15 People Who Starred As Themselves In Their Own Biographical Movies

Over 100 Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of 15 People Who Starred As Themselves In Their Own Biographical Movies
Voting Rules
Vote up the people who added that extra dose of authenticity to biopics.

Biographical movies are released all the time. Few things are as compelling as a true story dramatized with flair. Plenty of actors have won Oscars for playing real people in these films, too. Jamie Foxx got one for playing Ray Charles in Ray, Meryl Streep got one for playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, and so on.

More rare, but infinitely more fascinating, is when people play themselves in autobiographical movies. Audiences get an added level of authenticity in these cases. Of course, there are all kinds of pitfalls involved in making this happen. If the film isn't well-made, for example, it can come off as nothing more than a vanity project. Conversely, when a celebrity with a distinct personality or specific talent brings their own life events to the screen, believing in the story becomes easier.

The following famous people all played themselves in movies that were either true stories or very thinly veiled versions of their lives. Who did it best? Vote up your picks. 

  • Audie Murphy was a true American hero. The most decorated U.S. soldier of WWII, he fought the Germans valiantly, reportedly killing more than 200 enemy soldiers, and was wounded in combat three times. During his military career, he was awarded three Purple Hearts, a Distinguished Service Cross, and a Medal of Honor. After coming home, Murphy was put on the cover of LIFE magazine, which attracted the attention of Hollywood star James Cagney, who suggested a post-war movie career. That proved successful, with Murphy starring in more than 40 films, including The Red Badge of Courage, The Cimarron Kid, and Ride a Crooked Trail. Songwriting was another passion. Dean Martin and Charley Pride recorded some of his compositions. 

    In 1949, Murphy's autobiography To Hell and Back was published. It became a best-seller, with Universal Pictures buying the rights to adapt it for the screen. Of course, the suggestion was made that he play himself. Initially, he balked at that idea, worrying that the public would think he was trying to cash in on his war hero status. A fair amount of deliberation changed his mind, and he decided to recreate his combat experiences onscreen. Far from being viewed as a sell-out, the public embraced To Hell and Back. It was Universal's highest-grossing picture until Steven Spielberg's Jaws supplanted it in 1975. 

    • Age: Dec. at 45 (1925-1971)
    • Birthplace: Texas, USA, Kingston
    151 votes
  • Patty Duke In 'Call Me Anna'
    Photo: ABC

    Patty Duke received many accolades during her acting career. At age 15, she won the Academy Award as best supporting actress for her role as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. Other notable films include Valley of the Dolls, The Swarm, and Prelude to a Kiss. For three seasons in the 1960s, she played twin sisters on TV's The Patty Duke Show. Tons of other television work followed, as did three Emmy awards. Duke was also once the president of the Screen Actors Guild. Off the screen, she engaged in advocacy and education regarding bipolar disorder, which she was diagnosed with in 1982. Using her fame in that regard helped to open up the public conversation about mental illness in important ways.

    Part of that was playing herself in Call Me Anna, a 1990 made-for-TV movie that dramatized her struggle with bipolar disorder. At that period of time, a stigma was still attached to it. The general public didn't fully understand what it entailed, how it could afflict a person, or how it was treated. Duke called upon her own experiences in depicting the vacillation between bursts of manic behavior and “crashes” of crippling depression. Call Me Anna helped put a face on this particular mental health condition. 

    • Age: Dec. at 69 (1946-2016)
    • Birthplace: Elmhurst, New York, USA
    62 votes
  • Eminem is one of the best-selling rappers in music history, having sold 227 million records. He's also won more than a dozen Grammys and even an Academy Award. His career has been marked equally by invention and controversy. He became the first mega-successful white rapper, although that came with accusations that he was appropriating Black culture. The homophobia and suggestions of violence in his early work also raised concerns from parents and advocacy groups. Over time, though, his thoughts matured and he expressed some regret over the more offensive lyrics of his past.

    One of Eminem's fans was producer Brian Grazer, who developed a film called 8 Mile, based on the rapper's life. He, in turn, brought in L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson to guide the project. The movie is slightly fictionalized, but lead character Jimmy "B-Rabbit" Smith has a trajectory almost identical to Eminem's. He begins participating in rap battles in his home city of Detroit, struggles to overcome resistance as a white rapper, and has a tempestuous relationship with his mother (Kim Basinger). Hanson won his star's trust by assuring him that it wasn't the chance to make “an Eminem movie” that appealed to him, but rather the opportunity to highlight the themes inherent in the story. That meshed with Eminem's desire to avoid 8 Mile being a vanity project, like fellow white rapper Vanilla Ice's notoriously awful Cool as Ice.

    Casting the star as himself was a risk. As Hanson put it, “If he doesn't work, the movie doesn't work. It is simple as that.” After spending time with Eminem, he became convinced that the rapper had the right stuff to command the screen. He was correct, and 8 Mile became both a critical and commercial success, thanks to its probing look at a young guy trying to use the rap scene to get himself out of a dead-end life. Eminem's appearance combined with Hanson's storytelling style to create an authentic piece of semi-autobiography.

