Acid-green hair. Ghostly white skin. A twisted, maniacal grin. Even without mention of his signature purple suit, these words could only describe the Joker. The foil to Batman for nearly a century, the Clown Prince of Crime and his calling card of comic chaos have transcended the realm of comic books, establishing the Joker as arguably the greatest villain of all time.
But for a character whose fictional origins have been an ever-changing subject of debate and interpretation, the real-life inspiration for the Dark Knight’s mortal foe always began with one individual. Though many have tried their hand at playing the iconic character, only one man truly deserves to be called the Joker.
Of course, you have to give at least some credit to these stars. Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Joaquin Phoenix are all hailed for their iconic turns as the Joker, though the man that inspired it all had more in common with the legendary villain than all of these actors combined.
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Born in Berlin in 1893, Conrad Veidt had big plans from the get-go. He aspired to be a surgeon in his early years, though after catching the acting bug in high school, he dropped out to pursue a stage career full time.
Unsurprisingly, Conrad’s father wasn’t too happy about his son’s decision, telling him, “An actor is…an outcast.” But instead of crumpling under the weight of his father’s rejection, Conrad decided to roll with it.
Embracing his place as an outcast, Conrad began playing characters that fit the model of a pariah. His ability to capture the emotions of the persona non grata earned him widespread recognition, though the young actor still felt there was room to push the envelope.
He began attending theater performances dressed in “theatrical clothes,” which typically included a cape and monocle in the vein of classic villains. But, in true Joker fashion, Conrad’s commitment to his craft soon went a bit too far.
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After landing free stage lessons with a local actor, Conrad became so obsessed with perfecting his performances that he would often skip meals and neglect his personal hygiene. He became gaunt, with sharp features and sunken eyes — however, his striking looks would have their advantages.
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In 1920, Conrad was cast as a murderous sleepwalker in the iconic silent horror The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The bizarre, expressionist visuals coupled with the young actor’s startling appearance made the film a hit, and Conrad soon found himself in high demand.
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Dubbed the “Demon Of The Silver Screen,” Conrad began appearing in horror films left and right, though his approach to his characters was far from traditional. Conrad humanized the monsters he played, leading many in the industry to realize he could be more than just a horror star.
After landing the leading role in Germany’s first talking picture, 1929’s Land Without Women, Conrad had fully established himself as one of the country’s most prominent actors. His genius on the screen was unmatched, though unlike the Joker, Conrad opted to use his intelligence for good.
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When Joseph Goebbels began cracking down on the German film industry in the 1930s, Conrad decided to expose the Nazi propaganda master for how powerless he really was. So, when the Nazis required all German actors to fill out a questionnaire regarding their race, Conrad put “Jew” in solidarity with his wife, Ilona Prager.
Unwilling to be undermined, Goebbels placed Conrad under house arrest, intending to have him killed. Fortunately, the crafty actor had a trick up his sleeve: after his film studio requested he be released so they could continue shooting, Conrad was freed without a scratch.
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Still, the actor had made himself a target, leading him to flee Germany for Great Britain. He became a naturalized subject in 1939 and starred in a number of British films including 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad, where his performance as Jaffar went on to inspire the character of the same name in Disney’s Aladdin.
In 1941, Conrad relocated to California to try his hand at a career in Hollywood. Anticipating that he’d be typecast in Nazi roles given his thick German accent, Conrad made sure that they were always portrayed as villains, including in one of his most memorable appearances…
Casablanca. Conrad played the part of the villainous Major Heinrich Strasser, a role that’s come to define his American film career. Yet unbeknownst to most, Conrad had actually cemented his lasting legacy 14 years earlier with a downright frightening performance.
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In the 1928 German film The Man Who Laughs, Conrad played the character Gwynplaine, a circus performer who falls in love with a blind woman. The film is a romantic drama, though there’s one particular feature of Conrad’s character that’s left many to view it as a horror…
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His smile. Gwynplaine wears a wide, frightening grin throughout the film, the product of an intentional childhood disfigurement. His appearance wasn’t exactly praised back in 1928, though in 1940, the seemingly obscure German character would have a major impact on American pop culture.
