When it comes to the rich and the famous’s glitzy and glamorous lives, it’s easy to assume that their lives are simply perfect – that they grew up with (dare I say) boring lives. Now, that may be true for some major celebrities, but not these. The following actors and musicians have lived through some very strange – sometimes dark, sometimes quirky – chapters in their lives. In these cases, the road to success was completely insane and involved completely unexpected circumstances and characters.
Part of the reason we have become so enamored with celebrities’ lives is that we can both relate to them and envy them. And with backstories like these, you’ll find yourself wondering if you envy them, relate to them, or are simply glad that you never experienced what they did. I’ll leave that part for you to decide.
From Samuel L. Jackson holding someone hostage to Bob Ross’s decades in the Air Force, these are some noteworthy celebrity backstories.
The stories about Johnny Cash are plentiful and varied, and even long after his death, we discover more proof of the man’s cultural greatness. In this case, we can argue that Cash’s first moment of greatness happened off the stage, nowhere near any guitar or spotlight.
In 1950, when Johnny Cash was 18 years old, he did what many young men at the time did; he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. He was then shipped off from Arkansas to the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. It was there that he met the woman who would become his future first wife: Vivian Liberto. The two met at a roller rink but didn’t get married for another four years.
After courting Vivian for just three weeks, Cash received his deployment papers and was flown off to a base in Landsberg, West Germany, for a three-year tour, serving on the 12th Radio Squadron. As it turned out, the young man had a gift for deciphering Russian Morse code. He rose to Staff Sargent’s rank and became one of the Air Force’s leading code readers.
As the Morse Code Operator of the Security Service unit, Cash was put in a prominent seat at his post to listen in on Soviet communications, which included tracing Soviet jet bombers. Cash’s experience in Germany was an important marker not only in the life of the Man in Black but in history.
During those three years at his base, Cash wrote and received hundreds of love letters to and from Vivian Liberto. He also formed his first-ever band, called The Landsberg Barbarians. A common misconception is that Cash’s inspiration for writing Folsom Prison Blues saw the infamous prison first hand.
But the truth is that he actually wrote the song while being stationed in Landsberg after seeing the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. He later said that he could relate to life in the cell because of his top-secret military position. Due to his job’s sensitivity, he was forbidden to talk to anyone about what he did.
It meant not telling even the love of his life back in Texas. Not only that – his off-base privileges were severely limited. But all that secrecy led to one of Cash’s biggest accomplishments. While Staff Sgt. Cash was manning his post on March 5, 1953, he found himself transcribing what would be a very important piece of intelligence from the Russians.
In those days, Soviet Premier Leader Joseph Stalin was in bad condition. As the head of the Soviet Empire, Stalin’s deteriorating health status was critically important to United States intelligence as well as all Western powers.
On that day in March, as he was monitoring the Soviet Morse Code chatter, Cash became the very first American to hear the announcement of the death of Russia’s leader. Cash relayed the message to his superiors, and so, long before he became known as the Man in Black, he was the man who broke the news to the United States.
But Cash still wasn’t allowed to tell a soul of his achievement until years later, thanks to his job’s top-secret nature. It was only in 1997 that Cash spilled the beans when he wrote about it in his autobiography, revealing his (and the country’s) secret to the world.
By that point, he was THE Johnny Cash, and nobody could stop him from doing what he wanted. Eventually, though, the fact turned into just another footnote in the history of Cash’s more famous musical career.
While Cash’s mastery of Morse Code might not seem to have a whole lot to do with his music, it can be argued that the musician’s ability to pick out important rhythms and tones contributed to his ability to find his unique sound – the sound that truly spoke to America (and the world) – in a language that we all could understand.
For some of you, this true story about Samuel L. Jackson will not come as too much of a shock considering his reputation for being a bada$$. Either way, what Jackson did put him on the FBI’s watch list, that is, after he staged a two-day lock-in of Martin Luther King and the other trustees of Morehouse College back in 1969.
In the decades that followed, Jackson managed to turn himself into a household name. But his road to becoming a box office marvel was bizarre and basically reads like one of the movies he typically stars in.
It began in the late 1960s when he was a young and inexperienced civil rights activist. Jackson was born on December 21, 1948, in Washington D.C., but he grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, under his grandmother’s strict rules. His mother, Elizabeth, only joined the household when he was 10.
By that point, he already started developing a love of cinema, but the injustices of the racism happening around him was also setting a fire in his belly. “I had anger in me,” Jackson said in 2005, referring to his youth.
“It came from growing up suppressed in a segregated society. All those childhood years of ‘whites only’ places and kids passing you on the bus, yelling, ‘N*****!’ There was nothing I could do about it then.” Jackson reflected on how even the cherished childhood memories were tainted by racial inequity.