    • Age: 51
    • Birthplace: Saint Joseph, Missouri
    125 votes
  • Jackie Robinson was, and still is, a hero to many. He was the first African American to play in Major League Baseball. For years, Black players had been relegated to the Negro Leagues. Robinson broke that barrier, paving the way for countless others. An eventual inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Brooklyn Dodger played in six World Series, winning once. He was also a six-time All Star and, in 1949, the National League Most Valuable Player. Between his baseball success and his activism off the field, Robinson was so widely admired that his number, 42, was retired across the MLB after he stopped playing. 

    As if all that wasn't enough, Robinson even added acting to his resume, playing himself in 1950's The Jackie Robinson Story. The film details how he attempts to break into Major League Baseball. Dodgers president Branch Rickey (Minor Watson) agrees to let him play, with the provision that he can't defend himself if anyone - in the league or in the stands - makes any kind of racist comment or action toward him. Deciding to play, he holds things together in the face of prejudice, eventually winning people over with his amazing talent. There was criticism in some quarters that the movie downplayed the severity of the racism Robinson faced, which is to be expected from cinema in the ‘50s. Nevertheless, Robinson’s participation in the film allows its overall themes to ring loudly. The New York Times raved that he “displays a calm assurance and composure that might be envied by many a Hollywood star.”

    Because of his busy schedule, The Jackie Robinson Story was made during MLB's 1949 off-season.

    • Age: Dec. at 53 (1919-1972)
    • Birthplace: Georgia, USA, Cairo
    100 votes
  • In the 1960s and, especially, the 1970s, there was arguably no one more famous than Muhammad Ali. He was major in a way few celebrities are. Often referred to as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, he helped bring attention to the sport through his extraordinary skill and colorful personality. Ali was known for offbeat expressions, like the one about how he could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” in the ring. He had a sense of humor, but also a bit of an ego, although that ego was certainly earned. After all, he was the first pugilist to ever become the World Heavyweight Champion three times. Outside of the sport, Ali was a frequent guest on television talk shows, as well as a staunch activist for a variety of causes.

    Will Smith famously played Ali in the eponymous 2001 biopic, but in the ‘70s - at the peak of his fame - there really was no one else who could play Muhammad Ali other than Muhammad Ali. In 1977's The Greatest, he retraces an especially important point in his career. The movie depicts his life from the time he participated in the 1960 Summer Olympics up to famous “Rumble in the Jungle” bout, in which he reclaimed the heavyweight championship from rival George Forman. His conversion to Islam is covered in the movie, too. Although reviews for The Greatest weren’t particularly good, Ali got positive notices for transferring his charisma to the screen. It apparently came naturally, as he told an interviewer, “I've been acting for 20 years, all over the world, all my life.”

    Incidentally, the movie's George Benson-performed theme song, “The Greatest Love of All,” was re-recorded by Whitney Houston in 1985, becoming one of her biggest hits.

    • Age: Dec. at 74 (1942-2016)
    • Birthplace: Louisville, Kentucky, USA
    101 votes
  • Few comedians have been as profoundly influential as Richard Pryor. During the ‘60s, he broke barriers for Black comedians with frequent appearances on The Merv Griffin Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. By the ’70s, his humor evolved into something more explosive, with hilarious, profanity-laden routines on everything from relationships to racism. He wrote for TV shows including Sanford and Son and The Flip Wilson Show, and he penned the screenplay for Blazing Saddles with Mel Brooks. Film work as an actor was heavy during the ‘70s and ’80s, with Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, and Superman III some of his most popular works. It was his series of concert films, however, that most purely showcased who he was as a performer. Live & Smokin', Live in Concert, Live on the Sunset Strip, and Here and Now continue to be recognized as some of the greatest movies of their kind. Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock are among the comedians who have cited Pryor as an inspiration.

    In one of the boldest acts of his career, Pryor directed, co-wrote, and starred in 1986's JoJo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. He sometimes downplayed the autobiographical nature in interviews, but the story is about a successful comedian who burns himself up in a drug-related accident and then reflects back on his life. Like Pryor, JoJo grew up in a brothel, has relationship problems with women, and struggles with addiction. Conversely, like JoJo, Pryor famously doused himself with rum and lit himself on fire, receiving second- and third-degree burns on more than 50% of his body. 

    Critical and public reaction to JoJo Dancer was mixed, which Pryor apparently took personally. His widow, Jennifer Lee Pryor, told Ebony, “He tried to tell the truth about his life and about the fire. But he might’ve gotten a little lost. It’s not easy to make a movie, especially about your own life and you’re starring in it. Richard got picked apart for that, but I do think it was a noble effort.”

    • Age: Dec. at 65 (1940-2005)
    • Birthplace: Peoria, USA, Illinois
    64 votes