Art imitating life. It’s a common theme when it comes to television series, whether it’s through documentaries, stories that are inspired by real-life events, or characters that are based on real people. With some series, like Orange is the New Black, it’s well-publicized that the main character is based on someone in real life, with the character in question even helping to produce the show.
In many cases, though, you might be surprised to find out that the lead characters in many popular TV series are actually based on people who actually exist in the real world. Below are some of the most intriguing TV characters based on real people.
Don Draper, Mad Men
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) was modelled, in part, after Draper Daniels, an iconic ad man from the ‘50s who was known for working on major accounts, and is credited with creating the Marlboro Man campaign. But others have pointed to striking similarities in look and talent between the Draper character and George Lois, the man behind successful ad campaigns for brands like Jiffy Lube, Xerox, and MTV: he’s credited with creating the popular “I Want My MTV!” campaign.
Olivia Pope, Scandal
It’s tough to believe that a beautiful, cunning, and powerful woman who helps problems go away for the elite, and has unprecedented access to the White House, might exist in real life. But Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is indeed loosely based on real-life crisis manager Judy Smith. As a corporate fixer, Smith’s career trajectory might not be as juicy or as murderous as Pope’s, nor did she ever have an affair with the President (shocking, we know). But she was involved in some serious real-life scandals, with her firm representing the likes of Monica Lewinsky, Wesley Snipes, and Michael Vick. She even once served as Deputy Press Secretary to George W. Bush.
Piper Chapman, Orange is the New Black
You’d have to have been living under a rock to not know that the character of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is based on Piper Kerman and her book that chronicles her time as a self-declared WASP spending more than a year in a women’s prison for money laundering. Naturally, the series has taken many creative liberties, though Kerman says some of the events and depictions of racial cliques are based on her actual experiences.
Vincent Chase, Entourage
A young man from Boston pursues his Hollywood dreams, makes it big, and brings his close-knit group of friends from back home to Los Angeles to keep the frat party going, now with access to money, fame, parties, and more. The entire story, along with the series’ lead character Vincent “Vinny” Chase (Adrian Grenier) is based on the real-life story of Mark Wahlberg, who executive produced the show. Beyond Chase, Wahlberg says that all of the friends on the show are based on his actual friends, as well as people he’s worked with in Hollywood. Specifically, the popular character of agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), was based on Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel.
The Countess, American Horror Story
As history buffs will know, Lady Gaga’s blood-sucking character The Countess in the thrilling series was actually based on Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed. The real-life Countess lived in the 1500s and 1600s and murdered many young women, reportedly often drinking and/or bathing in their blood in ritualistic fashion. After having murdered several individuals, mainly servants and local peasants, she was eventually caught and convicted when she upped the ante and started killing aristocrats. Arguably one of the most terrifying serial killers in history — she reportedly has a Guinness World Record earning 650 kills under her belt — it’s no surprise the show took inspiration from her.
Cosmo Kramer, Seinfeld
It might seem like Cosmo is otherworldly, but the character was actually based on stand-up comedian Kenny Kramer, friend and neighbour of the show’s co-creator Larry David. For his part, Michael Richards, who played Kramer, said much of the character’s mannerisms, along with his iconic frantic entrances, were all his own creation.
Lucious Lyon, Empire
Danny Strong, who co-created the series, has claimed that Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), a music mogul and former drug dealer, is based, at least in part, on Jay Z and his similar career story. That said, it’s quite possible that inspiration was drawn from a compilation of high-powered music industry players who have shared similar pasts, including 50 Cent, who noted seeing a lot of parallels between his own life and that of Lyon’s, as well as Sean “Diddy” Combs.
Ali G, Da Ali G Show
Sasha Baron Cohen rose to fame by creating characters and duping celebrities and political figures into what they believed were interviews with real television hosts. One of his most popular characters was Ali G, an eccentric man with an interesting sense of fashion, a zero-filter personality, and a thick accent. Cohen actually based the character on real life British radio host and DJ Tim Westwood, who spoke with a fake accent and dressed in a similarly baggy-clothed, street-wise fashion, a contrast to his middle-class upbringing as the son of a bishop.
Hawkeye Pierce, M.A.S.H.
Alan Alda played the Army surgeon Hawkeye Pierce beautifully in this beloved TV series, following Donald Sutherland’s own incredible performance in the film that spawned it. If you loved the character, you might love to know that it was based on Dr. H. Richard Hornberger, who wrote the book of the same name on which the projects were based. Reportedly, the conservative Dr. Hornberger wasn’t too happy with Pierce’s more liberal views and the show’s overall liberal slant. Nonetheless, Hawkeye, and his story, were behind the character’s creation.
Allison Dubois, Medium
A real-life medium who helps law enforcement solve crimes? It sounds like the premise of a television drama. And indeed, it was, with Patricia Arquette as the star. But did you know that Dubois is a real person with claimed psychic abilities? Reportedly, she found the attention from the show to be too much, with many people reaching out to her from around the world to help with murder investigations.
Tony Soprano, The Sopranos
Vincent “Vinny Ocean” Palermo was a real-life crime boss in New Jersey, serving as the inspiration for Soprano’s character, played by the late James Gandolfini. Palermo eventually vanished into the witness protection program, though he resurfaced running a strip club in Texas decades later. As for Tony, we’ll never know his true fate.