Famous for Something I Never Did

I was flipping through Mental Floss magazine some years ago and noticed that they listed Leonid Brezhnev as leader of the Soviet Union from 1977 to 1982.  I guess that’s technically true, but he actually ruled the Russian roost quite a bit longer, starting in 1964 when he ousted Khrushchev.  I didn’t have to look up these dates.  I was alive during Brezhnev’s reign and remember it well.  Give that monobrowed, medal-wearing bastard some credit, with an 18 year stint, Brezhnev ruled the Soviet Union longer than anyone except Stalin.

This isn’t trivia, like “who is the prime minister of Canada?”  The Soviet Union was our number one enemy for a long, long time.  In the 60 years between 1922 and 1982 they only had five rulers (Lenin, Stalin, Malenkov, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev).  It’s not that hard to keep them straight.

Everyone makes mistakes, Mental Floss, but you’re not off by a little.  You’re off by 13 years on something that happened in my lifetime.  That would be like me telling my dad that World War II started in 1926.

Furthermore, Mental Floss is a magazine that prides itself on being by and for smarty-pants (motto, “Where Knowledge Junkies Get Their Fix”).  So I wrote Neely Harris, the editor, and let her know the actual dates so they could publish a correction in their next issue.

What does she come back with?

“Sorry, Steve, I asked my fact-checker about this and he seems to disagree with you.  Thanks for writing in.”

Okay.  To put it gently, your fact-checker probably shouldn’t sit by the phone waiting for a call from the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant Committee.

Here’s another example of spurious information in magazines. Last month I came across this graphic in Fast Company magazine — a tribute of sorts to some of MIT’s most famous alumni in honor of MIT’s 150th birthday.  There, on the bottom, am I.

“Steve Altes, ’84 (Brad Pitt’s body double)”

Which would be nice, of course, if it were true.  So why does the world think I belong in the same distinguished company as Buzz Aldrin, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Larry Kahn (world tiddlywinks champion)?

In the 1990s I worked as a stand-in and photo double for Brad Pitt on the movies “The Devil’s Own” and “Sleepers.”  I wrote an article about the experience for the Washington Post.  That led to my being asked to speak at a career panel at MIT.  The gal handling publicity for the panel kept confusing photo doubling with body doubling.  Definitions appear at the bottom of this post, but one key difference is photo doubles work with clothes on and body doubles generally work naked.  I was very careful to explain the difference, but it was no use.  Posters on campus proclaimed me to be Brad Pitt’s body double.  I guess it helped drum up attendance.

MIT’s Admissions Office latched onto the wrong info and published it in a guide to MIT, which was widely circulated, and other people who’ve written about me continue to perpetuate it.

And now that Google’s auto-complete search results link me to Pitt ahead of anything else, there’s probably no killing this myth.  I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but the thing I’m most famous for is something I never did. By the way Google, what’s this “Steve Altes Show” you’re plugging?  That sounds like something I’d watch.

In case you’re curious, here are some definitions (courtesy of Wikipedia).

A stand-in substitutes for the actor before filming, for technical purposes such as lighting. Lighting can be a slow and tedious process. During this time the actor will often be somewhere else. Stand-ins allow the director of photography to light the set and focus scenes. The director will often ask stand-ins to deliver the dialogue  and walk through the scene to be filmed.

Photo double
A photo double will be seen on camera during the movie. Some of these double-acted scenes could be long establishing shots or quick close-up shots involving only an actor’s body parts. The photo double must say the dialogue with the same timing as the lead actor and reproduce the exact physical actions in coordination with the other principal actors in that scene.

Body double
A body double substitutes for the credited actor, most commonly in the context of shots involving nudity.

About Steve Altes

Steve Altes is the author of several humor books, dozens of humorous adventure essays, and the comedic graphic novel Geeks & Greeks, set at MIT and inspired by MIT's culture of hacking and Steve's own experiences with hazing.
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