Struggling to devise a signature look for their latest villain, Batman co-creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane came across an image of Conrad as Gwynplaine and were immediately struck by the sight. They decided to incorporate the character’s white skin and jarring smile into their concepts — the Joker was born.
Gwynplaine’s influence would be seen again in 2008’s The Dark Knight, with Heath Ledger taking up the mantle of the Joker. Ledger’s Joker remarks that his permanent smile is the result of intentional disfigurement, a reference to Gwynplaine’s origins.
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The Man Who Laughs also inspired the iconic graphic novel The Killing Joke, which in turn served as the basis for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in 2019’s Joker. Both the novel and film depict the Joker as a tragic outcast, directly relating to Gwynplaine and even Conrad’s own life.
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Many consider Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal to be the most authentic of all the Jokers, especially given the parallels between his life and that of Conrad Veidt. After all, in order to get into the mind of a character as twisted as the Joker, you have to have a pretty twisted mind yourself.
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Fortunately, Joaquin was set in that respect pretty much from the start. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as Joaquin Rafael Bottom, the future megastar lived his early days a member of the religious cult Children of God.
Alongside his four siblings and parents, John Lee and Arlyn, Joaquin spent his childhood traveling through South America with the Children. Eventually, John Lee and Arlyn became disenchanted with the group and returned to the U.S. aboard a cargo ship in 1978.
Changing their last name to “Phoenix” to symbolize a new beginning, the free-spirited family settled in Los Angeles and tried their hand at the entertainment industry. Arlyn took a job as a secretary for NBC, and Joaquin and his siblings began performing on the streets to make ends meet.
Eventually, the Phoenix children were discovered by Hollywood agent Iris Burton, who found them work on commercials and television shows. Joaquin made his acting debut alongside his brother River in a 1982 episode of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.
His first major role came two years later when he again appeared opposite River in the ABC Afterschool Special episode Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia. That same year, Joaquin appeared on several notable programs, including The Fall Guy, Hill Street Blues, and Murder, She Wrote.
Joaquin made his film debut in 1986’s SpaceCamp as Max, a 12-year-old who visits the Kennedy Space Center to learn about NASA and undergo astronaut training. But despite consistent work, there was another Phoenix on the rise.
River had quickly established himself as the premiere child actor in the family, receiving critical acclaim for his performances in Stand By Me (1986), Running On Empty (1988), and My Own Private Idaho (1991). With all eyes on his elder brother, Joaquin felt like the odd man out.
He decided to withdraw from acting for a time, choosing to travel Mexico and South America with his father. But Hollywood wasn’t finished with young Joaquin just yet, and before long he found himself back in L.A. — although under tragic circumstances.
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On October 31, 1993, Joaquin placed a frantic 911 call after River succumbed to an overdose outside the The Viper Room in West Hollywood. River was pronounced dead hours later, and Joaquin, having quickly become the focus of a media frenzy, retreated from the public eye.
It wasn’t until a year later, with the encouragement of family and friends, that Joaquin returned to acting, though he remained selective with the scripts he took. His first hit role came opposite Nicole Kidman in 1995’s To Die For, playing a disturbed young man seduced into murder.
Yet the next few years were marked with struggle for Joaquin, as his films found little critical success. Films like U Turn (1997), Inventing the Abbotts (1997), and Clay Pigeons (1998) were universally panned by critics.
In 2000, Joaquin burst back into the public consciousness with his iconic performance in Gladiator. For his role as the merciless Emperor Commodus, the 26-year-old received universal praise and was even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
From there, Joaquin only continued to pad his resume with memorable performances. The ’00s highlighted his versatility as an actor, his talents on full display in films like Signs (2002), Hotel Rwanda (2004), and Walk The Line (2005).
In 2010, Joaquin convinced the world he’d gone crazy and was leaving Hollywood behind in pursuit of a rap career. This, as it turned out, was all a publicity stunt for his mockumentary I’m Still Here, a bold reaffirmation that the veteran actor was as sharp as ever before.
He made good on this promise throughout the 2010’s with a slew of critically acclaimed performances, including those in The Master (2012), Her (2013), and Inherent Vice (2014). For each film, Joaquin was nominated for several leading-actor awards.
