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Once Upon A Time In Hollywood: who's real and who isn't?


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s ninth (and maybe penultimate?) movie, and it could be his most memorable yet.

Mixing both fact and fiction, the film centres around an infamous period in the US, the late 1960s. More specifically, it deals with one of the most notorious incidents of the time: the 1969 Tate Murders, orchestrated by psychopath Charles Manson and his followers.

We’ve written a handy little guide introducing you to the primary characters in the movie, both real and fictional, and we also explain what part, if any, they played in the real history of the story.

Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth

Real or make-believe? Make-believe

Maybe most surprisingly, the film’s two leads, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt), are not actually real people who existed at the time. However, Dalton is reportedly inspired by Hollywood legend Burt Reynolds, who was in line for a part in Tarantino's film before his death in 2018.

Meanwhile, Pitt plays Dalton’s long-time stunt double, and their antagonistic bromance is at the heart of the movie. The story follows the fading Dalton as he leaves behind declining Western TV show to go and revive his career in the home of the burgeoning Spaghetti Western: Italy.

Although the characters are fictional, it means we get to enjoy a major Tarantino reunion (Pitt appeared in Inglourious Basterds and DiCaprio in Django Unchained).

Sharon Tate

Real or make-believe? Real

I, Tonya Oscar nominee Margot Robbie portrays Sharon Tate, the real-life actress who notoriously became one of the victims of the Manson Family. Only 26 before her untimely death, Sharon was already well-known for starring in several American primetime TV shows and was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1967 for her part in the film Valley of the Dolls (tragically, it was in the Most Promising Newcomer category that she was nominated).

Not only that, Sharon was also the wife of famed director Roman Polanski (Chinatown, The Pianist), having wed him just the year before. In the movie, it's explained she's the glamorous next-door neighbour of Rick Dalton.

Charles Manson

Real or make-believe? Real

One of the most infamous real-life serial killers in modern US history, Charles Manson was responsible for instilling a sense of disillusion in America at the tail-end of the 1960s.

The brutal murders of Tate and her friends in August 1969 at 10050 Cielo Drive, Los Angeles is credited as drawing the era of flower power and the hippy movement to a close, although Manson himself wasn’t present. However, he did give instructions to his disciples as to how to carry out the horrifying act, telling them to "make it as gruesome as you can". Intriguingly, he’s portrayed by actor Damon Herriman, who was also glimpsed as Manson in Netflix series Mindhunter.

Jay Sebring

Real or make-believe? Real

Hollywood hairstylist Jay Sebring is played by actor Emile Hirsch. It’s interesting to note that several of Hirsch’s bigger roles have seen him portray real-life figures, including an acclaimed turn as drifter Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn.

Sebring was known as a talented and innovative hairstylist at the time and was credited with revamping men’s hairstyling in the US. He boasted a client roster including the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Steve McQueen and, at a time when haircuts cost $1 to $2, he was regularly charging his client’s $50 a cut. Interestingly enough, before Sharon Tate met and married Roman Polanski, she was in a relationship with Jay Sebring and, although they split up, they remained good friends. He was one of those murdered alongside Tate as Manson’s disciples went on the rampage.

Charles "Tex" Watson

Real or make-believe? Real

In the film Tex, played by former Disney actor Austin Butler, is one of the central members of the Manson family and a big part of the whole saga of the Tate murders.

Drawn to LA by the psychedelic and music scenes of the 1960s, Tex fell in with the Manson family and ended up becoming one of the more senior members of the group, and was involved in what happened to Sharon Tate and her friends.

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme

Real or make-believe? Real

War of the Worlds actress Dakota Fanning stars as another Manson family member known as ‘Squeaky’. In real life, Fromme was a member of a popular dance troupe called the Westchester Lariats in her childhood, a group that toured the US and Europe during the 1950s.

In the mid-sixties she moved to California, where she met Charles Manson and actually was one of the early members of his cult. Eventually Fromme, like Watson, was jailed for her part in the Manson family’s crimes but has been out of prison for the last 10 years.

George Spahn

Real or make-believe? Real

The role of landowner George Spahn, the man who leased his property to Manson and his followers, was originally set for Burt Reynolds. However, he died before shooting his scenes, and the part then went to The Hateful Eight’s Bruce Dern.

James Stacy

Real or make-believe? Real

Portrayed by Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant, James Stacy was a real-life actor who starred in 1960s Western TV series Lancer (in which Dalton comes to star). In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he’s seen to cross paths with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton.

Marvin Schwartz

Real or make-believe? Make-believe

A fictional creation, Marvin Schwartz is Dalton’s agent, and bring thespian muscle to the role is the celebrated Al Pacino. This actor’s roster of acclaimed roles barely needs repeating – from The Godfather to Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface and beyond, he’s one of the greats. And the prospect of him appearing in his first Tarantino movie is enormously exciting.

Steve McQueen

Real or make-believe? Real

An icon of 1960s cinema, the poised and peerless Steve McQueen shot to international stardom off the back of films like The Magnificent Seven, The Charles Crown Affair and Bullitt (which contains one of the most famous car chase scenes of all time). He’s portrayed by Band of Brothers and Billions actor Damian Lewis.

Bruce Lee

Real or make-believe? Real

Mike Moh portrays the much-lamented Bruce Lee, the action icon who singlehandedly popularised martial arts in Hollywood cinema via the likes of Enter the Dragon. We see him briefly in the trailer, sparring with Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, although Lee’s prominence in the storyline remains to be seen.

Additionally, there's The Hateful Eight's Kurt Russell as a fictional movie director, who joins fellow Tarantino regular Michael Madsen as an actor within Dalton's fictional TV series Bounty Law. The movie also showcases Rafał Zawierucha as the aforementioned Roman Polanski, the late Luke Perry as Western TV actor Wayne Maunder and Lena Dunham as Manson Family member Catherine Share.

Click here to book your tickets for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, opening on 14th August.

Do you think the movie will become Quentin Tarantino's most audacious and brilliant so far? Let us know your thoughts @Cineworld.

Marvyn Wilson is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.