From Sharon Tate and Bruce Lee to Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, here's what's real and what's fake in 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Quentin Tarantino has never been a stickler for historical accuracy. This is, after all, the writer/director who famously killed Hitler at the end of Inglourious Basterds, and staged an incendiary pre-Civil War slave uprising in Django Unchained. So it’s no surprise that Tarantino mixes fact and fiction again in his new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which unfolds in a version of Los Angeles circa 1969 that’s at once both authentic and grandly mythic. The film’s large ensemble consists of both real and fictional pop culture personalities from the time, and actual Hollywood locations are adjacent to invented places. To help you navigate Tarantino’s L.A., here’s our road map to what’s real… and what’s reel.

REAL LIFE: Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski were a power couple par excellence

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' (Photo: Andrew Cooper / © Columbia Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (Photo: Andrew Cooper / © Columbia Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)

She was a talented young actress the industry had earmarked for stardom. He was a European auteur whose films had crossed over into the American mainstream. And after meeting on the set of the 1967 film, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski brought a dash of New Hollywood glamour to a town in transition. Played by Margot Robbie and Rafal Zawierucha respectively, the two are treated as larger-than-life figures in Tarantino’s film, living in a beautiful mansion that overlooks Los Angeles and providing the center of attention at Playboy Mansion parties.

Robbie’s dearth of dialogue in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has already emerged as a source of critical contention, and it’s true that we’re left wanting to learn more about Tate as a person when the movie is over. But Tarantino also makes a conscious choice to celebrate the actress’s life instead of dwelling upon what people more commonly know her for. (More on that in a minute.)

REEL LIFE: Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth don’t have IMDB pages for a reason

DiCaprio leaps into action as Rick Dalton (Photo: Andrew Cooper / © Columbia Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)
Leonardo DiCaprio leaps into action as Rick Dalton. (Photo: Andrew Cooper / © Columbia Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)

You’d be forgiven for thinking the name “Rick Dalton” rings a bell. Tarantino modeled his leading man (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) after the square-jawed actors who populated the Hollywood version of the Old West in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of them went on to become movie stars — most notably Clint Eastwood — but others merely faded away, as Rick himself seems destined to do. (Tarantino has referenced such TV stars as George Maharis and Edd Byrnes as inspirations for Dalton.) The only person who still believes in his talent is his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), whose own career admittedly depends on Dalton continuing to book gigs.

As some have already noted, the friendship between the two men is modeled, in part, after Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham. Like Dalton, Reynolds got his start in television before movie stardom came calling, and Needham was his stunt double on some of those shows. In time, Needham became a celebrated stunt coordinator and, later, a director in his own right. His biggest hit behind the camera was Smokey and the Bandit, which starred, of course, Burt Reynolds.

REAL LIFE: The cult of Charlie Manson was strong

Contrary to initial expectations, notorious cult leader Charlie Manson (played by Damon Herriman) plays a decidedly minor role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, only appearing in a single scene where he arrives at Sharon Tate’s house looking for its previous occupant, record producer Terry Melcher. But the extended Manson Family — specifically the many young women that joined his cult — are a regular presence on the streets of Hollywood, often crossing paths with Cliff while he’s driving Rick to and from set.

We first see them dumpster diving in the movie’s opening scenes, and one of them, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), hitches a ride with the stuntman and brings him to the Manson compound at Spahn Movie Ranch. That’s a real location that really was used to shoot Westerns throughout the 1950s. By 1969, though, octogenarian owner George Spahn (played in the film by Bruce Dern) allowed Manson and his followers to move in and have full run of the place. Pussycat isn’t a real Manson family member, but the ranch is home to several known Manson associates including Catherine Share (Lena Dunham) and Lynette Fromme (Dakota Fanning), who looked after George’s various needs — including those of a sexual nature.

