As evidenced by an ever-increasing glut of TV talent quests and reality shows, the public seems to imagine fame as some sort of existential panacea, something that changes your life so dramatically that everything’s suddenly somehow all right — you can pay the bills, and get laid, and most importantly, you can quit your boring-ass job. Unfortunately, that’s not always how it goes. One of our readers contacted us recently and suggested we do a roundup of celebrities who worked straight jobs after becoming famous — we loved the idea, and so, thanks to reader Ken Schaefle, here’s a selection of well-known types who went back to work post-fame, or who never stopped working in the first place.
Lou Reed: typist
It’s hard to imagine the man in this picture working any sort of straight job, but that’s exactly what he did in the early 1970s after the Velvet Underground imploded. He returned to his parents’ house on Long Island and took a job manning the typewriter at his father’s accountancy firm. Happily, a year of this was enough, and in 1971 he recorded his debut solo album.
Sterling Morrison: academic, tugboat captain
Reed wasn’t the only VU member with a fairly cerebral day job, though. Guitarist Sterling Morrison originally met Reed at Syracuse University, where both were studying English, and continued to pursue his studies throughout the band’s tenure — he earned his undergraduate degree in 1970 and a PhD in 1971. The doctorate came from the University of Texas, where Morrison remained once he quit the band in 1971 to take on a full-time role teaching English. He remained there for 18 years, eventually packing it all in in 1989 to become the captain of a tugboat. (If you’ve ever wondered, the latter move is indeed the subject of Galaxie 500’s classic “Tugboat”).
T.S. Eliot: schoolteacher, bank clerk, publisher
He might have been arguably the greatest poet of the early 20th century, but Thomas Stearns Eliot also had to pay the rent like the rest of us. He worked as a schoolteacher from 1914-1917, and then — at about the same time Prufrock and Other Observations was published — he took a job in a bank, where he remained for eight years, publishing The Waste Land and The Hollow Men along the way. In 1925 he found a more literary-inclined job at publishing house Faber and Faber, where he remained until his death in 1965.
Harrison Ford: carpenter
Ford struggled in Hollywood for the best part of a decade before fame came a-knocking. During that time, he had a succession of wacky jobs — most notably as a roadie for the Doors — but his main income came from his job as a carpenter. As well as paying the rent, the job served to introduce him to George Lucas, who hired him to work in his office in the early 1970s. Lucas subsequently cast Ford in American Graffiti, but despite the film being by far the actor’s biggest success to date, he made virtually no money from it, and apparently decided to give up acting and focus on carpentry for good. Happily, Lucas was having none of this, and hired Ford again to read for Star Wars. As it turned out, the director liked his carpenter’s portrayal of Han Solo better than any of the actors he auditioned… and the rest, as they say, is history.
Fernando Pessoa: office jobs
Much of wonderful Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa’s work catalogs the quietly draining tedium of everyday life, both for him and for the myriad heteronymous personae he adopts throughout his books, so it’s no surprise to find that he spent most of his life plugging away in moribund office-bound jobs. He apparently worked for 21 different firms over the period 1907-1935, when he died of liver cirrhosis at only 47, leaving behind 25,000 pages of unpublished manuscripts.
Bill Berry: farmer
REM drummer Bill Berry quit the band in 1997, two years after suffering a near-fatal brain aneurysm on stage in Switzerland. He retired to a farm in Georgia, where he remains to this day, interspersing his hay farming duties with regular rounds of golf. Nice work if you can get it, eh?
Andy Kaufman: busboy
Was it all part of the act? Was Kaufman really concerned that his career might go kaput at any moment? Was he just a bit, y’know, unstable? As ever with Kaufman, it’s hard to know, but one thing’s for sure — he was certainly the most famous busboy in Santa Monica.
James Williamson: electronics wizard
Guitarist James Williamson’s arrival in the Stooges coincided with the band getting really into heroin, and the impression is that he was somehow responsible for their inevitable decline — an impression heightened by the testimony of people like Kathy Asheton (sister of Ron and Scott), who called him “a black cloud” descending on the group. This is as it may be, but it was Williamson who had by far the most respectable post-fame career, going back to school to study calculus and electronic engineering, and eventually ending up as Vice President of Technology Standards for Sony. There’s a great interview with Williamson about his remarkable career path here, and another one where he gives his side of the story about the whole “black cloud” business here.
Lloyd Cole: web designer, journalist
Cole penned a rather lovely article for the Independent in the UK a couple of years ago about how to handle the long, slow comedown from an initial rush of fame. These days, he handles pretty much every aspect of his career — he runs a mail-order operation with his wife to sell his records, designed his own website, and moonlights as a travel writer… all of which sounds perfectly OK to us. Good for him.
Arnold Schwarzenegger: Governator
OK, so this one is a bit tongue-in-cheek — but has there ever been a more unlikely career trajectory than that of Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger? Son of an abusive ex-Nazi, precocious weightlifter at 15, Mr. Universe at 20, Mr. Olympia seven times during the 1970s, millionaire at 30, Conan the Barbarian at 35, arguably the world’s biggest movie star throughout the ’80s, and perhaps most improbably of all, Governor of California in 2003. We live in a strange, strange world, people.