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Who is Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Character Based On? Rick Dalton in Real Life
Earlier this week, The Hollywood Reporter dubbed Leonardo DiCaprio “Hollywood’s last movie star.” Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, sure, but in an era that finds audiences often heading to the theater to see familiar franchises rather than familiar faces, in which movies are far more likely to make stars than the other way around, DiCaprio occupies an increasingly rarefied position as an actor who can command an audience no matter what film he’s in. This makes the contrast between Leo and his character in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood all the more compelling. In the film, he plays actor Rick Dalton, who’s staring down the twilight of his never-that-remarkable career, guest starring as one-off villains in television Westerns.
While plenty of real-life figures, including Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, Steve McQueen, and Bruce Lee are portrayed in Once Upon a Time, Rick Dalton is a fictional creation. Still, some of the character is inspired by real-life stars of the 1950s and ‘60s. “There’s an aspect of Rick Dalton that’s made up of a bunch of these guys,” Tarantino said during an interview on the “Pure Cinema Podcast.”
So he’s a bit like George Maharis, he’s a bit like Edd Byrnes, he’s a bit like Tab Hunter, he’s a bit like Fabian, he’s a bit like Vince Edwards. These are all guys that were handsome kind of he man, leading, Ty Hardin, a certain kind of leading man that were handsome and most of them were kinda rugged. They spent their careers running pocket combs through their pompadours.
In case you’re not familiar with some of those throwback stars, here’s a guide to the men who inspired Rick Dalton.
Like Dalton, Maharis had a career in both film and television and starred in a network drama—in Maharis’s case, road show Route 66, which aired from 1960 and 1964. He was also a pop singer, and one of his appearances on the variety show Hullabaloo seems like it could be the inspiration for a similar scene in Once Upon a Time in which Dalton appears on the same show, flanked by dancers wearing cheerleader costumes.
Like Dalton, Hardin is best known for his role in a TV western, and his show, Bronco, aired from 1958 to 1962. And just like the movie character he partially inspired, Dalton starred in spaghetti Westerns after the end of his show’s television run.
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Teen idol Fabian was a pop music star, but he crossed over into a film and television career that, like Dalton’s, declined as the 1960s progressed.
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Edwards starred as doctor Ben Casey on the hit medical drama of the same name from 1961 to 1966. Like Dalton, he also appeared in many action films, including Westerns and World War II dramas.
Byrnes is another television star of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and he could definitely be who Tarantino was referring to when he described Dalton as being the type of guy who spent his carrier “running pocket combs through [his] pompadour.” Kookie Kookson, Byrne’s character on 77 Sunset Strip, a detective show that ran from 1958 to 1964, made combing his hair his signature move, which eventually spawned a hit novelty song, “Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb).”
Burt Reynolds, Hal Needham, and Reynold’s son, Quentin, in 2001.
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Tarantino didn’t include Reynolds in his list of actors who inspired Dalton, but in Once Upon a Time, the actor is best friends with his stunt double, who’s played by Brad Pitt. And while Dalton is an amalgam of many other ‘60s performers, Pitt’s Cliff Booth is more directly based upon stuntman Hal Needham. In real life, Needham worked as Burt Reynold’s stunt double and the two became so close that they lived together for five years, which makes Dalton Reynold’s Once Upon a Time parallel.
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.