27 Famous People Who Didn’t Use Their Birth Names

Published September 25, 2017

Discover what Bill Clinton, John Wayne, and others were called before their names were changed.

There are plenty of reasons to change your name — especially when you’re in the public eye. Maybe your birth name is too hard to pronounce, too long, or in some cases, already belongs to somebody else.

Whatever the reason, there are a surprising number of well-known figures throughout history and into the present day who aren’t quite who you think they are — or at least aren’t using the names their mommas gave them.

Here are 25 famous people that don’t use their real names. And in some instances, it’s plain to see why.

Gerald Ford, born Leslie Lynch King Jr.

Gerald Ford
Ford was renamed after his stepfather, Gerald Rudolff Ford, at age three. His mother decided that that was a better option for the boy than keeping the name of his birth father, who threatened both mother and infant with a butcher knife. Luckily, she ditched the father 16 days later, and "Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr." is the man who would one day become president. After all, "Lynch King" certainly isn't very presidential.Wikimedia Commons

Bob Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman

Bob Dylan Microphone
Inspired by the poet Dylan Thomas, Zimmerman took the stage name Bob Dylan not long after he first started playing music onstage. “Some people – you’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens,” he told CBS in 2004.Xavier Badosa/Flickr

Albert Brooks, born Albert Einstein

Albert Brooks
The reasoning behind this name change should be fairly obvious. The actor/comedian changed his already famous name when he first went into the business — and has since made the name Albert Brooks famous in its own right.Amanda Edwards/WireImage/Getty Images

John Wayne, born Marion Robert Morrison

John Wayne
Switching names is kind of the Duke’s thing. His middle name was changed shortly after birth, from Robert to Mitchell, because his parents decided that they wanted that name for their next son instead. After moving to California from his Iowa birthplace, a local fireman started calling him "Little Duke" because he was rarely seen without his giant dog named Duke. Later, the director Raoul Walsh switched “Duke Morrison” to “John Wayne.” The actor wasn’t even present for the discussion. Wikimedia Commons

Bill Clinton, born William Jefferson Blythe III

Bill Clinton
Clinton was initially named after his father. However, William Jefferson Blythe Jr. died from injuries related to a car accident three months before his son was born. The widowed mother then remarried Roger Clinton Sr. The former president began using the Clinton surname soon after the 1950 wedding, but didn’t legally change it until age 15.Pixabay

Woody Allen, born Allan Stewart Konigsberg

Woody Allen Glasses
Not merely a stage name, Woody Allen (technically, Heywood Allen) is in fact the famous director's legal name, and has been since he was 17, when he changed it himself.Wikimedia Commons

Annie Oakley, born Phoebe Ann Moses

Annie Oakley
Many may not realize that wild west sharpshooter Annie Oakley was indeed a stage name. The name likely came from the Oakley area of Cincinnati, Ohio where she and her family lived. Either way, the sharpshooting youngster would have claimed her place in history whatever her name. Wikimedia Commons

Stevie Wonder, born Steveland Hardaway Judkins

Stevie Wonder
When Berry Gordy signed the musical child prodigy to Motown's Tamla label, a producer came up with the name “Little Stevie Wonder.” The name Steveland surely would never have had the same chance to catch on. The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas/Flickr

George Orwell, born Eric Arthur Blair

George Orwell
One of the celebrated author's earlier works (before classics like Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four) was about his time living in poverty. To avoid embarrassing his family, he used the pen name George Orwell, which he described as “a good round English name.” Wikimedia Commons

Whoopi Goldberg, born Caryn Johnson

Whoopi Goldberg
Her mom convinced her to use a Jewish last name, claiming it would advance her career. As far as the first name of “Whoopi,” yes, it’s reportedly a reference to the actresses’ tendency towards flatulence. Daniel Langer/Flickr

Pelé, born Edson Arantes do Nascimento

Pelé 1960
The Brazilian soccer player hated the name Pelé; in fact, he punched the classmate that gave it to him. As it turns out, he disliked it because the word actually has no Portuguese meaning, and thus he assumed it to be an insult. He probably felt silly when he only recently found out that it means “miracle” in Hebrew.Wikimedia Commons

Gene Simmons, born Chaim Witz

Gene Simmons
For a time, the KISS frontman also went by the name Gene Klein, after the maiden name of his mother, who survived internment at a Nazi concentration camp.Wikimedia Commons

