Katharine Hepburn once said, “Acting is the perfect idiot’s profession,” and she isn’t the only one to have cut through celebrity glamor with some disparaging remarks. Still, although while on screen actors may play the fool and might even give the illusion of a lack of intelligence – don’t be deceived, as many are perfectly capable of academic brilliance.
For instance, did you know that the man who leaped out of a car trunk stark naked in The Hangover is a qualified medical doctor? Or that basketball-star-turned-actor Shaquille O’Neal has a doctorate degree in human resource development? It just goes to show that there are no limits when it comes to the pursuit of higher education. Here’s a look at 10 actors with doctorates in subjects including medicine, communications and even neuroscience.
9. Ken Jeong
Comedic actor Ken Jeong got movie-goers laughing into their popcorn with his performance as Leslie Chow in The Hangover series. He also appears as Ben Chang in NBC’s Community. However, this funny man has many more strings to his bow. In 1990, he graduated from Duke University and went on to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he graduated in 1995 as a medical doctor. He practiced medicine for a number of years and is a licensed physician in California.
Jeong picked up the acting bug while he was still doing his undergraduate degree at Duke, and he couldn’t shake it off. “I was just hooked,” says Jeong. “I just had to perform in some capacity. And while I did love medicine… acting, that was my destiny.” When Jeong was 36, his wife provided the encouragement and support he needed to quit his job as a doctor and take up acting full time. Jeong says he wouldn’t have been brave enough to make the switch without her encouragement. “Medicine is a hard-won skill, and acting can be a fickle profession, so I tried to be realistic,” he says. Fortunately for Jeong, it all worked out for the best.
8. Shaquille O’Neal
At 7’1” and weighing 325 pounds, Shaquille O’Neal will go down in history as one of the heaviest NBA players ever. As an actor and a rapper, though, his rundown is far less memorable. To date, O’Neal has starred in 12 movies, among them Kazaam, Scary Movie 4, and Adam Sandler’s universally panned 2011 comedy Jack and Jill. O’Neal even had the dubious honor of a Razzie Award nomination for his 1997 performance in Steel.
However, keeping his options open, O’Neal also earned an online master’s degree from the University of Phoenix in 2005. The surprisingly levelheaded star was quoted as saying, “It’s just something to have on my resume for when I go back into reality. Someday I might have to put down a basketball and have a regular 9-to-5 like everybody else.” Still not done, in 2012 O’Neal earned an education doctorate in Human Resource Development from Barry University, with a thesis titled “The Duality of Humor and Aggression in Leadership Styles.” O’Neal told ABC News that he wants to become a motivational speaker and is keen to go on to law school.
7. Graham Chapman
It might shock you to discover that Monty Python star Graham Chapman went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge to study Medicine in 1959. While he was there, Chapman took the first steps towards becoming an actor when he joined the Footlights dramatic club, despite having previously been rejected by the group. At his audition, he met fellow Monty Python star and collaborator John Cleese, who became Chapman’s new writing partner.
Chapman graduated in 1962 and went on to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School. In 1966, he graduated from St. Bartholomew’s, and then he began practicing medicine. His studies didn’t seem to be inspired by any real passion for the medical world, however. In fact, he has been quoted as saying, “There wasn’t really a long-term ambition in this… Just as long as I made progress in my education.” The rest, as they say, is history.
6. Don S. Davis
Missouri-born Don S. Davis seems to have had a deep-rooted passion for acting and the arts from the get-go. In 1965, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Southwest Missouri College with a double major in Theater and Art. After that, he spent three years of active duty in the Army, before obtaining a master’s degree in Theater from Southern Illinois University (SIU) in 1970.
Davis then started teaching, and he returned to SIU a number of years later to pursue his doctorate in Theater, which he received in 1982. It was at this time that he started securing TV roles, and so he combined his acting life with his teaching career. In 1987, however, he decided to work full-time in movies and television. He is best known for his role as Major Garland Briggs in TV series Twin Peaks and as General George S. Hammond in Stargate SG-1.
