Real People Stories

Based on a True Story

UPDATED 04/09/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/09/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT

Erin Brockovich, 2000
Erin Brockovich-Ellis

Portrayed by: JULIA ROBERTS
Nominated for:Best Picture, Actress (Roberts), Director (Steven Soderbergh), Supporting Actor (Albert Finney), Original Screenplay

Brockovich-Ellis says that it has been a "surreal" six years since Carla Santos Shamberg, the film's co-executive producer, first heard her story from the L.A. chiropractor they shared. After meeting the former beauty queen and listening to her David-and-Goliath tale about fighting for townspeople whose water was contaminated by corporate polluting, Shamberg says she realized "this is a great Julia Roberts movie." Brockovich-Ellis, 40, a twice-divorced mother of three now wed to actor Eric Ellis, 35, is at ease with her newfound fame. In addition to overseeing an exhausting workload of contamination cases as research director for the L.A.-area law firm of Masry & Vititoe, she tours on the lecture circuit. "I didn't do anything other than just be an honest citizen who cared about other human bell ings," she says. "I feel funny being rewarded for that." But Erin's ordinariness, says Julia Roberts, motivates others: "It shows the potential for the best in all of us."

Dead Man Walking, 1995
Sister Helen Prejean

Portrayed by: SUSAN SARANDON
Nominated for: Best Actress (Sarandon), Actor (Sean Penn), Director (Tim Robbins), Original Song ("Dead Man Walking," by Bruce Springsteen)

As the guest of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins at the 1996 Oscars, Sister Helen Prejean had a swell time hobnobbing with Whoopi Goldberg and Jack Nicholson. ("He and I talked about the devil," she says.) But the 61-year-old nun from New Orleans never lost sight of what had led to her trip to L.A.: her mission "to change this death-penalty thing," she says. Two years earlier, Prejean's haunting book about her work with death-row inmates, Dead Man Walking, had made such an impression on Sarandon and Robbins that the couple talked her into collaborating with them on a film. The three remain good friends, and Prejean is now working with Robbins on a stage version of her story. "Helen doesn't fit the cliché of a nun," Sarandon said in 1996. "She's a real laugher and eater, and she has a real practical spirituality." Following the success of the movie, Prejean began accepting speaking engagements around the world; she's booked until 2002.

Good Morning, Vietnam, 1987
Adrian Cronauer

Portrayed by: ROBIN WILLIAMS
Nominated for: Best Actor (Williams)

"Good Morning, Vietnam has opened a lot of doors for me," says Adrian Cronauer, who is nevertheless quick to point out that "only about 43 percent" of the film chronicling his 1965-1966 stint as an Armed Forces Radio deejay in Saigon "was based on real life." The money he received, along with fellow vet Ben Moses, when they sold their story to Robin Williams's manager in 1982 helped Cronauer put himself through the University of Pennsylvania Law School (Class of '89). Now 62 and a telecommunications lawyer in Washington, D.C., he travels the nation speaking on veterans' issues. "He's even more fun in person than he was over the radio," says Sammy L. Davis, a longtime friend and Vietnam vet. Cronauer, who was a vice chairman of Veterans for Bush-Cheney, wasn't invited to the 1988 Oscars, but three years later he and his wife, Jeane, attended Williams's 40th birthday party. "I danced with Joan Baez," he recalls. "And Bette Midler asked for my autograph!"

Serpico, 1973
Frank Serpico

Portrayed by: AL PACINO
Nominated for:Best Actor (Pacino), Adapted Screenplay

By exposing corruption in the New York City police department in 1970, Officer Frank Serpico derailed a lot of careers—including his own. When he was shot during a drug bust the following year, some journalists and cops suspected Serpico's fellow officers of orchestrating the crime, although it was never " thoroughly investigated. Feeling less than welcome, he resigned from the force in 1972 and moved to Switzerland. But when his story was told onscreen, Serpico, now 64, "became the most famous cop in the world," says Peter Maas, who wrote the bestselling book on which the film was based. "And that had a big effect on other cops. If they wanted to do something about corruption, now there was a role model." Serpico, who had little involvement in the film (aside from meeting with Al Pacino several times) and didn't attend the Oscars, was overwhelmed by the attention. "People start to deify you," he says. In 1980, after nearly a decade living in Europe (and a four-year marriage to a Dutch woman who died in 1978), Serpico, who has a 21-year-old son from a subsequent relationship, moved to rural New York. Living alone in a one-room cabin and supported by his disability pension and investment income, he gives speeches on police ethics. He is also writing an autobiography, encouraged in part by the letters of thanks he still receives. "I'd never have believed all these years later I'd be getting mail from cops saying, 'You're an inspiration,' " marvels Serpico. "That alone is worth it all."

Awakenings, 1990
Dr. Oliver Sacks

Portrayed by: ROBIN WILLIAMS
Nominated for: Best Picture, Actor (Robert De Niro as Sacks's patient), Adapted Screenplay

In 1973 Oliver Sacks, a London-born, Oxford-educated neurologist, published Awakenings. The book recounted his work with a group of New York City hospital patients who had been comatose for as long as 40 years, victims of a sleeping-sickness epidemic that swept the world from 1916 to 1927. By administering L-dopa, a drug used to treat Parkinson's disease, Sacks was able to rouse his elderly charges. Hollywood liked his story-although it took 17 years to bring it to the screen. Sacks's "great strength with these patients was that he was able to imagine the world from their points of view," says Awakenings' screenwriter Steve Zaillian, who accompanied the doctor on his hospital rounds. Today, the never-married Sacks, 67, sees patients at two nursing homes and a hospital as well as in his Manhattan office. He is the author of seven books, including 1986's bestselling The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. His next work, a memoir, will be published in November.

