Why do so many Hollywood folks change their names?

During Charlie Sheen’s recent radio meltdown, he made it a point to refer to the writer of “Two and a Half Men” - Chuck Lorre - by his real name, Chaim Levine. The irony is that Charlie Sheen is also a stage name; he was born Carlos Irwin Estivez. This reminded me of how frequently I look up celebrities on Wikipedia (after watching a movie in which they starred) and find that their stage name is different from their birth name. It’s not a new phenomenon; Norma Jean Mortenson did it some sixty years ago.

So what’s the deal? Does most folks in the US go through a name change (for reasons other than marriage)? Or is there something about being in the entertainment business that makes people want to abandon their roots?

Cary Grant is a Movie Star. Archie Leach is an usher.

For one, you can’t have the same name as someone else already in the Screen Actor’s Guild.

For example, Michael J. Fox:

People also change their names to sound “Less Jewish” or “Less Black” or “Less Latino” or even just “Less like the Midwestern kid I was when I first came to Hollywood”

No, most folks in the US do not go through a name change.

This is just a wild guess, but I would imagine that more people in Hollywood changed their names in the early days of moving pictures than nowadays.

It’s not surprising to do this in show business, to make your name more memorable or more appealing. And to mesh with audience expectations. Sandra Dee sounds like a bright and fun teen ager, but Alexandra Zuck sounds like the woman who slops the hogs in a farm comedy. there are lots of these examples to be found.

I didn’t know about Chuck Lorre. Again, I’m not surprised that he changed it from the very ethnic Chaim Levine. But did he have to make himself sound like the Love Child of Chuck Jones and Peter Lorre?

Or simply “a more attention grabbing name with fewer syllables, so people will remember it better”. Face it - which sounds better “Starring Roy Scherer and Doris Kappelhof” or “Rock Hudson and Doris Day”?

BTW, Stewart Granger’s birth name was James Stewart. An obvious problem there.

That’s not Chuck Lorre’s real name; he was born Charles Michael Levine.

Back in the golden age of Hollywood, actors were products, and studios would change the actor’s name if they felt it original didn’t “look good on a marquee.” It goes back at least as far as Theda Bara (Theodosia Burr Goodman). In her case, it had to do with the fact that she played exotic roles and thus needed an exotic name.

This has been less of an issue in recent years (believe me, the studios would never have let Arnold Schwarzenegger* or Rene Zellweger appear on a marquee).

In the case of Sheen, he took his father’s stage name. Martin Sheen was born Ramon Estevez, but made the change so that he wouldn’t be typecast in Hispanic roles.

*They even tried to rename him as Arnold Strong, though he went back to his real name after one movie.

Chuck Lorre’s birth name is Charles Michael Levine.

ETA - beaten to the punch

Before the 1960’s, few actors would use an “ethnic” name. They all had to be true blue Americans.

In part that was because his co-star in Hercules in New York was famed character actor Arnold Stang*. “Strong” was close and descriptive, so you had Arnold Strong and Arnold Stang. I’m sure they would’ve tried another name, but that choice was sorta dictated by the circumstances, and for that one film.

  • A pairing this weird Arnold didn’t have again until he co-starred with Danny de Vito in Twins and then Junior.

Martin Sheen’s other son decided to keep his birth name, and the two have starred in a few movies together. But if you didn’t know about this, you wouldn’t have realized that Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez were brothers.

So what’s with the “Chaim?” Did he go through two name changes?

Natalie Portman’s real name is Natalie Hershlag. I think she made a wise choice just like many of them do for branding purposes.

I don’t think he was ever called Chaim. It’s a stereotypical Jewish name and Charlie Sheen was trying to make a point, I guess, about our evil Jewish overlords.

ETA - It may be his Hebrew name. Most Jewish children in the US are given Hebrew names as well as English names. I’ve never used my Hebrew name except in temple.

Except for them looking exactly alike, aside from Charlie’s darker hair. I used to get them confused all the time.

If “Hollywood folks” extends to the music world, we have a semi contrary case of John Cougar eventually becoming well established enough to start using Mellencamp too.

A quick check at IMDB shows a couple of acting gigs.


I believe Michael Keaton’s actual name is Michael Douglas.

In addition to what others have said, I would think another reason some may take a stage name is that it would be a good way to separate the “celebrity” you from the “real” you. Granted, not all celebs want that, but for those that do, it may serve to leave the craziness behind, at least a little bit. I mean, Natalie Hershlag could probably make dinner reservations under her own name, whereas Natalie Portman would be noticed even by non movie buffs.

(Aside - How do you pronounce “Chaim”? Is it “Shame”? “Shy-eem”? "Chaim "(like “chain” with an m)? I’ve never heard it pronounced, and I’ve communicated with a few Chaims in a work capacity, but never spoke with them directly, and wondered how it was pronounced)