In 2019, Joaquin cemented himself as a master of his craft when he became the titular character in Todd Phillip’s Joker. Critics and audiences alike hailed the performance as arguably the best of Joaquin’s career.
But even with so much attention over the years, there’s one bit of information that’s eluded the public since the very beginning. Ever since Joaquin came onto the scene back in the ’80s, fans have wondered what the deal is with the legendary actor’s infamous scar.
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Some believe it’s the result of a cleft lip, a birth defect that occurs when the upper portion of the lip doesn’t form completely when a fetus is in utero. Others, however, suspect a far more sinister cause, such as some kind of violence.
The scar is actually a microform cleft (the mildest form of a cleft lip), though in Joaquin’s mind, it was the result of an “act of God.” “While pregnant with me, my mother felt a sharp pain one day, and I was born with a mark on my lip,” he once said of the scar.
Fortunately, this unsightly blemish didn’t stop Joaquin from finding success in the industry. Maybe Hollywood isn’t all about appearances after all, as there are more than a handful of stars with scars of their own.
1. Harrison Ford: While driving to work one day, Ford lost control of his car, veered off the road, and hit a telephone pole. His face collided with the steering wheel, resulting in a lifelong scar.
2. Jason Mamoa: Although the line through his brow perfectly fits most of his tough-guy roles, Jason Mamoa might not be too happy with how he got it. He was reportedly in a bar fight and got smacked with a pint glass.
3. Padma Lakshmi: She started her career very early as a model until she was scarred in a car accident. At first, she was self-conscious about it, but that all changed with time. “It is so much a part of me. I’m not sure I would remove it even if a doctor could wave a magic wand and delete it from my arm.”
4. Seal: There are three things we associate with Seal: Kiss From A Rose, Heidi Klum, and the scars on his face. Despite the stories that they are burn marks, they were actually caused by discoid lupus erythematosus. Thankfully he is perfectly healthy now, but will never forget what it’s like to struggle.
5. Elizabeth Taylor: For her, a case of pneumonia in the spring of 1961 led to an emergency tracheotomy. “There must be some reason that God wants me to live,” Taylor said. “There must be something left for me to do.” Rest easy Taylor, you did plenty in your lifetime.
6. Tina Fey: At first the Mean Girls writer was secretive about her scar, stating she didn’t want to focus on it too much; eventually she revealed that her face was slashed by a stranger behind her house while she was still in kindergarten.
7. Kate Middleton: After her wedding to Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge began showing the scar under her hair. At first, the English were very worried about her health, but she assured the people it was caused by a childhood operation.
8. Kylie Jenner: When Kylie was small, she tried to climb over a sharp fence, but pierced her leg in the process, leaving a scar that became smaller as she grew. Lately Kylie has been showing it off in her Instagram posts, stating: “I love my scar.”
9. Jonah Hill: When this Superbad was 15, he was out drinking with friends while they drove around. With his elbow resting out the window, the car collided into another. His arm was almost amputated, so he decided to get his act together.
10. Catherine Zeta-Jones: This actress doesn’t mind showing off her tracheotomy scar while flaunting her acting skills in movies like Ocean’s Eleven and Chicago. “Without it, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” she said.
11. Miles Teller: Also in a car accident, he flew out the window, scraping his face along the road. He’s had several surgeries since then, but not every scar or piece of gravel could be removed. That didn’t keep him from earning a successful acting career.
12. Sharon Stone: This model was apparently riding a horse as a child when she got slashed by a wire she didn’t notice. It used to make her very self-conscious, but now she confidently embraces the mark.
13. Mary J. Blige: Nobody except Mary J. knows how the scar under her eye came into existence, but she certainly isn’t shy about showing it. “If I don’t accept the scar on my face, the lips that God gave me, the big giant feet, whatever it is that I’m deformed with, I got to love it so everybody else can love it,”
14. Sean Bean: Harrison Ford accidentally hit Bean in the face with a boat hook while filming a movie. Luckily, it was one of the only times in his life that Sean Bean didn’t die.
15. Kaley Cuoco: Much like Sharon Stone, Kaley’s ankle was scarred when she was out horse-riding at the age of 8. She fell off and had her ankle crushed when the horse stepped on it. She still loves horses though, and has literally climbed back up on that horse, even becoming a show jumping equestrian!
