They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and creators in every industry are notorious for pulling inspiration from their everyday lives. Sometimes it's a song about the singer’s ex-girlfriend, a main character based on the writer’s best friend, or a painting that bears a striking resemblance to the artist’s mother. Usually, the subterfuge is subtle, and the person who inspired their creative acquaintance will never know how impactful they've been. Other times, the imitation game is a bit more obvious. Take when celebrities are the source of inspiration, for example.
Celebrities are gorgeous, talented, incredibly popular in the public sphere. They're obviously the perfect fodder for any creator’s character bank because of their larger-than-life personas, but it's near impossible to replicate their looks and personalities without tipping someone off. CBR is pretty good at finding the more shameless examples, like when we recently chronicled the comic artists blatantly ripping off celebrity faces. But there are some characters whose real-life celebrity inspirations have been relatively well-kept secrets – until now. This time around, CBR will reveal 15 of the most famous cartoon characters inspired by equally famous celebrities. You’ll never look at some of your childhood favorites the same way again!
15 STERLING ARCHER (ARCHER)
It should come as no surprise that Sterling Archer was inspired by a super hot celebrity in real life – and no, we don’t mean his voice actor H. Jon Benjamin. Fans of the suave, only slightly incompetent spy have speculated for years now that the character was inspired by gorgeous actors like Henry Cavill, Ian Somerhalder and Matt Bomer. All good choices, of course, considering their smoldering appearances and piercing blue eyes.
However, none of these men ever made the cut. Archer’s physical inspiration actually comes from professional photographer and former model Jason Fitzgerald. A native of Georgia, Fitzgerald has now settled in Texas after spending 10 years modeling around the country. He’s not much of a household name, but his looks are certainly something to talk about. And so is his photography, which showcases a lot of interesting fashion.
14 ERIC CARTMAN (SOUTH PARK)
Controversy and South Park pretty much go hand-in-hand, and they’ve been going steady since Trey Parker and Matt Stone created the adult cartoon in 1997. Even at their most vulgar, these cartoon kids remind fans of their own friends and family members at that age. All the tasteless jokes were just the typical staples of childhood, even if day-to-day life was a bit more mundane.
The fact that the hilarious Eric Cartman was inspired by All in the Family patriarch Archie Bunker might seem a bit strange. But Parker and Stone are longtime fans of the sitcom, and they’ve discussed in the past how Bunker’s abrasive adult personality was perfect for a child character like Cartman. In an interview with The Independent, Stone has said that, “Kids are not nice, innocent, flower-loving little rainbow children… they're just complete little raging bastards.” So, for Cartman, Bunker isn’t a bad choice at all.
13 ARIEL (THE LITTLE MERMAID)
Now to Disney. The animation studio played coy in its attempts to find inspiration for The Little Mermaid, with supervising animators Glen Keane and Mark Henn on the hunt for the perfect celebrity to copy onto the silver screen. The task was daunting at first for the duo: Keane originally didn’t want to work on the Ariel character model, and in interviews years later, he stated that he just made Ariel look exactly like his wife “without the fins.”
Keane and Henn were eventually able to find their famous body double. Alyssa Milano became their inspiration -- though she didn’t know it at first. As she revealed in a 2013 interview on the Wendy Williams Show, one day she was randomly asked to host The Making of the Little Mermaid by production. She learned about her influence on Ariel’s appearance and personality while filming that special.
12 URSULA (THE LITTLE MERMAID)
While Keane and Henn struggled on Ariel’s design, other animators on the film seemed to have a good idea of the sea witch Ursula. She was a coveted character among the animation team because she needed to be a large, menacing figure with an interesting flair for the dramatic. She was even the character that Keane originally wanted to work on before he was assigned Ariel.
Several attempts to try and craft Ursula’s perfect look resulted in a scorpion fish, a spinefish, and finally something to the effect of a vampy overweight matron. Lyricist Howard Ashman got a hold of this final drawing and said it reminded him of a “Miami Beach matron… playing Mah Jong by the pool.” Apparently, his comment made the famous drag queen Divine spring into the minds of Ariel’s animators, and thus Ursula was born.
11 ALADDIN (ALADDIN)
The Walt Disney Company was at the forefront of the birth of American animation, and its animators secured the company’s triumph in this rat race through methodically retracing everything from real life. Animated scenes were acted out in large studios, and characters were often based on their voice actors or random movie stars. Thankfully, Disney has been much subtler since the turn-of-the-century.