He found solace in his local theater and often saw films, but there was one time that left a mark on him. The theater once played a reel of Band of Angels that they edited for Black audiences, omitting the one scene where the Black actor Sidney Poitier slaps a white woman.
Jackson eventually enrolled at a historically black university – Morehouse College – in Atlanta. It was there that he was confronted with the opportunity to really do something about the injustice he had witnessed throughout his youth. During the first few months of college, Jackson was introduced to psychedelic drugs.
He later claimed that it was those experiences that deeply influenced his activism. “I was a hippie, you know? I was taking acid and listening to Jimi Hendrix.” He recalled taking a literature course in his freshmen year, and the first thing they studied was the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackson, then a sophomore, first became involved in civil rights activism. But his venture into protesting escalated a little too quickly when he found himself front and center in a hostage situation at the university.
On April 4, 1968, as he was out buying beer for a campus movie night, he heard that King had been shot but was not yet dead. He was reportedly being hospitalized. “In the middle of the movie, this guy came in and said that Dr. King was dead and we need to do something,” Jackson recalled of that night.
A few days later, he heard that Bill Cosby and actor Robert Culp wanted Jackson and his fellow activists to get on a plane and fly with them to Memphis “to march with the garbage workers.” Jackson remembers that moment was feeling grateful just to be a part of something productive and non-violent.
Culp and Cosby instructed Jackson and his peers on how to protest properly. They flew back the same night and paid their respects to the deceased Dr. King, whose body is being held at Sisters Chapel at Spelman College.
Jackson ended up being an usher at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. He explained that they needed volunteers to help people find their way around campus, and so he was designated an usher. He saw famous people like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.
“People that I thought I’d never see,” he admitted. “The funeral was pretty much a blur.” If that part was a blur, then what happened next could only be seen as crystal clear and came to define Jackson’s career in activism. You see, he and his peers held King’s father captive during a university lock-in.
Like many Black Americans at the time, Jackson was worried about the government’s overreach and the police force’s brutality. Ever since his cousin was killed in Vietnam, Jackson had been anti-war, but what immediately concerned him at this point were the old-school ethics of his university.
Jackson explained: “We were being groomed to be something that I didn’t necessarily want to be.” In his opinion, Morehouse wanted its students to be lawyers, scientists, or doctors. But that wasn’t something that satisfied Jackson’s dreams of making a real change. As he put it: “I didn’t want to be just another Negro in the, you know, advancement of America card.”
Jackson also clarified that they didn’t even have a Black Studies class. “There was no student involvement on the board. Those were the things we had to change.” Jackson and a group of students petitioned the Morehouse board in 1969, but they were met with roadblocks.
The Black people around them said, “No way, you can’t come in here. You can’t talk to them.” That’s when somebody said, “Well, let’s lock the door and keep them in there.” According to Jackson, they had read about the lock-ins on other campuses. So, for the next day and a half, he and a group of students held the board members, including Dr. King’s father, hostage.
Jackson was aware that they were breaking the law, but he felt the cause was worth it. But then King Sr. started having chest pains. “We didn’t want to unlock the door,” Jackson admitted. “So we just put him on a ladder, put him out the window, and sent him down.”
Midway through the second day of the lock-in, Jackson negotiated with the university board to not have them expelled if they relented. The board agreed, but once the university was let out for the summer that year, Jackson and his group were expelled anyway. That summer, Jackson grew increasingly more conscious of the socio-political climate in America.
He was becoming more militant and collected an arsenal of firearms, which didn’t go unnoticed. During the summer of ’69, as others were dancing in Woodstock’s mud, Jackson’s home was visited by the FBI. The FBI told Jackson’s mother that she needed to get her son out of Atlanta before he “got killed,” Jackson recalled.
He remembers his mother showing up and telling him she was “going to take me to lunch.” That’s when they got in the car, and she drove him to the airport. She said to him: “Get on this plane, do not get off. I’ll talk to you when you get to your aunt’s in L.A.”
As we know now, putting her son on that plane to Los Angeles was the right move to make.
I don’t know about you, but part of my childhood involved sitting on the floor on Saturday mornings in front of the TV, watching Bob Ross paint those “friendly little trees” on one of his countless scenic paintings.
And I don’t know about you, but I was amused when I heard that Ross, of all people, spent a long time as a Master Sergeant. Before the painter with an afro (which he permed) began sharing his love of landscapes with his audiences on The Joy of Painting, he spent 20 years of his life in the U.S. Air Force.
Anyone who knows Bob Ross knows that the man is known for his soothing voice and hypnotizing brushwork. Most of us aren’t aware of the two decades Ross spent in the United States Air Force, where he made his way up the ranks to become Master Sergeant before retiring in 1981.