Mata Hari, born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle

Mata Hari
The small-town girl from Holland who found fame as an exotic dancer and convicted spy liked to tell the (fabricated) story of how an ancient Indian priestess gave her the name Mata Hari, which is Malaysian for “eye of the day.” Perhaps under her given name, she’d have never acquired her fame and ultimately never stood before a French firing squad for the crime of espionage.Wikimedia Commons

Cary Grant, born Archibald Alexander Leach

Cary Grant
Paramount Studios was less than thrilled with giving a star contract to someone calling themselves Archibald Leach. The name Cary was suggested by actress Fay Wray, and the studio slapped Grant behind it, and Hollywood royalty was born. Insomnia Cured Here/Flickr

Alan Alda, born Alphonso Joseph d’Abruzzo

Alan Alda
Alda’s last name was made by combining the first two letters of his first and last name. The 20-time Emmy nominated actor, writer, and director perhaps anticipated needing a name that would actually fit on an award inscription plaque.Wikimedia Commons

Anne Rice, born Howard Allen O’Brien

Anne Rice
In Rice's own words, "My birth name is Howard Allen because apparently my mother thought it was a good idea to name me Howard. My father's name was Howard … she was a bit of a Bohemian, a bit of mad woman, a bit of a genius … and she had the idea that naming a woman Howard was going to give that woman an unusual advantage in the world."Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly

Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler

Hedy Lamarr
The stage name Hedy Lamarr was given to the controversial Austrian actress by MGM studio co-founder Louis B Mayer, who was inspired by the silent film star, Barbara La Marr.Wikimedia Commons

Helen Mirren, born Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironov

Helen Mirren
Mirren’s Russian roots are evident in her lengthy birth name. Later, she’d get to add one more word to her title: the British honorific of ”Dame.” Tompickenfrets/Flickr

Jack Palance, born Volodymyr Palahniuk

Jack Palance
The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Palance lamented that no one could pronounce his last name, and it was suggested that he use Palanski instead. He, in turn, decided to use the even shorter Palance. Early in his career, he also used the name Walter Jack Palance, but even more surprisingly, had yet another name: Jack Brazzo, his alias as a boxer in the 1930s.TriStar Pictures/Getty Images

Michael Keaton, born Michael Douglas

Michael Keaton
Apparently, there’s only room for one actor named Michael Douglas in Tinseltown — and the other guy had dibs. Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Kirk Douglas: born Issur Danielovitch Demsky

Kirk Douglas
The son of Russian - Jewish immigrants, Kirk Douglas apparently didn’t believe that his old name rolled off the tongue.Wikimedia

Kareem Abdul Jabbar, born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar
The NBA star’s name change occurred well into his career, on May 1, 1971. He began using his Muslim name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which roughly translates to "generous/noble servant of (Abdul) the mighty/stern one (Jabbar),” he had converted to Islam earlier while attending UCLA.Wikimedia Commons

Jane Seymour, born Joyce Penelope Wilhelmina Frankenberg

Jane Seymour
Seymour adopted the stage name "Jane Seymour" after King Henry VIII's third wife and lady-in waiting to Anne Boleyn.Wikimedia Commons

Michael Caine, born Maurice Micklewhite

Michael Caine
Wanting to ditch the name “Micklewhite,” the actor picked the name of Humphrey Bogart’s character in The Caine Mutiny.Wikimedia Commons

Dusty Springfield, born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien

Dusty Springfield
The prolific British singer had previously joined a music trio including her brother, Dion, and vocalist Tim Field. The latter's name is said to have inspired the trio’s name, The Springfields. In addition, the siblings took the trio’s name for their own last names. Mary came to be known as Dusty, although the origin behind this name remains a mystery. Wikimedia Commons

Michael Landon, born Eugene Maurice Orowitz

Michael Landon
Landon opted for a more simple name when he entered acting school. He picked the name randomly from a phone book. Wikimedia Commons

Judy Garland, born Frances Ethel Gumm

Judy Garland
Frances Gumm, who performed with her two siblings as the group “The Gumm Sisters” changed her last name to Garland, and switched her first name to Judy soon after, inspired by a Hoagy Carmichael song.Wikimedia Commons

For more on some of the people above, discover the fascinating story of Mata Hari and check out 25 of the most incredible George Orwell quotes.

Erin Kelly
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Kelly, Erin. "27 Famous People Who Didn’t Use Their Birth Names." AllThatsInteresting.com, September 25, 2017, https://allthatsinteresting.com/famous-name-changes. Accessed May 21, 2024.