One example – and there are a lot on this list, if you haven't guessed – is the character of Aladdin from the titular 1992 film. Supervising animator Glen Keane was a huge teeny bopper in his youth, so he based Aladdin’s looks on his favorite movie stars. While Back to the Future’s Michael J. Fox was the original inspiration, the animation team ultimately based Aladdin’s mannerisms and dazzling smile on Tom Cruise. And even MC Hammer played a role in Aladdin’s creation in the form of his parachute pants.
10 JASMINE (ALADDIN)
Aladdin wasn’t the only character in this film to get the star treatment. Genie was based on his voice actor, Robin Williams; everything from his mannerisms to his boisterous personality was directly lifted from the late actor. Both Cruise and Williams were big stars at the time of Aladdin, but they weren’t the only celebrities enjoying the heights of their career popularity. Jennifer Connelly was a model, a double Ivy League student, and a rising star. She was also one of the many inspirations for Jasmine.
Jasmine’s character design came from another supervising animator on Aladdin, Mark Henn. Henn was suffering from a severe case of artist's block at the time and, in trying to find a fresh new look, he decided on his younger sister and the unique hairstyle she wore in high school. As Jasmine’s features became more refined, he drew additional inspiration from Connelly, in particular her thick eyebrows.
9 CHUCKIE FINSTER (RUGRATS)
Music fans, this entry is for you. Mark Mothersbaugh is one of the most celebrated musicians in the country. He co-founded the new wave band Devo, serving as its lead singer and topping the charts with Whip It. He also has over 40 years of work in providing music for TV shows and movies like Super Mario World, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Shameless, Dumb and Dumber, House of Lies, 21 Jump Street, The Last Man on Earth… it might be easier to list what he hasn’t worked on, actually.
But Mothersbaugh has been particularly immortalized in the kid’s cartoon Rugrats, on which he also was the lead composer. His disheveled, reddish hair and thick glasses charmed the animation team enough that they based Chuckie Finster’s character design on him. Along with his music, Mothersbaugh has stated that influencing the show so deeply has been a humbling and rewarding experience.
8 THE VULTURES (THE JUNGLE BOOK)
Disney has tried to get on the musician train for its cartoon character models as well. In the 1967 animated film The Jungle Book, a volt of vultures tries to comfort young Mowgli after a series of trials in the jungle. If their side-swept hairdos and dulcet tones seem familiar, it’s because these vultures are representative of the Beatles. Disney executives were eager to capitalize on their favorite English rock band with this special cameo, which would allow them to recite a few lines and even sing the song, “That’s What Friends Are For.”
Unfortunately, The Jungle Book was plagued by problems throughout production, and this plan with the Beatles didn’t work out. Their schedules were tight, and John Lennon was allegedly strongly opposed to the idea. Undeterred, the animation team took their broken dreams and still let the Beatles-inspired vultures fly into the final cut of the film.
To give Disney some credit, the company has been successful in getting -- and retaining -- a voice actor whose design matches the character they are portraying. In 1995, the company released Pocahontas, the classic exploration of life in the new world from the perspective of English colonists and the indigenous Powhatan tribe. Since the film was a loose interpretation of the life of the real Pocahontas, who lived during the 17th century, Disney decided it needed some authenticity in her character design.
Luckily, producers had recently employed an indigenous celebrity onto the film who could be used as inspiration. Fledgling actress Irene Bedard had just landed the titular role. She was of Inupiat, Yupik, Inuit, Cree and Métis ancestry, and prior to joining the Disney film, she had extensive experience starring in indigenous films and television productions. Creating an animated version of Pocahontas turned into a breeze.
6 VICTOR NIKIFOROV (YURI ON ICE)
Ok, so Yuri on Ice is an anime, not a cartoon – we know, we know, don’t spam the comments. It totally deserves a spot on this list, though, because celebrity-inspired characters on this queer sports anime are legion. So far, fans have connected most of the cast’s skating careers to several international figure skating champions. For example, main character Yuri Katsuki is often linked to Japanese athlete Tatsuki Machida, while his similarly named rival, Yuri Plisetsky, is most likely based on Russian athlete Yulia Lipnitskaya.
The only character that creator Mitsurō Kubo has confirmed is a celebrity carbon copy is Victor Nikiforov, a legendary Russian figure skater and the object of the main character’s affections. Career-wise, he is near identical to Evgeni Plushenko, a seasoned pro in the sport. But Nikiforov’s look is all American, with American actor John Cameron Mitchell unknowingly lending his face to the show.
