That’s a question I often heard from people while living abroad and travelling around the world. Sometimes I’d struggle to answer, as many of the famous people from Montana wouldn’t be known by anyone outside the state.
Below are who I consider to be the 25 most famous people that Montana is known for. Let me break that down a little bit so people don’t get all fired-up:
- Some were born in Montana and moved on rather quickly;
- Others stayed for some time and then left;
- Still others weren’t born here at all but came and made their names here.
I know it’s a little confusing, and there are some exceptions in the list, but I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible. And I’m sure I’ve missed a few people. If there’s anyone you’re dying to hear about, please leave a comment and I’ll put their name down for a future list of famous people from Montana.
Without further ado here they are, in alphabetical order:
He joined many bands over the years and worked in a few coffee shops before helping to form Pearl Jam in 1990. The band struck it big, and has since sold over 60 million records worldwide. Pretty good for someone from Big Sandy, huh?
He hitchhiked his way across the US after finishing high school, visiting the battlefields he’d dreamed about in his youth. When WWII broke out he joined the marines and served in the Pacific where he was wounded. He then attended Georgetown and eventually became the Chief Historian of the National Park Service, a position he held from 1981 to 1994.
His tours of battlefields have left people in awe, and many of them last hours or even all day. At 90 years old he still gives about 200 battlefield tours each year and now lives in Virginia.
Forgettable performances in a string of early 1980s movies followed (Halloween II anyone?) until he was cast on SNL in 1986 along with a rash of new cast members that would boost up the programs declining ratings and lackluster appeal to younger demographics.
He had a great run on the show and had a string of film hits in the 90s before fading away a bit in the 2000s. That might have something to do with the heart-bypass surgery he had in 1997, a procedure which resulted in problems and which Carvey was later awarded $8 million for. Interestingly enough, Frank Sinatra died in the room adjacent to him while he was having his final heart surgery. Perhaps the Chairman of the Board wished it was Billy Crystal instead?
The ultimate success, however, came in 1942, when he won an Academy Award for his role of Sergeant Alvin York in the film Sergeant York. He’d win again in 1953 for his role as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon. Cooper died in 1961 in California.
Born in Great Falls in 1950, Dolack quickly found a love for art. He attended Montana State University for a time before switching over to the University of Montana, graduating in 1974. He got his early start designing posters for the Crystal Theatre in Missoula and went on from there. Now his works can be seen in galleries across the world, showing many a different take on the state.
It didn’t take Horner long to find one, either. When he was just 8 years old he found the first of his many dinosaur bone finds, and by the time most students were thinking of the prom he’d already found his first complete skeleton.
He decided to attend the University of Montana, but he didn’t do too well, leaving after 7 years and without a degree, mainly because he couldn’t pass the language requirements for his degree, something hard for someone with dyslexia.
He served some time in Vietnam and then kicked around for a bit. He started sending letters off to university research labs, asking for a job. Princeton University saw promise in him, and offered him a position as a junior technician of their Museum of Natural History.
Hollywood came calling in the early 90s when Steven Spielberg was getting ready to make Jurassic Park. He served as a technical advisor on all three films, and many think the lead character was also modeled after him.
Horner's time at Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies ended in 2012.
He married a 19-year-old that year, nine months after the relationship had started. The two later divorced, as People magazine reported on in August 2016.
Huntley was born in Cardwell on December 10, 1911 and attended Montana State College (as MSU was then known) until transferring to the University of Washington which he graduated from in 1934 with a degree in both speech and drama. From there he got work in Seattle radio and moved around a bit, working his way up to NBC in 1955.
When the show ended in July 1970 Huntley returned to Montana. An avid skier, he came up with the idea of a new ski resort and built it. The resort, called Big Sky, opened in December 1973 and has been popular with locals and people from around the world ever since. Huntley never got to see the place fully in action, however, dying just three days before its grand opening in March, 1974, at the age of 62.
Truly a coach for the ages, one can’t help but think that some of that intelligence and ability to see things before they happen came about around Deer Lodge where Jackson grew up. His parents were Assemblies of God ministers and he didn’t even see a movie until he was almost finished with high school. He must have had a lot of time to play basketball, however, and was soon playing for the University of North Dakota and then professionally with the New York Knicks beginning in 1967.
But it was when he became an assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls in 1987 that things began to look up for him once again. It was there that he crafted a young talent, Michael Jordan, into the player many consider the greatest the NBA has ever seen. He led the Chicago Bulls to 6 championships before heading off to Los Angeles to coach the Lakers starting in 1999. His success continued, and he led the team to 5 before retiring in 2012. Now he can be found back in Lakeside, Montana or Los Angeles.
The problem was, he’d have to add a new car to the line each new city he went to. This often resulted in horrendous wrecks with him flipping end-over-end. The crowds loved it and big names like Joey Bishop started calling. Las Vegas wasn’t far off. All in all he had a stellar career and brought motorcycling to a new level. He died on November 30, 2007, in Clearwater, Florida, and was buried in Butte.
It was a boon for Loy and she would go on to star in many major films, 14 of them with Powell. Still, she said she always hated the way the studio used the shooting to boost up ticket sales. By 1938 she was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. She appeared in the 1946 Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives but was never nominated herself. In 1991 she was given an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement. She died on December 14, 1993, in New York City at the age of 88.
