We might see TV characters as figments of a person’s imagination, but even the tiniest detail from a real person’s life can be woven into the fabric of a fictional character. It could be something as simple as a person’s fashion sense or how they wear their hair. Or maybe it’s something more significant, like their unusual quirks or impressive work ethic.
But regardless of where the creators get their inspiration from, it’s safe to say that many of the characters aren’t entirely “fictional.” See which iconic TV roles were actually based on real people:
1. Ron Swanson from Parks & Rec
The writers of the show visited an office in Burbank, California, where they basically found the female version of Ron Swanson. When they spoke with the employee, she revealed: “I’m a libertarian, so I don’t really believe in the mission of my job… I’m aware of the irony.” And her tone was extremely deadpan, much like Ron’s. But the character was also partially inspired by Nick Offerman, who played the role. It turns out that Nick also loves woodworking and Lagavulin Single Malt Scotch.
2. Don Draper from Mad Men
Don’s character was inspired by Draper Daniels, who was a real-life advertising legend and creative director at Leo Burnett Worldwide, Inc. (he worked on the Marlboro Man campaign in the ’50s). Like the character, Draper was rather egotistical, but he was also enthusiastic and he never failed to come up with creative ideas. Also, according to his wife Myra Janco Daniels, the real Draper was a smooth-talking ladies’ man who enjoyed alcohol a little too much. That, however, changed after they tied the knot. She wrote: “The Draper Daniels I knew became a one-woman man after we married. He also quit drinking, when I told him I didn’t want to work with a lush”
3. Creed Bratton from The Office
The mysterious odd-ball of the office is loosely based on (and played by) the musician of the same name, Creed Bratton. In fact, B.J. Novak once mentioned that Creed is the most similar to his character on the show, saying that “Creed Bratton is Creed Bratton.” But the only major difference is that the real Creed doesn’t have such a dark side and he’s actually likeable. (We’re guessing that the real Creed also wouldn’t pull a stunt like faking his own death).
4. Omar Little from The Wire
Omar was based on the late Donnie Andrews, a stickup artist turned police informant and anti-crime advocate. The show’s creator, David Simon, crossed paths with Donnie during his work as a journalist. And while Donnie served time in prison, he informed David about all the crimes in Baltimore (in exchange for copies of the newspaper). This not only inspired David to create a show about the topic, but he also modeled Omar, a stickup artist who never targeted innocent people, after the former criminal. Donnie said: “They made Omar exactly the way I was. David wrote ‘The West Side Story’ after my conviction in 1986 and they basically had everything down-pat.”
5. J.D. Dorian from Scrubs
The adorkable J.D. was modeled after the show creator Bill Lawrence’s friend, Jonathan Doris. Jonathan shared a bunch of stories about his resident life and apparently, that sparked an idea for a medical show. Jonathan said: “I distinctly remember our conversation. He said: ‘J.D., if you would entrust me with all of your mistakes, misadventures and gaffes during your residency, I promise no one will know it was you.’ So I did. Bill promptly named the main character after me. Then he sent the NBC press corps and USA Today over to interview me about what a bumbling intern I was. So much for anonymity. I have to admit, it was exciting to think that a character on a television show would be based on me.”
6. Vincent Chase from Entourage
Vincent is loosely based on the show’s executive producer, Mark Wahlberg. In fact, Vincent’s story kind of mirrors Mark’s own experiences as an up-and-coming actor in Hollywood, but he revealed that a bit of inspiration for the character also came from Leonardo DiCaprio. As for which of the events from the show really happened? We might never find out, since Mark admitted he “will never own up to which bits are real.” But he did mention that he and his crew “were always a lot more dark and edgy.”
7. Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld
Jerry’s eccentric neighbor was based on the real-life ex-neighbor of the show’s co-creator, Larry David. That neighbor is none other than stand-up comedian, Kenny Kramer. And just like Jerry from the show, Larry lived across the hall from Kenny for six years. Like the character, Kenny had an obsession with hot tubs and golf, and he loved to come up with weird invention ideas. But here’s what’s intriguing: Michael Richards, who played the role, chose not to base his performance on the real Kramer and actually refused to meet him.
8. Elaine Benes from Seinfeld
The sassy Elaine, who played Jerry’s ex on the show, was actually inspired by multiple people. But the main inspiration came from Jerry’s real-life ex and comedian, Carol Leifer. Like Elaine, she and Jerry used to date, but they stayed good friends after they split. And get this: Carol has written for the show, which means she got to create lines for the character that was modeled after her. Some of her episodes were inspired by events that happened in her own life.