5 SPIKE SPIEGEL (COWBOY BEBOP)
We know Cowboy Bebop isn’t a cartoon either! It is one of the most celebrated anime series of all time, however, so it deserves to be on this list too. Of course, its fame has a lot to do with its protagonist, intergalactic bounty hunter Spike Spiegel. His devil-may-care attitude and aptitude for action have easily earned Spike the honor of best anime character for decades, and fans hunger for more of his story.
With a live-action adaptation of the anime on the way, there is some concern about the perfect actor to portray Spike. It might be good to see what famous people previously inspired his design. While his looks come directly from co-creator Shinichirō Watanabe, he and co-creator Toshihiro Kawamoto based his personality on Yusaku Matsuda, an influential Japanese film star. If we can find an actor as cool as Matsuda was, then this film should be a hit.
4 ROCKO (ROCKO'S MODERN LIFE)
Rocko’s Modern Life was a pretty weird Nickelodeon cartoon that premiered in the early ‘90s. The only way to describe it now is that it focused on a timid Australian immigrant named Rocko and all the strange, annoying, surreal everyday activities of his friends and neighbors. It was a satirical look at the mundanities of life through the eyes of the neurodivergent, which provides an interesting perspective on all the things society considers “normal.”
When creator Joe Murray first developed his show pitch, he wanted to associate Rocko with a celebrity whose neurosis was immediately recognizable. Surprisingly, he described Rocko as a “young wallaby Woody Allen” to Nick executives. This may be a surprise to fans, considering how in the show proper Filbert the turtle is typically seen as the Allen-inspired character. Filbert’s more obvious character ticks were also inspired by Allen, but Rocko is the truer imitation.
3 HARLEY QUINN (BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES)
Originally a canon divergent character created for Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn has risen to a cultural prominence that still feels hard to quantify. What is it about the sometimes antihero, sometimes supervillain that has appealed to audiences so widely and for so many years? If you’re a fan of daytime soap operas or the comedy circuit, it could also be because she was explicitly based on her first voice actress, Arleen Sorkin.
Before she started her acting career, Sorkin was friends with Paul Dini in college. When Dini and Bruce Timm embarked on their legendary collaboration in the DCAU, Dini was looking to complement Mark Hamill’s Joker with a fitting partner. By then, Sorkin had secured a role on Days of Our Lives as the wacky Calliope Jones Bradford, her most famous scene featuring her in full clown makeup. And, thankfully, the rest is awesome comic history.
2 JESSICA RABBIT (WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?)
We have to include a true stunner on this list: Jessica Rabbit, a club singer whose animated appearance is now well-known thanks to the 1988 live-action/animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The film adapted a novel where Jessica is the estranged wife of the titular 'toon. Currently, fans often associate her with actress Christina Hendricks, since both redheads are blessed with exceptional looks and an admirable take-no-prisoners attitude.
But it actually took three bygone Hollywood bombshells to make this iconic cartoon character. When asked about his inspiration for her film character in an interview with The New York Times, animation director Richard Williams said that he “tried to make her like Rita Hayworth; we took her hair from Veronica Lake, and [director Robert] Zemeckis kept saying, 'What about the look Lauren Bacall had?'" The resulting design became, and still is, “the ultimate male fantasy, drawn by a cartoonist.”
1 BUGS BUNNY (LOONEY TUNES)
The sexiest starlets of Old Hollywood haven’t been the only ones to shape our favorite cartoon characters. These actresses just seem to be the most recognizable because they usually directly inspire human characters. Meanwhile, when classic movie actors are adopted for inspiration, their adaptation is understated. At least, that’s the only way to really explain the inspiration behind Bugs Bunny.
Surprisingly, this beloved character didn’t spring fully formed from the minds of Warner Bros. cartoonist Friz Freleng and his colleagues. In his unpublished memoirs, Freleng revealed that he based the bunny rabbit on several characters from It Happened One Night. Roscoe Karns’ character Oscar Shapeley influenced Bugs with overall personality. But it was Clark Gable’s nonchalant carrot eating and fast-talking swag in the film that inspired Bugs’ defining character traits. The honor is pretty fitting for the King of Hollywood if you ask us.
What cartoon characters do you know that were inspired by real-life celebrities? Sound off in the comments and let us know!