Ross’s military service explains the choices he made and the success he found in his art. While he was in the Air Force, he fell in love with the Alaskan mountains and started dabbling in painting. His aversion to his disciplinarian role led to his kind and gentle approach that he embraced as a painting instructor.
It all began in 1961 when the 18-year-old Ross enlisted in the Air Force, but he didn’t train as a pilot (being six foot two with flat feet made that impossible), nor did he work with planes. Instead, Ross was assigned a desk job as a medical records technician.
At first, Ross’s service kept him in his home state of Florida. By 1963, however, he was transferred to Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks, Alaska. Ross later admitted on an episode of The Joy of Painting that he was 21 years old the first time he ever saw snow.
Ross said Alaska “has some of the most beautiful mountain scenery there that I’d ever seen.” Later, during his painting career, he often painted those Alaskan settings. The first time he studied painting was when he was a member of the Air Force – he took a painting class at a U.S.O. club.
He later described how he would come home, “take off my little soldier hat, put on my painter’s hat.” He would support his Air Force income by working at a tavern where he sold landscapes to tourists that he painted on gold-panning tins.
As he moved up the ranks, Ross grew increasingly unhappy. In a 1990 interview, he described his days as a first sergeant: “I was the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work.”
He earned the nickname “Bust ’em up Bobby,” but he hated being what he himself described as a “mean, tough person.” For Ross, painting was his escape. “I’d come home after all day of playing soldier, and I’d paint a picture, and I could paint the kind of world that I wanted.”
Ross explained that in his paintings, it was always “clean, it was sparkling, shiny, beautiful, no pollution, nobody upset. Everybody was happy in this world.” He promised himself to adopt a different attitude if he ever got the opportunity to pursue a new career.
After he finally retired from the Air Force in 1981, Ross could fully embrace and showcase his gentle and compassionate side. He started as a traveling instructor with the Magic Art Company before doing his own classes and landing a show on public TV.
He was so determined to follow this new path in life that he made some, um, interesting choices. Ross chose to get his naturally straight hair permed in order to not have to pay for trims. He eventually grew to hate his notoriously big hairstyle, but he had to stick with the look since it became a part of his image once he achieved success.
Ross spoke about painting, saying that “Anything that you want, you can build here. This is your world.” And he did just that; he took the good and the bad from his decades in service to make a name for himself in the world of art and TV. Thanks, Bob!
Before he ever became an actor, Liam Neeson was in training to become a teacher. After spending two years in the mid-‘70s in an internship in a teacher education program, something went really wrong. As the story goes, his class had gotten out of control, and Neeson just wasn’t able to get them to listen.
No matter how much Neeson tried, he couldn’t get this one 15-year-old student, whom Neeson described as “a big guy,” to calm down. So, he told the student to leave the classroom and stand outside. The teenager’s response? He pulled out a knife on his teacher.
Then it was Neeson’s turn to react, and his reaction was swift and effective: He punched the student in the face. He later admitted that it was something “which I shouldn’t have done,” but he “felt threatened.” Unfortunately, after an incident like that, his dreams of becoming a teacher were effectively a pipe dream.
Thankfully for us, it meant he changed directions and started down his path toward becoming an award-winning actor. According to Neeson, teaching a class full of kids is significantly harder than acting. For him, teaching was “the most difficult job I’ve ever tried to master.”
Woody Harrelson, now approaching 60, is one of Hollywood’s most interesting actors. He seems to have a knack for playing psychopaths (just watch Natural Born Killers, Seven Psychopaths, or Rampart, to name a few). And as it turns out, it has a lot to do with the fact that he has second-hand experience in the matter.
That is, his father, Charles V. Harrelson, was a hitman. And it took a long time for the beloved actor – who has gone from hitting photographers to police officers to taxi doors – to come to terms with the terrible truth.
Harrelson is an interesting character, and it’s not only because of the ones he plays. It’s his whole backstory – which comes with a disturbing family history, early “sexcapades,” militant veganism, and political campaigning. He’s a smorgasbord of contradictions and what-ifs that all come together in the form of a lovable man with a southern drawl that we see on screen.
He obviously became a major actor, but he easily could have ended up as a church minister. His mother was a religious Presbyterian, as was he throughout his childhood. He even saw it as his calling for a period of time.
Once he started studying theology and drama at university, his belief system started to collapse. But this wasn’t the first time his life crumbled before his eyes. For decades, Harrelson has been surprisingly private about his family life. He spoke about the love for his mother and his two brothers and about growing up in Texas and Ohio.