9. George Costanza from Seinfeld
The show’s creators claimed that George was based on the co-creator, Larry David. But some believe that he may have been modeled after Jerry Seinfeld’s real-life friend, Michael Costanza (aka the short guy who literally has the same name). Michael was so upset about this that he sued NBC and the creators for violating his privacy, but apparently, they were able to convince everyone that Larry was the true inspiration.
In The Real Seinfeld (As Told by the Real Costanza), Michael explained: “George is bald. I am bald. George is stocky. I am stocky. George and I both went to Queens College with Jerry. George’s high-school teacher nicknamed him ‘Can’t stand ya.’ So did mine. George had a thing about bathrooms and parking spaces. So do I.” …So yeah, it looks like Michael was the main inspiration.
10. Abed Nadir from Community
We’d have never guessed that the hilarious and socially awkward Abed was based on a real person! The character was inspired by show creator Dan Harmon’s friend, Abed Geith. Even though Danny Pudi did a stellar job of portraying the character, Dan originally wanted Abed to the play the role himself. Can’t help but wonder how that could’ve played out…
11. Piper Chapman from Orange is the New Black
The entire show is based on writer Piper Kerman’s memoir, which detailed her own experiences in a minimum-security federal prison. She once explained that while some of the events are purely fictional, a lot of what happened with Piper is actually true. She explained: “The Netflix series is an adaptation, and there are tremendous liberties… You will see moments of my life leap off the screen, such as Larry Bloom’s proposal to Piper Chapman, [which] is not so very different from the way my husband, Larry Smith, proposed to me. There are moments in the very first episode, like when Piper Chapman insults Red, who runs the kitchen with an iron fist — that is actually very closely derived from what’s in the book and from my own life.”
12. Maura Pfefferman from Transparent
Seventy-year-old Maura is based on the parent of the show’s creator, Jill Soloway. Her Jewish father came out as transgender at 75 years old, and so Jill used this as her inspiration for a show that would tackle gender norms and sexuality. In an interview, she explained that the whole show is actually loosely based on her family. She said: “I’m just trying to be authentic and create characters who are real.”
13. Tony Soprano from The Sopranos
Vincent “Vinny Ocean” Palermo, a former Italian-American mobster, was the inspiration for fictional mob boss Tony Soprano. He was a capo and de facto boss of the New Jersey DeCavalcante crime family, and like the character, he was a partner in a strip club. However, unlike Vinny, Tony is much more violent and prone to depression on the show.
14. Lucious Lyon from Empire
You might be surprised to know that Lucious is loosely based on Jay-Z. But considering the rapper’s rise to fame after a life of crime, we can see how he inspired the character. In an interview, Empire co-creator Danny Strong said: “The Jay-Z story, which very much inspired Lucious Lyon, certain elements of Lucious Lyon, was that story. For me, the story of people who have some sort of criminal past, or gangster past are not limited to black culture. … Our goal is to tell a great story, and to do the best show we can.”
15. Chris from Everybody Hates Chris
Chris was based on real-life comedian and show creator Chris Rock. He faced a lot of challenges while growing up in Brooklyn in the ’80s, but two decades later, he used those memories to create the comedy Everybody Hates Chris. In fact, the comedian once shared that a lot of the scenes from the show are actually real. He said: “It was weird. I was watching [the show] and going, ‘Yep, that happened. I really did eat the big piece of chicken'” (which referenced a part in the pilot where he accidentally ate his father’s dinner).
16. Temperance Brennan from Bones
Temperance is loosely based on the life of one of the show’s producers, Kathy Reichs. She’s also a novelist who published a series of books about her life as a forensic anthropologist, and those books inspired the show. Temperance was named after the main character from one of Kathy’s crime novels. And like the author, Temperance writes successful mystery novels about a forensic anthropologist named (you guessed it…) Kathy Reichs.
17. Olivia Pope from Scandal
Olivia, aka “The Fixer,” was based on Judy Smith, the founder, and CEO of the crisis management firm Smith & Company. Like Olivia, she’s straightforward, she’s had several notable clients, and she worked closely with the U.S. president (George H.W. Bush). But there are also quite a few differences between Judy and Olivia. She explained: “There’s a long list. No sleeping with the president, moving dead body from crime scenes. My father didn’t run an undercover operation. But probably, like any good crisis communicator, you want to try to control the narrative.”