He was born in Missoula on January 20, 1946, although he only stayed in the city for 2 months before his parents moved, something his father’s job for the U.S. Department of Agriculture required a lot of. He began making short films that were quite different, and eventually Hollywood came calling. Probably his biggest breakthrough into the world of mainstream came when he wrote and directed the 1990 ABC smash hit Twin Peaks. Since then he’s continued to push the boundaries of what people thought possible.
Maclean sat WWII out, working as a professor at the University of Chicago, where he primarily taught Shakespeare and the Romantics. He’d teach until 1973, when he retired. That same year saw him publish A River Runs Through It, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer that year, although no award was given. It’s perhaps because of that book, and more importantly the Robert Redford directed-movie that followed in 1992, that most people around the world get their conceptions of Montana today. Maclean died in Chicago in 1990.
Mansfield was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1903 and didn’t come to Montana until after his mother had died in 1906. He worked some odd jobs growing up and was a habitual runaway before eventually serving some time in WWI. In the 20s he returned to Montana, working in the Butte mines for 8 years. He’d eventually get back on track with his schooling, taking his high school courses at the University of Montana, getting a BA in 1933.
Mansfield would serve as Senate Majority Leader for 16 years until 1977 when he retired and was appointed Ambassador to Japan, a position he’d hold until 1988. Following that he worked as an advisor for Goldman Sachs before his death on October 5, 2001, at the age of 98.
Montana was born in New Eagle, Pennsylvania, on June 11, 1956. He showed an early skill for football, and played college with Notre Dame beginning in 1974. He was drafted to the NFL in 1979 and started for the San Francisco 49ers. They went on to win 4 Super Bowls in 6 years. Montana would eventually move on to the Kansas City Chiefs and retire for good in 1995.
In 1993 the town of Ismay, Montana decided to change their name to “Joe.” It caused a lot of publicity and most people thought it pretty dumb, but it happened for a short time.
The decision allowed Montana Power to reform into TouchAmerica, which went out of business shortly thereafter. And Montanan’s have had much higher electricity bills for the past 15 years and our major power production centers owned by companies in Australia. Not to mention all those Montana Power employee pensions that suddenly vanished.
Of course those policies are just what a young up-and-comer from Texas, George W. Bush, wanted for the nation. Racicot became a leading advisor to the former governor as he ran for president, and even got embroiled in the whole Election 2000 recount mess in Florida. Shortly after that Racicot was rewarded by being named the Chairman of the Republican National Committee in December, 2001. Since then he’s left Montana for good, working for large lobbying firms like the American Insurance Association in Washington. Marc Racicot – A true Montana villain.
Rankin decided to throw her hat in the ring, running on the Republican ticket for Congress in 1916. She had to travel long and far across the state to meet and greet people, and the powers-that-be tried to hold her down. On the night of the election even her hometown Missoula paper was saying she’d lost big time. She didn’t however, and as the people’s votes came in over the coming days it was discovered she’d won by 7,500 votes.
She got gerrymandered out the next election cycle and tried unsuccessfully for the Senate before moving to Georgia. She became involved in women’s issues and anti-war protests and eventually got re-elected in 1940 as Montana’s representative, 24 years after her first successful bid. Following her unpopular vote against WWII, in which she was the only dissenting vote, an angry mob followed her and she had to hide in a Capital telephone booth.
In later years she moved to California, where was she was seriously considering getting back into politics so she could talk some sense into those voting for war with Vietnam. She didn’t get her wish, however, dying on May 18, 1973 in Carmel, California.
Charles Marion Russell
Robert Edward "Ted" Turner III was actually born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1938. He got his real start in business in 1963 when at 24 years of age he took over Turner Advertising after his father’s suicide. The company grew, buying up broadcasting stations all over the south in a business-friendly environment during the Vietnam War.
He moved up to Montana in 1989, buying up property near Bozeman. Since then he’s spent a great deal of his time here, something that many celebrities do now. And he helps out the state too. I remember working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2000 and going to West Yellowstone to work on electric fences to keep wolves off a sheep farm. Some of the ATVs we used had been lent to us by Turner’s ranch.
It was there she met Health Ledger and they began dating during the filming of the movie in 2004 and had a daughter in 2005. When Ledger died in January, 2008, Williams came to the world’s attention really for the first time. Since then, however, she’s shown that she’s got the acting chops needed to stand on her own with roles in Blue Valentine and My Week With Marilyn.
What quickly became clear to me while writing this list was that nearly all the people on it that were born in Montana had to leave the state to make it or even make a living. None who were born here could have become famous without first leaving, aside from a few politicians maybe. That’s something to think about.
Another thing I noticed while researching this list was how many of the people died relatively young. Lots of these celebrities were only in their 60s when they died, and often the causes of death were smoking-related. That’s something else to think about for a state that’s historically been quite tobacco-friendly.
Overall I think anyone, whether inside or outside the state, can get a good idea of Montana’s people, places, and culture from these 25 individuals whose lives span more than a century of the state’s history.
Thanks for reading!
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It's why I wrote this article called What Famous Celebrities Live in Montana? It was so popular I wrote What Famous Celebrities Live in Montana #2.
That just wasn't enough, however, so I wrote a bunch more. You'll find the most comprehensive list of Montana famous people in Famous Montana Celebrities #6 - it has links to everyone I've profiled.
In addition, here are 2 articles that will give you something...however dated.
Livin' Large in Montana (1991 People Magazine Article on Famous People in Montana)
Celebrity Land Rush on in Montana (1992 Chicago Tribune Business Article)