5. Ron Kovic (Born on the Fourth of July)
Tom Cruise earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of paralyzed Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic in the 1989 film Born on the Fourth of July. Based on his autobiography, Kovic co-wrote the award-winning screenplay with director Oliver Stone. Kovic, who became an ardent anti-war activist following his return from Vietnam, has led or participated in several major protests of the Iraq War in recent years, including a 2003 event in London that drew hundreds of thousands of protesters opposing a visit by President George W. Bush. Kovic currently lives in California, where he is working on a sequel to his book. And he remains active in protest causes to this day. In 2009, he penned an open letter to President Obama protesting the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. In 2011, Kovic spoke several times at an Occupy Wall Street movement in Los Angeles.
4. John Forbes Nash Jr. (A Beautiful Mind)
The 2001 film A Beautiful Mind picked up four Academy Awards and earned more than $300 million worldwide, with Russell Crowe portraying Nobel laureate mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr.’s battle with paranoid schizophrenia. The movie showed that Nash’s brilliance was ahead of its time, a concept confirmed once again in 2011, with the declassification of a letter Nash wrote to the National Security Agency in 1955. In the letter, Nash proposed concepts that presage modern cryptography and computational complexity theory. As of 2012, the 83-year-old Nash is still working on concepts in advanced game theory.
3. Crystal Lee Sutton (Norma Rae)
The 1979 film Norma Rae earned actress Sally Field an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as union activist Crystal Lee Sutton. As depicted in the film’s greatest scene, Sutton, who worked at a textile plant in anti-union North Carolina in the 1970s, really did climb on top of her work station with a hand-lettered cardboard sign reading “UNION.” Her actions led to the plant’s unionization. Sutton later became a paid union organizer, and joined a short list of some three-dozen individuals, including Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Mother Teresa, who have received the Catholic Church’s prestigious Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award. Sutton’s battle against the establishment continued to the very end; diagnosed with cancer, she publicly fought her insurance company, which she claimed denied payment for treatments. She died in 2009. In a statement released after Sutton’s death, Field said, “Crystal Lee Sutton was a remarkable woman whose brave struggles have left a lasting impact on this country and without doubt, on me personally. Portraying Crystal Lee in Norma Rae, however loosely based, not only elevated me as an actress, but as a human being.”
2. Henry Hill (Goodfellas)
Many movie fans probably assume Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed 1990 film Goodfellas is just a great fictional portrayal of mobster life. The film is actually based on a book, Wiseguy, by Nicholas Pileggi, recounting the adventures of former mobster Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta in the movie). The movie barely touched on the actual criminal lifestyle Hill lived. Hill served time in prison, got out, then testified against his former associates, earning him a spot in the federal government’s Witness Protection Program. Continuing his bad habits, he got kicked out of the program in the 1980s. Thanks to a reunion between Liotta and Hill organized by Entertainment Weekly in 2006, Liotta convinced Hill to enter an alcohol rehabilitation program. According to EW, Hill had spent the previous few years going back and forth between prison and homelessness.
1. Erin Brockovich (Erin Brockovich)
The story of a young law assistant’s impromptu investigation resulting in a massive $333 million settlement for groundwater contamination in California led to box office gold for Julia Roberts and director Steven Soderbergh in the 2000 film Erin Brockovich. In retrospect, it seems hard to believe any studio would have turned down such a compelling true story, but the film faced a rocky beginning — during one exploratory meeting, as the real Erin Brockovich explained her life story to a film executive, the exec openly yawned. But the movie turned her into a household name. Brockovich parlayed her fame into a gig as host of a TV series (Lifetime’s Final Justice With Erin Brockovich) and a New York Times bestseller (Take It From Me. Life’s A Struggle But You Can Win). Today, she travels the world as a motivational speaker, and operates Brockovich Research & Consulting, which handles environmental cases.
One More: Vince Papale (Invincible)
Few people outside the city of Philadelphia had ever heard of Vince Papale before the 2006 movie Invincible starring Mark Wahlberg. But in Philly, Papale is a legendary figure, the local star athlete who, despite not playing college football, tried out with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and at age 30 made the team’s roster as a receiver and special teams player. Papale played three seasons with the Eagles, and was even selected the team’s “Man of the Year” in 1978 for his off-the-field contributions. Today, Papale still lives in the Philadelphia area and works as a motivational speaker, spokesperson and author. His latest book is aptly titled, Be Invincible! A Playbook for Reaching Your Full Potential.