In the world of contemporary pop culture, cartoons characters are—in some cases—as treasured as real-life actors. To some, Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse are arguably more famous than Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts, and some grown women still wax nostalgic over grade-school crushes on Prince Eric from “The Little Mermaid” or Rio from “Jem and the Holograms”—never mind that these characters were entirely made up.
As it turns out, however, many of your favorite cartoon characters were actually based on very real, flesh-and-blood people. In the days of hand-drawn animation, many artists worked with actors as reference models to help them flesh out characters’ mannerisms.
Sherri Stoner, for example, may not be a household name, but she provided the inspiration for two of your favorite cartoon characters: She was a writer and producer for a lot of ’90s animation classics—she even provided the voice for a character in “Animaniacs”—and she also served as a reference model for both Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” and Belle in “Beauty and the Beast.”
Read on to discover the real-life people behind 11 of your favorite characters—once you see these, you won’t be able to look at these cartoons the same way again!
Betty Boop (Inspiration: Helen Kane)
Betty Boop was one of the earliest cartoons with sex appeal—a quality later imitated by characters like Jessica Rabbit in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”—but she was actually created as a parody of a real-life actress that you may or may not have ever heard of: Helen Kane.
Kane was a popular actress and singer in the 1920s who not only looked like Betty Boop, she also sounded like her. Her catchphrase, apparently, was even “Boop oop-a-doop.” Sadly, Kane wasn’t a big fan of the impression, and she even sued the cartoon creator (along with Paramount Pictures) in 1932. Still, most folks only know Ms Boop, and not the inspiration for the character.
Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” (Inspiration: Alyssa Milano)
While Sherri Stoner, as we mentioned earlier, provided many of the reference points for the character of Ariel in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” the main inspiration for the mermaid who longs to be a human was none other than Alyssa Milano. At the time of the movie, Milano was a young actress on a popular ABC sitcom called “Who’s the Boss,” and had the same big eyes, expressive personality, and petite frame. (Ariel’s bold red hair, however, was apparently modeled on astronaut Sally Ride.)
Ursula the Sea Witch from “The Little Mermaid” (Inspiration: Divine)
The famously evil sea witch, Ursula, who preys on the sweet and unassuming Ariel was actually based on another famous character—the drag queen Divine (real name: Harris Glenn Milstead), who burst into the limelight in the early ’70s thanks to some starring roles in John Waters films like “Mondo Trasho” and “Pink Flamingos.” (Seriously, once you see Ursula and Divine side-by-side, it’s eerie.) Sadly, Divine passed away in 1988, so she never saw Ursula take the screen when “The Little Mermaid” was released in 1989.
Edna Mode from “The Incredibles” (Inspiration: Edith Head)
Hilarious, pint-sized stylist-to-the-superheroes Edna Mode in Pixar’s “The Incredibles” was based on another larger-than-life style legend: costume designer Edith Head. Over the course of Head’s career, she earned a stunning 35 Academy Award nominations for her work—which included Hitchcock classics like “Vertigo,” “Rear Window,” and “The Birds,” among more than 430 others—and ended up with eight Academy Awards. Like Mode, who has a certain swagger about her tenure in the “superhero costume design” industry, Head wasn’t exactly humble—she famously once said, “I hate modesty.”
Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” (Inspiration: Sherri Stoner)
Sherri Stoner was an animation regular through the ’90s, working for Disney as both a writer and producer, including stints on “Animaniacs” and “Tiny Toon Adventures.” During her tenure there, she also ended up serving as a reference model for characters like Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” and, most noticeably, Belle in the 1991 Disney classic “Beauty and the Beast.” Apparently some of Belle’s little idiosyncrasies were directly inspired by things Stoner did, like brushing her hair from her face.
Aladdin from “Aladdin” (Inspiration: Tom Cruise)
When we first heard this one, we were skeptical, but once we started looking back at photos of Aladdin—and some of his cocky mannerisms, not to mention those big, expressive brows—we had to say that the resemblance to a young Tom Cruise is pretty striking. Apparently, the Disney animators behind the 1992 film initially looked to Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future” as a source of inspiration for the mischievous Aladdin before settling on a young Tom Cruise, who had a bit more sex appeal.
Pocahontas in “Pocahontas” (Inspiration: Irene Bedard)
Native American actress Irene Bedard not only voiced the title character of Pocahontas in the 1995 Disney film, she also provided the major inspiration for the heroine’s look and movement. (Let’s face it, the resemblance is uncanny.)
Snow White in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (Inspiration: Marge Champion)
Much like other hand-drawn animated classics, the title character in Disney’s iconic 1937 film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” was modeled after a real person—in this case, Marge Champion, who was a well-known actress in the ’30s and ’40s. She modeled for Disney animators throughout the process of developing Snow White, and even reportedly wore a football helmet once the animators decided that they wanted Snow White’s head to appear larger than normal. Champion wasn’t just the inspiration for Snow White, either—she later served as the model for the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio!
Milhouse Van Houten in “The Simpsons” (Inspiration: Paul Pfeiffer)
Who could forget the lovably nerdy character Paul Pfeiffer in “The Wonder Years”? Pfeiffer, portrayed by Josh Saviano, was the title character’s best friend and confidant, which later provided the basis for another lovably nerdy friend—Milhouse on “The Simpsons.” The two bear a striking resemblance—that off-center part, those goofy glasses, that shaky voice—other than the blue hair, of course.
The Vultures in “The Jungle Book” (Inspiration: The Beatles)
Remember those hilarious vultures in Disney’s 1967 flick, “The Jungle Book,” who sing “That’s What Friends Are For” and speak with Liverpool-esque accents? Yep, they were based on another famous, singing foursome: The Beatles. Apparently, Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein had asked Disney to use the stars in something, but John Lennon then nixed the idea, which required Disney to scrap the vultures’ initial songs in favor of something the Beatles didn’t write. If you look at the vultures, though, it’s impossible not to see John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
Eric Cartman in “South Park” (Inspiration: Archie Bunker)
Lovable brat Eric Cartman on “South Park” may not exactly resemble the late Carroll O’Connor, but he’s apparently meant to represent the character O’Connor portrayed with aplomb on the beloved ’70s series “All the Family”: Archie Bunker. In a “60 Minutes” interview, “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone said that, growing up, they watched a ton of “All in the Family,” and that they wanted to somehow bring Archie Bunker back when they debuted their animated show in the ’90s.
“In the early ’90s, we were sitting there going, a show like that couldn’t be on the air right now because things are so PC. You couldn’t have an Archie Bunker,” Parker said on the show. “And we used to talk about how, if Archie Bunker was 8 years old, I bet you could do it.”
Considering the level of Cartman’s political incorrectness, we’d say they’ve succeeded.