasn't convicted of until 50 years later in 2012 (Sponza himself was found shot dead in the trunk of a car in 1972, so the conviction was largely symbolic).
Dylan went to live with his grandmother for a while in a neighborhood that was so bad that a burglar once stole the underwear out of his dresser. Deciding that he didn't want to spend the rest of his adolescence padlocking his underwear drawer, he tracked down his bartending father in New York City. Dylan helped his dad out, and by "helped" we mean he broke up fights, cleaned up pools of vomit, and served 8 a.m. beers to men who would make Nick Nolte look like a solid job interview candidate. Working in a sketchy bar with your estranged dad after your mother gets murdered by a career gangster sounds like the plot of the darkest sitcom in television history.
Dylan could have easily grown up shaking down deadbeats and powdering people's kneecaps with a baseball bat if it wasn't for his stepmother, Eve Ensler (whom you may recognize as the author of The Vagina Monologues). She knew that handsome people can get paid way more pretending to be villainous thugs, so she encouraged Dylan to get into acting, and despite being only a few years older than Dylan, she even legally adopted him years after she divorced his father, which is only the tiniest bit creepy.
Olivia Newton-John's Parents Were Nazi-Fighting War Refugees
You probably know Olivia Newton-John from her leading role in the film Xanadu, although it's possible that you also saw her in Grease. Additionally, she's responsible for the song "Physical," which everyone born in 1981 was conceived to.
But it's Olivia's parents who are the real story, because the lives of Irene Born and Brinley Newton-John read like a subplot from Inglourious Basterds. Irene was the daughter of Max Born, a Nobel Prize-winning atomic physicist and one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics. Her family was forced to flee Germany after the Nazis took over, and it was in England where Irene met Brinley.
Brinley was born in Wales, but despite that disadvantage, he grew up to be a brilliant linguist who earned a double major from Cambridge, which is a school for people who think Harvard is adorable. During World War II, Brinley's fluency in German led him to a job interrogating captured Nazi pilots. Forgoing the standard torture and intimidation, Brinley would take the pilots out for dinner and drinks. He figured that people are generally more willing to give you information if you're being friendly, rather than if you're smashing them in the crotch with a fuel canister. His technique worked so well that it was adopted by Ian Fleming, which makes us wonder if there's a rough draft of a Bond novel wherein 007 and Goldfinger just get drunk and hug things out.
One of his interrogations led to the capture of Rudolf "I'm Crazy Even by Nazi Standards" Hess, the Deputy Fuhrer who launched an unauthorized one-man mission to negotiate a treaty between Britain and Germany that (spoilers!) didn't quite pan out.
Later in the war, Brinley joined Bletchley Park, MI5's code-breaking headquarters. Brinley was part of a team that had to quickly and accurately translate decoded German messages into the Queen's English. Brinley himself translated the secret German battle plans for El Alamein, which you may recognize as a level in Call of Duty 2 (and, to a lesser degree, as an important turning point in World War II). So, to sum up, Olivia Newton-John's father helped win a major battle and capture one of the highest-ranking Nazis (and was also a kickass opera singer), and her mother was the war refugee daughter of one of the greatest minds in atomic science. Olivia, meanwhile, grew up to make Christmas albums with John Travolta.
So, in a way, this is just another atrocity the Nazis are responsible for.
Jackie Chan's Mother Was a Drug Baron Who Married the Cop Who Caught Her
We all know Jackie Chan as the loveable star of ridiculous action comedies and the gentle recipient of 50 percent of Chris Tucker's racism. Given his astounding success and lighthearted personality, you'd assume he was born into relative privilege, but his family background is filled with so much despair and intrigue, it could have been written by John le Carre.
Jackie's father, Charles Chan (not Charlie Chan), had the misfortune of living through the Chinese Civil War, one of the worst periods in Chinese history. Charles found himself serving as an orderly to a Nationalist general when he was only a teenager.
Then the Second Sino-Japanese War began, which was essentially the opening act of World War II, and Charles became a Nationalist spy working against Japanese aggressors before growing sick of government corruption and quitting to become a port inspector in Shanghai. It's remarkably like the origin story of a Jackie Chan character, if his movies were set to a background of war, genocide, and widespread human suffering.
While Charles was trying to be one good cop in a world of corruption, Jackie's mom, Lee-Lee, took the "underworld kingpin" route. After her previous husband was killed by a Japanese bomb, she was forced to abandon her daughters and make a living in Shanghai. She soon discovered she had a talent for the humble professions of gambling and opium smuggling, and before long she had earned the street nickname of Big Sister. Her operation eventually ran afoul of port inspector Charles Chan, but instead of a climactic rooftop karate battle, they decided to get married, because that's way less exhausting and requires fewer warm-up stretches.
But the 1940s had a habit of being terrible for everyone, and the civil war ended with China under Communist control. A former Nationalist spy and a drug-peddling crime boss were two of the many things the new government frowned upon, so the Chans fled to Hong Kong, where Jackie was born a few years later, presumably doing a series of dangerously wacky stunt falls through the delivery room.
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