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Woodworking: Behind the names of Hollywood

Have you ever noticed when perusing the TV guide how many weird names have been hung on many of our modern-day actors?

"Benedict Cumberbatch." How's that for a matinee idol moniker? But that's it for the new Brit who dominates historical drama on BBC productions.

Or Renee Zellweger? Or Leonardo DiCaprio? Or River Phoenix? Or Joaquin Phoenix?

Or Reese Witherspoon, Or Catherine Zeta-Jones? Or Viggy Mortensen? Or Gwyneth Paltrow?

Actors were called by names assigned by their agents, which sort of means it was the Gold Leaf age of cinema. Many of the names assigned to stars were clean and snappy and very American, like James Stewart or Pat O'Brien. Yet others depended on the imagination of the studio PR department.

Take the British actor Stewart Granger. His given name was James Stewart, the lanky Pennsylvanian who beat the elegant Brit to stardom.

It's interesting to examine the words behind the image makers in Hollywood, so I consulted "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film," by British film historian David Thomson. Boy oh boy! He has the goods when it comes to the nomenclatures of our filmic idols.

Some actors were allowed to keep their given names, no matter how hard to pronounce like the creepy old lady, Maria Ouspenskya and the creepy young lady from Minnesota, Gail Sondergaard.

But others, like Marlene Dietrich, had to change because her name wouldn't fit on the big screen. Marlene was born Maria Magdalenea Dietrich von Lusch, pronounced LUSH.

Kirk Douglas, what a clean snappy name, slicker than his given: Issur Danielvich Demsky.

Jose Ferrer, the impossibly arrogant villain on-and off-screen, probably made up his given name: Jose Ferrer Vicente Ferrere De Otergy Cintron.

Another notable on-screen villain was the British actor Dennis Price ("Kind Hearts and Coronets") sported a given name reflecting the English class structure: Dennistoun Franklyn John Rose-Price.

Same goes for Ray Milland: Reginald Alfred Truscott-Jones.

Laurence Harvey? British? I don't think so: Laruschka Mischa Skikne.

What a manly man was John "The Duke" Wayne. Before he arrived in Hollywood he was Marion Morrison.

Somehow I've always known that the effete Clifton Webb had a fancier name in real life before he played Mr. Belvedere. And I was correct: Webb Parmallee Hollenbeck.

America's sweetheart Mary Pickford probably wouldn't have been noticed had the studio permitted her to use her real name: Gladys Smith.

Same goes for one of her husbands, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.: Douglas Ulmer.

Remember their mansion in Beverly Hills? Pickfair. Had the PR department been asleep at the switch they would have named it Smithulm. Or Gladmer.

When his studio made Karl Sekolovich change his name to Karl Malden, his father, a steelworker in East Chicago refused to watch his son's movies until the kid wrote into his future contracts that one character in each of his movies be named Sekolovich. If you don't believe me, watch "Birdman of Alcatraz" and look out for Birdman's cellmate. The father was appeased and thus didn't miss too many performances by his talented son, a former steelworker.

Finally, a fan of 50s movies and film noir, I've always thought Joanne Dru's name was rather irregular. Why not Joanne Drew? What's with the U? I asked. Thomson cleared up my misgivings when he found out her real name was Joanne Letitia La Cock.

My least favorite actor of all time is Leonardo DeCaprio. Yup, his real name was WOLFGANG DiCaprio.