The movie hunks of yesteryear seemed to have lived impossibly glamorous lives: expensive homes, exotic sports cars, and all the women they could ever need. However, much of what we know about famous actors is public relations spin. They put their pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. And just like everyone else, these classic movie actors have had their share of heartbreak and secrets. Here are 15 famous Hollywood icons and the secrets they were hiding from the public.
James Dean’s pictures graced the walls of many a teenage girl. Everyone knows about his tragic death, but that was just the last event in a painful life. In a theme that will recur with many of the other hunks on our list, Dean’s life was marked by the death of his mother when he was just 9 years old. Dean’s father sent him away, and he was raised by an aunt.
The elegant Cary Grant was actually born Archibald Leach. He grew up in England with a rough, alcoholic father and a clinically depressed mother. At one point as a child, Grant’s father sent his mother to a mental hospital. His father told Grant that she had actually died. At age 10, Grant was abandoned by his father, who got remarried and had a new family. From age 9 to age 31, Grant thought his mother was dead. Grant spent most of his life with social anxiety and depression due to his upbringing.
Richard Burton was a star of screen and stage. He married Elizabeth Taylor twice. Although his love life was well chronicled, he hid his own drinking problem. The Welshman once described his dad as a “twelve-pints-a-day man” who would be gone for weeks on end. Burton was the 12th child in the family. His mother died in childbirth. As an adult, Burton drank two to three bottles of hard liquor each day.
Few can forget the dashing Clark Gable declaring “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!” to Scarlett O’Hara. However, Gable was not always a rakish leading man. His mother died when Gable was still a baby, at just 10 months old. During his childhood, he felt shy and awkward due to his height and his deep, booming voice. Little did he know that the things he was embarrassed about were the qualities of a leading man.
On the surface, everyman Jimmy Stewart seems to have led a charmed life. The star of movies like It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the most beloved actors of all time. However, Stewart was not always an outgoing personality. He had a very serious case of scarlet fever at age 19. For most of his childhood, Stewart was a lot of time alone. He was a quiet and withdrawn boy who built model airplanes in the basement. His lonely life changed dramatically in Hollywood.
Peter O’Toole always seemed to be debonair and above it all. O’Toole had a bit of a shady past. He had two birth certificates, one from Ireland and one from Yorkshire in England. He also nearly died multiple times in the 1970s. He had stomach cancer, which doctors almost misdiagnosed due to side effects of O’Toole’s heavy drinking. He also nearly lost his life from a blood disease.
Clint Eastwood was Dirty Harry, and he also had a less than pure personal life. Eastwood carried on a torrid, 14-year affair with a stuntwoman, Roxanne Tunis, who was best known for her work on Rawhide. In 1964, Tunis gave birth to daughter Kimber. The existence of this child was hidden from the public for more than 20 years. In 1989, the Enquirer published a story revealing that Kimber was Eastwood’s first child. Barbara Eden has commented that Eastwood’s first wife, Maggie Johnson, was aware of the Tunis affair and that the two had a somewhat open marriage during the 31 years it lasted.
Tony Curtis was born as Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx. The Schwartz family, which included two other sons, lived in a single room just behind the dad’s tailoring shop. Family life was difficult. Curtis’s mother had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and she was abusive with her children.
A thespian who defined the term “method actor,” Marlon Brando had a long history of alcoholism. His mother was also an alcoholic. He once remarked, “the anguish that her drinking produced was that she preferred getting drunk to caring for us.” Brando’s personal life turned tragic in 1990, when his third child, Cheyenne, became pregnant with the baby of a man named Dag Drollet. Her brother Christian Brando shot and killed Drollet, then fled the country to avoid testifying at trial. After having her child, Cheyenne spent five years in and out of mental institutions before killing herself. Brando’s son Christian was finally arrested and spent years in prison for the murder.
Charlton Heston is best known for the movie Spartacus. His parents weren’t as well off as some in the neighborhood and their marriage ended when Charlton was 10. Heston and his siblings felt alienated. “I was more or less a loner,” Heston said. “We lived in a North Shore suburb, where I was a skinny hick from the woods, and all the other kids seemed to be rich and know about girls.”
Burt Lancaster is best known for the swoon-worthy moment in From Here to Eternity, when Lancaster’s character kisses Deborah Kerr in the surf. But the handsome actor had real tragedy in his life. HIs mother died suddenly when he was a teenager, after a cerebral hemorrhage. For most of Lancaster’s life, he suffered from a heart condition. And he almost didn’t make it through a simple surgery to remove his gallbladder. After Lancaster died, records were released describing him as “troubled by bouts of insecurity and depression.”
Sidney Poitier was one of the first African American superstars. He had to travel a long road to fame. His family is from the Bahamas. They were vacationing in Miami when his mother went into labor two months early. Sidney was born alive, but doctors said he would not survive. Sidney proved them wrong. His parents stayed in America for three more months and young Sidney didn’t just survive, he thrived.
Marion Mitchell Morrison abandoned his birth name and became John Wayne. His personal life was famously volatile. He was married three times, all to Latina women. He cheated on all of his wives. Second wife Esperanza was so enraged by Duke’s affair with Gail Russell that she tried to shoot him when he returned home after the wrap party. Wayne kept many other embarrassing details about his life from the public. Like the fact he wore a mohair toupee to cover his receding hairline.
Sammy Davis Jr.
Sammy Davis Jr. experienced much racism living in America. After he joined the U.S. Army during World War II, Davis was shocked by how poorly his fellow troops treated blacks. He was transferred to the ‘special services’ entertainment section of the army where he said, “My talent was the weapon (against racism), the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man’s thinking.”
Gary Cooper became famous for playing the quintessential American sports hero, Lou Gehrig. Cooper had a fascinating life that was filled with severe injury. After growing up in Montana, his British parents sent him and his brother back to England for an education. At age 15, Cooper was in a serious car accident that shattered his hip. Back in Montana, the doctor suggested he’d recuperate faster by riding horses, but it was a terrible idea. The therapy permanently altered Cooper’s gait, though his unique walking style later became iconic in the movies.