To an outsider, it sounds like a regular childhood. When his father is brought up in interviews, he tends to give one-word answers, waiting for the interviewer to change the subject. When asked if his father ended up in prison (during an interview with The Guardian), he simply answered, “Yeaahh…”
Harrelson mentioned that he “thinks” his parents separated when he was seven. But, he noted, that his father was gone a lot before that, in prison. It was a pattern: “Away and back,” Harrelson explained. “It wasn’t like he was there all the time prior to that.”
When asked if his father was a “contract killer,” like they say in the press, Harrison said it was a pretty fair “job summary” of his dad. Harrelson was 11 or 12 when he first heard his father’s name mentioned on the car radio. He recalls the memory…
“I was in the car waiting for a lady who was picking me up from school, helping my mom. And anyway, I was listening to the radio, and it was talking about Charles V. Harrelson, and his trial for murder and blah blah blah.” He remembers thinking to himself that there couldn’t be another Charles V. Harrelson.
For Harrelson, it was “a wild realization.” When the woman who was picking him up got back in the car and saw his face, she realized something was up. He went home that day in utter shock. He tried to talk to his mother about it, but there was little to say in that sobering conversation.
For what it was worth, the truth was already out there, on the radio and in the newspapers. His mother knew what his father did, and “she was well out of love with him.” Harrelson gives her credit because she never spoke negatively about him to her sons when she easily could have.
In 1973, Charles V. Harrelson was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the murder of a grain dealer named Sam Degelia Jr. However, he was released after five years for good behavior. By 1981, he found himself facing two life sentences for the assassination of district judge John H. Wood.
In fact, it was the first murder of an American judge in the 20th century. According to Harrelson, at times, his father claimed to have assassinated JFK. It was only in 1981 after his father murdered the judge that Harrelson tried to get in touch with his dad. He was 20 years old at the time.
Did they ever reconcile? “Oh yeah, oh yeah. I tried for years to get him out. To get him a new trial.” The reason why he thought his father deserved a new trial wasn’t really clear – not even to himself. “I spent a couple million beating my head against the wall,” he confessed.
When asked if he sees much of his father in him, he responded with, “Quite a bit,” adding that they were even born on the same day. He then described a “thing in Japan,” where if you’re born on your father’s birthday, then you’re not just like your father, you ARE your father.
When he would sit and talk with his dad, it was “just mind-blowing” to see all the things they did alike – idiosyncratic things, like the way they laughed, their faces. Charles V. Harrelson ended up dying in prison in 2007 after the father and son were able to build a relationship.
Once upon a time, a 17-year-old soon-to-be-famous British man named David Jones decided that he was fed up with all the side-eye hate being thrown his way on buses and in the streets of London because of his long hair.
You see, in the ‘60s, he wore his hair long. Down-to-his-shoulders long. And he was hit with one too many insults, prompting him to make a “hairy” move. Jones (not yet David Bowie) formed a society called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men.
The society was meant to protect long-haired men, and the move was his first step to meeting the fame and fortune he would achieve within five years. But it wasn’t really his idea. He had a manager who knew how to utilize the media in a way that would benefit the up-and-comer.
Back then, Jones/Bowie was the frontman of a band called The Mannish Boys. His manager at the time, Less Conn, came up with some interesting publicity-garnering stunts. The “Society” was the perfect idea. It not only caught the media’s attention, but it caught the eye of the BBC.
In 1964, David Bowie made his first appearance on TV at the age of 17, but not as a musician. The BBC’s Cliff Michelmore went to investigate this “Society” and got footage of Bowie and his bandmates protesting in the streets of London.
The clip made its way to the London Evening News, which then interviewed the long-haired future star for the newspaper. Bowie was seen on TV as an activist, speaking on behalf of long-haired men across the nation and the world. His message: Long hair was a fashion for pop musicians.
Bowie also used his TV time to complain that he and his fellow long-haired men had been harassed, mocked, and excluded from work because of it. He declared that he wouldn’t cut his hair for anyone, not even the Prime Minister or the BBC.
Lined up in a group of solemn long-haired men, he told the host: “We all like long hair, and we don’t see why other people should persecute us because of this.” Bowie gave some “real” examples, saying that “for the last two years we’ve had comments like ‘Darling!’ and ‘Can I carry your handbag?’”
Bowie and his society announced their plan to march against the intolerance. Of course, chances are they never really intended to do so, seeing as it was all a publicity stunt. Regardless, it remains the first taste of David Bowie that the world got – and not even in the music industry but as a political activist.
The young man soon became christened David Bowie in order to avoid being mistaken for a teenage heartthrob of the era, Davy Jones of the Monkees. Bowie learned the value of good publicity and never failed to exploit the right opportunities when they arose. Remember Ziggy Stardust?