16. Queen Latifah: She got the scar on her forehead by playing tag with her brother. “I tripped over the telephone cord and hit my head on the corner of a wall,” she said. “I got three stitches. Then I fell on my grandmother’s steps and busted it open again.“
17. Princess Eugenie: This royal lady (9th to the throne), made headlines when she showed off her back in her wedding dress. The media seemed just as concerned about what she wore as what it showed: the scar from her childhood scoliosis surgery.
18. Ed Sheeran: It was actually Princess Beatrice who caused the scar on the English singer’s cheek. She was throwing a lively party when another singer asked to be knighted. Beatrice waved the sword around a bit too hard and slashed Ed’s face.
19. Andy Warhol: An attempt on the artist’s life left him with many markings all over his torso. There is the bullet wound from when he was shot, the surgery scars from where the doctors opened his chest to massage his heart, and finally, some scars from a gallbladder surgery before his death.
20. Andy García: For every celeb that proudly shares their scars, there are those that keep theirs a secret. Even though he had 94 acting credits to his name, Andy García never took his shirt off for cameras. The reason? He has a massive scar on his shoulder from where doctors surgically removed his conjoined twin.
Ocean’s 11 / Warner Bros.
Many celebs carry blemishes that aren’t physical. Back when Marky Mark kept it cool with the Funky Bunch, he wasn’t what you’d call a “model citizen.” Besides reportedly being prone to the use of racial slurs, Wahlberg also once nearly blinded a Vietnamese man by sucker-punching him in the eye.
Mila Kunis: When casting for the hit sitcom That ’70s Show, the producers agreed that all cast members—who played teenagers—had to be over 18. Kunis was only 14 when she auditioned, so she had to lie about her age. Hey, it worked.
Tyga: People credit the rapper with escaping “the streets” and making it to the big-time rap scene, but a 2008 video showed Tyga — not yet a celebrity — on a game show admitting that his childhood was cushy. He even said his mom drove a Range Rover.
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Angelina Jolie: While the exact reasons Jolie and ex-husband Brad Pitt split might be a court secret, some have claimed that her violent temper contributed to the schism. Did she really throw kitchen knives at Pitt, as some sources claim?
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Peyton Manning: As a college athlete—before he became one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time—the future Colts legend allegedly harassed a team medical staff member. Another student backed up the harassment claim, too.
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Joaquin Phoenix: As a child, Phoenix (left), who played Jesus in 2018’s Mary Magdalene, faced a different sort of pious challenge. His parents raised him and his siblings as part of the cult Children of God (though eventually they all fled).
John Roca / NY Daily News
Drew Barrymore: It didn’t take long for this actress — who’d been working since she was 11 months old — to feel suffocated by the weight of the world. In fact, she battled alcohol issues before high school and ended up institutionalized by 13.
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Aaron Eckhart: To get inspiration for his role as a father who lost his son in the movie Rabbit Hole, the Dark Knight star attended a support group for grieving fathers. People felt he went too far, however, when he pretended he actually was a father with a dead kid.
Rabbit Hole / Lionsgate
Samuel L. Jackson: Upset by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackson and a few classmates at Morehouse College once held members of the board of trustees hostage until they reformed the school’s curriculum. He got his wish.
Elvis Presley: While the singing sensation might have had hips that don’t lie, he wasn’t really the lady’s man he made himself out to be. When he met his wife, Priscilla, for example, she was just 14 years old!
Tyler Perry: This filmmaker and actor might’ve made people laugh with his zany comedy flicks and characters, but his past was far darker than his sense of humor let on. He confessed he suffered abuse at the hands of his father.
Robert Downey Jr.: Nowadays, its hard to see Downey as anything but a suave, sharp, and witty hunk, but he once suffered through horrendous drug addictions that landed him in jail.
Zach Braff: The Scrubs star once caught a 12-year-old kid spray painting his brand-new Porsche, so he chased the kid down and nearly beat him up. Braff didn’t learn until later he was on the prank TV show Punk’d and the paint was fake.
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Tim Allen: Despite family-friendly roles in shows like Home Improvement, Allen faced life in prison in the ’70s after authorities caught him smuggling drugs through an airport. He received just two years in prison after giving up the names of other criminals.