Who was ‘Rita Crudgington’? The strange history of Hollywood name-changers

Ed Power
·4-min read
Thandiwe Newton, as she will now be credited, has dropped the name 'Thandie' after 20 years - AFP
Thandiwe Newton, as she will now be credited, has dropped the name 'Thandie' after 20 years - AFP

The actress formerly known as Thandie Newton has announced she is reclaiming her original name. She will henceforth be credited in films as “Thandiwe”, meaning “beloved” in the Shona language of her mother’s native Zimbabwe.

“Thandiwe” became “Thandie”, the Mission Impossible and Westworld star explained, through “carelessness” when the “w” was dropped during her first acting credit. “That’s my name,” she told Vogue. “That’s always been my name. I’m taking back what’s mine.”

The misspelling of Newton’s name was an act of accidental erasure, and this reversion is to be welcomed. But what about those who change their names because they feel it will look better on a movie poster or in the inlay to a pop single?

One of the most famous examples is actor Maurice Joseph Micklewhite Jr, that icon of British cinema and original of the geezer species. You may be more familiar with the stage name he took after his gaze alighted upon a cinema sign advertising a screening of The Caine Mutiny at Leicester Square Odeon in 1954. “It was a good job it wasn’t the next theatre,” he later joked. “Because I would have been called Michael 101 Dalmatians.”

In becoming Michael Caine, the former Maurice Micklewhite was joining a tradition stretching back to the birth of cinema. Stan Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson, Greta Garbo went for the first 20 years of her life as Greta Gustafsson. And in the case of Fred Austerlitz it was none other than his Lutheran-German mother who suggested his showbusiness aspirations would be boosted by a switch to “Astaire”.

Often, in the early days of cinema, names were changed to avoid prejudice. Foreign names on screen, in particular, proved problematic. Even as late as the 1970s, when Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived in Hollywood as an over-bulked young man with a head full of ambition, he was advised to take a stage name. Presumably Arnie’s bulk meant that his agent decided not to get into an argument.

Frederick Austerlitz was the real name of the man better known as Fred Astaire - Moviepix
Frederick Austerlitz was the real name of the man better known as Fred Astaire - Moviepix

Obviously there’s a difference between those who feel pressured into a switch because of cultural bigotry and those who do so because they hope the extra zing will advantage them in the tooth-and-claw world of showbusiness. Very much in the latter camp is Elton John, who forsook “Reg Dwight” and then proceeded to conquer the world. That club also includes Joaquin Phoenix, whose parents changed the family’s last name from “Bottom” in order to represent a “new beginning”. It’s true: bottom sounds more like the end of something rather than the beginning.

In some instances you can only applaud the imaginative leaps taken. “Vin Diesel” suggests a Simpsons parody of a Hollywood action hero – but the actor who used to go as Mark Sinclair Vincent believed it sounded “more intimidating”. And, as he prepares to star in an umpteenth Fast and Furious movie, who could disagree?

The same logic holds in the case of singer Elizabeth Wooldridge Grant, who felt her name did not flow as well as it might. “I wanted a name I could shape the music towards,” she said. “Lana Del Rey reminded us of the glamour of the seaside. It sounded gorgeous coming off the tip of the tongue.”

It seems, then, that the idea that a change of name can bring a change of destiny is deeply woven into the fabric of the entertainment business. Would Cheryl Baker, one quarter of Eurovision sensation Bucks Fizz, have proved such a success if she had chosen to keep her rather less fizzy birth name – Rita Crudgington?

Rita Crudgington changed her name to Cheryl Baker for Bucks Fizz purposes - Hulton Archive
Rita Crudgington changed her name to Cheryl Baker for Bucks Fizz purposes - Hulton Archive

Yet sometimes a change can have a seemingly negative impact. Joanne Whalley made a silly name even sillier when she married Val Kilmer and became known professionally as Joanne Whalley Kilmer. A brief marriage also led to Spice Girl Mel B changing her very marketable name to Mel G – an aberration that is now long forgotten.

Perhaps we have reached a point where we can debunk this idea that the “correct” name is a passport to the big time. After all, Jennifer Lawrence, Ryan Reynolds and, hell, even Lee Mead have got on perfectly well with everyday monikers.

What’s more, we are more willing than ever to embrace the exotic. Although actress Saoirse Ronan had to spend the first several years of her career outlining the specifics of Irish pronunciation to incredulous American talkshow hosts (imagine there being languages other than English!), it is unlikely she was ever told to go by Saoirse’s English meaning of “Freedom”.

Today, performers can take on the entertainment industry using whatever name they wish, even if it’s reducing everything to a hard-to-imitate symbol, à la Prince (born Prince Rogers Nelson). Actually, that’s probably the simplest resolution of all.