During the 2014 Academy Awards telecast, host Ellen DeGeneres resurrected the tired old cliché that the Hollywood elite is populated by a bunch of under-educated and unworldly dilettantes with little more than high school diplomas, if that. DeGeneres, who dropped out of the University of New Orleans after one semester, quipped: “Between all of the nominees here, you’ve made 1,400 films and attended six years of college.”
And in some regards, DeGeneres’ dig was spot-on. Nominees such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Amy Adams and the delightfully self-depreciating Jennifer Lawrence, who has described herself as being “vastly uneducated,” have never set foot in an institution of higher learning. Of course, this isn’t to imply that these hugely successful and hardworking actors are of inferior intelligence compared to their co-stars and colleagues with more formal educations, but in terms of formative life experience, there is that missing element.
And then there are the actors – and there are more than you might think – who are exceptionally inclined toward academia, boasting advanced degrees, Ivy League diplomas and Mensa-qualifying IQs. In many cases, these Hollywood brainiacs juggled both the classroom and the film set simultaneously (we’re looking at you, James “eternal grad student” Franco). And it goes without saying that some of these crazy-smart thespians might surprise you (yep, He-Man was a Fulbright scholar).
Below, we’ve rounded up a dozen of our favorite big-brained celebrities, and as you’ll see, they’re a diverse bunch having studied Russian literature, chemical engineering, neuroscience and much more. Following our main list, we’ve also included an honor roll of 12 more notable actors and other famous folks with sharp minds and impressive academic backgrounds.
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Most recently seen devouring the scenery alongside Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates on FX’s “American Horror Story: Coven” as fierce voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, Academy Award-nominated actress Angela Bassett is perhaps best known for her brawn. (Seriously, she’s got the best arms in show business.) However, in addition to enviable guns most notably on full display in 1993’s Tina Turner biopic “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and 1995’s “Strange Days,” Bassett is also packing some serious brainpower. A Florida-reared high school cheerleader, Basset graduated from Yale University with a degree in African-American studies in 1980. Bassett took a liking to Yale and stuck around to pursue her true passion, acting, and enrolled in the university’s famed School of Drama. She graduated from the program in 1983. Among Bassett’s Yale classmates? John Turturro, Charles S. Dutton and Courtney B. Vance, whom she married in 1997.
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In addition to an advance degree in werewolf slaughter, British actress Kate Beckinsale once roamed the hallowed halls of Oxford University as an undergraduate student majoring in French and Russian literature (prior to that, she won a couple of highly coveted writing awards for poetry and short stories). However, unlike the rest of the fellow brainy celebrities appearing on our list, Beckinsale did not receive a degree from Oxford, dropping out after her third year to focus on acting. (We can thank Kenneth Branagh for getting the ball rolling; in 1993, he cast Beckinsale in her film debut, “Much Ado About Nothing,” while she was still enrolled at Oxford). Does Beckinsale, perhaps best known for starring in period pieces and action films that involve her battling nightmarish creatures in tight-fitting outfits, have any regrets? Well, maybe: “I dropped out of Oxford, and now I only speak Russian with the woman who gives me a bikini-wax. See what Hollywood does to you?”
Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images for Screen Actors Guild Foundation
Have you ever wondered where Mayim Bialik disappeared to during those post-“Blossom” pre-“Big Bang Theory” years? Oh, you know, she was just being a neuroscientist and stuff. A prolific child actress who appeared in many a classic ‘80s sitcom (“The Facts of Life!” “Webster!” “Empty Nest!”), Bialik became a somewhat tricky-to-pronounce household name as the eponymous role in the NBC hit, “Blossom.” Bialik later abandoned the floppy hats with giant plastic flowers and earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA in 2007 with a focus on obsessive-compulsive disorder amongst people with Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Bialik also earned undergraduate degrees in neuroscience, Hebrew and Jewish studies at UCLA despite acceptance into Harvard and Yale – she wanted to stay close to home. In recent years, Bialik – also a vegan cookbook authoress and outspoken advocate of attachment parenting – has shifted away from her career in research and focused more on acting as part of an effort to spend more time with her children.
Geena Davis/Sharon Stone
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Geena Davis and Sharon Stone have a few things in common: both are former models, both have won Golden Globes, both are outspoken activists and both have appeared on episodes of “Remington Steele.” But perhaps the most intriguing link between these two leading ladies of the 1990s is the fact that both boast genius-level IQs (140 for Davis and an alleged 154 for Stone) and are members of Mensa. Well, not really. Davis, a graduate of Boston University who is fluent in Swedish and a skilled archer, is indeed a registered member of the social organization for those with IQs in the top 2 percentile. Stone, on the other hand is, well, a Mensa member in spirit. After promoting herself as a Mensa member for years, in 2002 Stone – no doubt an exceptionally bright woman who reportedly did some serious grade-skipping as a kid – fessed up that she actually wasn’t a Mensan. Remarked Jim Blackmore of Mensa, upon Stone’s confession: “It's delightful to finally see Ms. Stone admit that she's not and never has been a member of our society.” He adds: "My gut feeling is that she would definitely qualify.”