The Insider, 1999
Jeffrey Wigand

Portrayed by: RUSSELL CROWE
Nominated for: Seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Actor (Crowe) and Director (Michael Mann)

Research biochemist Jeffrey Wigand was never comfortable ask working for Kentucky tobacco giant Brown & Williamson. "My kids would ask, 'Daddy, how can you kill people with your work?' " Now 58, the twice-divorced father of three girls says he stayed because the company's health benefits helped him care for his middle daughter, who was born with medical problems. After he was fired in 1993, Wigand agreed to consult anonymously with the FDA in their case against the tobacco industry, and later told Mississippi state officials that executives had lied under oath about the dangers of nicotine. He also talked to CBS's 60 Minutes, but fearing a lawsuit from B&W, the network pulled the interview, which led to an expose in The Wall Street Journal, an article in Vanity Fair and, eventually, the movie. Wigand's evidence helped'all 50 states win some $250 billion in a settlement against the nation's top tobacco companies; today he earns a living speaking out against the industry. "They thought they could crush him," says Lowell Bergman, the former 60 Minutes producer who labored to bring Wigand's story to light. "They miscalculated."

Mask, 1985
Rusty Dennis

Portrayed by: CHER
Nominated for: Best Makeup

Getting boyfriend advice from Cher was one of the perks Rusty Dennis received during her Mask experience. "I was living with a junkie," says Dennis, now 64. "And Cher was telling me about her relationship with Gregg Allman. She went through the same kind of s—- I was going through." By any account, Dennis (who kicked the guy out the next day) had gone through enough already. Her youngest son, Rocky, was bom in 1961 with a rare deformative disease that caused his bones and skull to grow abnormally. "They expected him to die before age 6," says Dennis. In fact, he lived until he was 16, but had to endure terrible pain and many trips to the hospital. It was during one of his final visits that Rocky met screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelen. Says Dennis: "She was impressed with his happy-go-lucky attitude." After Rocky's death in 1978, Dennis gave Phelen her blessing for the screenplay. "This was not the PTA mother of the year," says Phelen, noting that Dennis was an admitted drug user. "But she was the perfect mother for Rocky. She never made him feel sorry for himself." And though Dennis's only other child, Joshua, died of AIDS in 1987 at age 32, she never looked for sympathy either. "People say, 'Oh, it's too bad they died so young,' " explains Dennis, a psychic counselor who lives in a trailer park outside Los Angeles. "I say, 'You don't understand. My kids lived every day of their lives. Every moment.' "

Music of the Heart, 1999
Roberta Guaspari

Portrayed by: MERYL STREEP
Nominated for: Best Actress (Streep), Song ("Music of My Heart" by Diane Warren)

Roberta Guaspari's story had Hollywood written all over it: A mother of two young sons emerges from a failed marriage and finds her calling teaching violin at a New York City public school in East Harlem. When budget cuts threaten to close her program, she fights City Hall and wins. In 1998, seven years after Guaspari's efforts were first chronicled by the media and, later, in a documentary called Small Wonders, Madonna was cast to play her in what would become Music of the Heart. When the singer dropped out due to creative differences, Meryl Streep stepped in. The actress studied the violin with a tutor and observed Guaspari, now 53, at work. "When she entered the character, there was Roberta, this hard-nosed woman who took control of the class," recalls Guaspari's son Nicholas Tzavaras, 26, a cellist. Guaspari's other son, Alexi, 24, is a medical student, and her adopted daughter Sophia, 10, is a fourth grader—and one of the 350 students now in her music program. "I'm still cranking out little violinists," says Guaspari. "This is my place in the world."

Lorenzo's Oil, 1992
Augusto Odone

Portrayed by: NICK NOLTE
Nominated for: Best Actress (Susan Sarandon), Original Screenplay

Lorenzo's Oil ends on a hopeful note: Twelve-year-old Lorenzo Odone, diagnosed with adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a degenerative disease that attacks the body's nerves, appears to be responding to an experimental treatment derived from rapeseed and olive oils. But sadly, Lorenzo, now 22, is bedridden and can no longer speak. "He's holding his own," says his father, Augusto, 68 and a widower since the death of his 61-year-old wife, Michaela, from lung cancer last year. A former economist for the World Bank, Augusto quit his job in 1987 to care for his youngest child. (He has a son and daughter from a first marriage.) He now works as a banking consultant and heads the Myelin Project, a foundation he began in 1990 to promote ALD research. Human trials of an experimental therapy for ALD could begin this year at Yale University. "It's a very long shot," says Augusto. "But it's better than no shot at all."

Born on the Fourth of July, 1989
Ron Kovic

Portrayed by: TOM CRUISE
Nominated for: Eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Actor (Cruise), Director (Oliver Stone) and Adapted Screenplay

For Ron Kovic, who cowrote the movie about his life, "being nominated for an Oscar was a personal victory for me and my family." At 19, he had left his parents' Long Island, N.Y., home and gone to war expecting to come back a hero. Instead, he was shot in the spine and returned a paraplegic at 21. Disillusioned about America's role in Vietnam, Kovic, now 54, became a fierce antiwar activist, speaking at protests and conventions across the country. In 1976, to prove that "I had not been made less a person because of my injury," he wrote the critically acclaimed memoir on which his and fellow Vietnam vet Oliver Stone's screenplay was based. "He wrote about having a dream as a youngster and how the dream was distorted and re-won," says Stone. "Ron didn't shine the way he thought he would in the war, but he learned that in a wheelchair he could also shine." Now living near San Diego, the never-married Kovic is at work on a follow-up book. He still receives a birthday gift from Tom Cruise every Fourth of July.

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