5. Robert Vaughn
Emmy Award-winning actor Robert Vaughn is probably best known for his performances as Napoleon Solo in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Frank Flaherty in Washington: Behind Closed Doors. More recently, from 2004 to 2012, Vaughan also starred in British TV drama Hustle.
Despite his on-screen success, Vaughan never abandoned his academic pursuits. He earned a master’s degree in Theater from the Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences in 1960 – the same year he appeared in The Magnificent Seven. In the ‘60s, he then combined studying with his acting life and graduated from the University of Southern California (USC) with a doctorate in Communications in 1970. His dissertation was published two years later as a book titled Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting. Vaughan explained that he was grateful to USC, whom he described as “very kind” in accommodating his busy acting career. “They allowed me some flexibility – which was certainly alright with me, and I was able to complete the work,” he says.
4. Harold Gould
Harold Goldstein, better known by his stage name Harold Gould, was a notable actor who enjoyed a long and successful career in television, movies and theater. Gould is probably best known for his roles in TV sitcoms The Golden Girls and Rhoda, and he also acted in well-known films such as The Sting, Love and Death and Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie.
Gould studied Drama and Speech at Cornell University, where he earned a master’s degree in 1948 and a PhD in Theater in 1953. While he was a graduate student, he taught classes in drama, literature and speech, and he also worked as a teacher at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now Randolph College) in Lynchburg, Virginia and at the University of California, Riverside, before pursuing a full-time career as an actor. For Gould, acting was all about discovery and staying active. “Acting, it’s something I enjoy, and the alternative is doing what, sitting and letting your mind go dead?” he said in 2003. “You’ve got to keep your mind occupied and active; otherwise fungus begins to grow and it obscures everything else.”
3. William Sanderson
Since 1976, Tennessee-born character actor William Sanderson has acted in a huge range of movie and television roles. However, he is probably most renowned for his performances in Newhart, Deadwood and Blade Runner, and he has also appeared in Emmy Award-winning show True Blood.
Sanderson attended the University of Memphis, from which he graduated with a Business degree in 1968. He continued his studies and became a doctor of Law in 1971. “Once I was in my last year of law school, I started doing plays,” Sanderson said in a 2009 interview. “And I got hooked. I did a play called Marat/Sade, and I never had so much fun in my life.”
2. Haing S. Ngor
Haing S. Ngor was born in Cambodia in March 1940. He trained as a doctor and eventually became a surgeon with a special interest in gynecology and obstetrics. He had his own practice as well. However, when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in 1975, Ngor (along with millions of others) was forced to leave the city, and had to pretend to be a taxi driver. He even had to live without his glasses, otherwise the guerrillas may well have suspected him of being an intellectual – a “crime” they considered worthy of execution.
Ngor was forced to work as a slave laborer and endured four years of brutal torture – which included being crucified, having one of his fingers cut off, and seeing his wife die after she was beaten. In 1979, North Vietnamese forces released him, following which he crossed the border into Thailand and made it to the US in 1980. Although Ngor’s medical qualifications were not recognized in the States, he soon found another career: acting. In 1985, he won a Golden Globe, an Academy Award, two BAFTAs and a BSFC Award for his supporting role as Dith Pran in 1984 movie The Killing Fields.
1. Mayim Bialik
Mayim Bialik is best known for her role as the title character in US sitcom Blossom, which ran from 1991 to 1995. She has also acted in several movies, including 1988’s Beaches, and appeared as a guidance counselor in TV show The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Currently, she has a recurring role as Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler in CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory.
In 2000, Bialik earned a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience, Hebrew and Jewish Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Seven years later, after a brief break to pick up her acting career, Bialik graduated from UCLA with a PhD in Neuroscience, specializing in hypothalamic activity in patients with Prader-Willi syndrome. Bialik became interested in science thanks to an inspirational biology tutor. “She was an amazing, amazing teacher,” says Bialik. “I think having that one-on-one experience and having a female role model really gave me the confidence to fall in love with science.”