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Way back before the drugs and the womanizing; the UFOs and the government cover-ups; the reading of erotic missives, Carrie Bradshaw and the giant St. Bernard, Fire Island’s most famous former lifeguard David Duchovny was on track to becoming quite the academic. No disrespect to his co-stars, but we’re going to go out on a limb and assume that Duchovny, a New York native, was the only actor to appear in “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” with degrees from not one but two Ivy League universities: A B.A. in English literature from Princeton – thesis: “The Schizophrenic Critique of Pure Reason in Beckett's Early Novels” – and an M.A. in English literature from Yale, which is where, as the story goes, he first caught the acting bug.
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Ah, James Franco – it would seem that everyone’s favorite selfie-obsessed, Oscar-nominated renaissance man who doesn’t smoke pot, has quite the knack at picking up diplomas, doesn’t he? But seriously, we’re beginning to lose track of the schools in which the enigmatic actor, pardon, performer, has been enrolled over his long and illustrious academic career (keep in mind that Franco is only 35): UCLA, Columbia, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Brooklyn College, Warren Wilson College, Rhode Island School of Design and, last but not least, Yale, where he’s currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. While sometimes we don’t fully get Hollywood’s most notorious polymath (that’s kind of the point of the Franco mystique, isn’t it?), he’ll always excel at making most of us, even those of us who wear the “overachiever” tag well, feel like complete and utter slouches.
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After hearing some of the completely filthy things that came out of his mouth as lunatic gangster Mr. Chow in “The Hangover” films, you may be surprised to learn that Ken Jeong is a licensed physician in the state of California, having graduated from Duke and earned his medical degree at the University of Nouth Carolina at Chapel Hill. For a while there, Jeong was a doctor and a stand-up comedian before turning his full attention to acting (his breakthrough film role, not surprisingly, was that of an M.D. in “Knocked Up”). He explains to Redbook: “Medicine is a hard-won skill, and acting can be a fickle profession, so I tried to be realistic. Now, I'm a spoiled actor. I get weekends off and hiatus weeks – time I never got as a doctor.” In addition to his very memorable, sometimes pants-less role of Mr. Chow in the “Hangover” franchise, you can find Jeong as a series regular on “Community.”
Lisa Kudrow/Mira Sorvino
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The sweetest irony of the 90-minute dumb blonde joke known as “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” is that the actresses who portrayed the titular desperate-to-impress dolts – “let’s fold scarves!” – would never, ever need to fib their way through their own high school reunions or fabricate a bunch of post-graduation accomplishments to impress former classmates. The real-life Romy White and Michele Weinberger are the kind of women that you might intentionally avoid at a high school reunion and not because they’re annoying and pathetic and do weird choreographed dances to Cyndi Lauper songs – but because, well, you just couldn’t compete in the humble-brag department. Fluent in Mandarin, New Jersey-bred Mira Sorvino graduated from Harvard magna cum laude with a degree in East Asian studies. An actress best known for playing dim-bulbs and has-bens, Lisa Kudrow earned a B.S. in psychobiology from Vassar and planned on following in the footsteps of her father, a physician and renowned headache specialist, before she was seduced by the L.A. improv scene. Thank you, L.A. improv scene.
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This may come as a shock but world-class grunter Dolph Lundgren is kind of a genius. Yeah sure, and Jean-Claude Van Damme is the president of Mensa. No, but really, the strapping, super-buff Swedish action movie staple best known for threatening to “break” Rocky Balboa is insanely smart with degrees in chemical engineering from Washington State University, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and the University of Sidney (his extracurricular activities, no surprise, revolved around karate). In fact, Lundgren was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study at MIT but then Grace Jones happened (doesn’t she always?) and he instead moved with the singer to New York City where he became a fixture on the early 1980s club scene and eventually abandoned his academic pursuits for a career in the movies. After his 1985 breakthrough role in “Rocky IV,” Lundgren went on to star in numerous, decidedly non-intellectual films including “Universal Solider,” “The Punisher” and “The Defender,” which also starred Jerry Springer as the president of the United States. More recently, Lundgren has appeared opposite old pal Sly Stallone in “The Expendables” franchise.
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Late 1990s teenage crush object-turned-Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman contributed to a study called “ Front Lobe Activation during Object Permanence: Data from Near-Infrared Spectroscopy” while an undergrad at Harvard. Need we really say more?
Rowan Atkinson (M.S. in electrical engineering, Queens College, Oxford)
Jodie Foster (B.A. in literature, Yale University, magna cum laude; fluent in French)
Art Garfunkel (B.A., in art history, Columbia College; M.A. in mathematics, Columbia University)
Mindy Kaling (B.A. in playwriting, Dartmouth College; entered as a Latin major)
Rashida Jones (B.A. in religion and philosophy, Harvard University)
Ashley Judd (B.A. in French, University of Kentucky; MPA, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard)
Wentworth Miller (B.A. in English literature, Princeton University)
Edward Norton (B.A. in history, Yale University)
Kal Penn (Double major in film and sociology, University of California, Los Angeles; associate director in White House Office of Public Engagement)
Brooke Shields (B.A. in French literature, Princeton University)
James Woods (B.A./B.S. in political science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology – dropped out before graduation; reported IQ of 180)
Peter Weller (M.F.A. in Roman and Renaissance art, Syracuse University; Ph.D. in art history, UCLA)
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