REEL LIFE: A tragedy is averted at 10050 Cielo Drive

It was a twist of fate that resulted in the murders of Sharon Tate and four other people in a rented house on Cielo Drive. Four members of the Manson Family turned up at the former home of Terry Melcher late in the evening on Aug. 8, 1969, reportedly looking for the producer at the behest of Manson himself. (At one point, Melcher considered signing Manson to his record label, but the deal never went through, leading some to speculate the cult leader nursed thoughts of revenge.) Instead of Melcher, they found Tate — who was nearly nine months pregnant — and three of her friends, and proceeded to take them hostage before carrying out a series of bloody murders that shocked Hollywood and the nation.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood imagines a reality where another twist of fate sends history down a different path. Pulling onto Cielo Drive, the four killers instead catch the attention of a very drunk, very aggravated Rick Dalton, who screams at them to get off his property. One of the four, Tex Watson (Austin Butler), recognizes the actor and suggests a different plan: Instead of killing Melcher, they’ll kill the cowboy that they watched murder people on TV. But Tex doesn’t reckon with Rick’s self-defense system of Cliff, Cliff’s dog and a working flamethrower. Instead of perpetrating a massacre, Mason’s disciples are themselves massacred and Tate lives to give birth to her first child… and presumably make more movies.

REAL LIFE: Bruce Lee trained Sharon Tate for The Wrecking Crew

Sharon Tate starred alongside Dean Martin in 'The Wrecking Crew' (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Sharon Tate starred alongside Dean Martin in The Wrecking Crew. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

In one of the standout sequences of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Robbie’s Tate sneaks into a matinee show to watch the real Tate on the big screen. The movie is The Wrecking Crew, a 1968 action picture starring Dean Martin as 007-style secret agent, Matt Helm, a character he had played in three previous films. It was Tate’s first movie after the 1967 hit Valley of the Dolls catapulted her to a new level of fame, as well as a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer, and spotlighted both her comedic and action skills. She had some help in the latter department, receiving karate training from none other than Bruce Lee.

At that point, the martial artist and actor was a few years removed from his role as Kato on The Green Hornet, but hadn’t yet become a movie star in his own right. In the interim, he consulted on films like The Wrecking Crew and trained celebrities like James Garner for big stunt set-pieces. Lee (played by Mike Moh) has an extended (fictional) scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood where he challenges Cliff to a not-so-friendly duel, using some of the same hand gestures we later see Tate employing in a scene from The Wrecking Crew.

REEL LIFE: Bounty Law will never be available on Netflix

Rick Dalton’s claim to fame is a black-and-white Western that enjoyed a multi-season run on NBC until his big-screen ambitions brought the show to an abrupt halt. And while Tarantino faithfully recreates the look and aspect ratio of a Western TV series, Bounty Law doesn’t exist outside of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. If you’re interested in seeing a show just like it, though, check out Wanted: Dead or Alive, which ran on CBS from 1958 to 1961 and starred Steve McQueen (played briefly in the film by Damian Lewis) as bounty hunter Josh Randall. Tarantino has described them in interviews as “identical shows,” and even posits that in his reality, they hit the airwaves at the same time. "[Rick] became quite popular and, like McQueen, during his hiatus, started doing movies… and they did OK, but during McQueen’s hiatus, eventually, he did The Magnificent Seven, and that was that.” Unlike Bounty Law, you can see episodes of Wanted: Dead or Alive by purchasing the complete series on DVD or watching episodes on MeTV.

REAL LIFE: The Great Escape and The F.B.I. are both available to purchase

Steven McQueen in 'The Great Escape' (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Steven McQueen in The Great Escape. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Speaking of McQueen, we learn in the course of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that Rick Dalton was one of the backup-to-the-backup choices to play Captain Virgil Hilts in John Sturges’s 1963 World War II classic. Tarantino even includes a scene from that film with DiCaprio literally standing in for McQueen. (If you haven’t seen The Great Escape before, change that right now by renting it from Amazon or Vudu.) And that’s not the only time the actor is integrated into a pre-existing film. Later on in the movie, he invites Cliff over to watch his guest star appearance on the first season of the long-running procedural, The F.B.I. The specific episode is titled “All the Streets Are Silent,” which first aired on ABC on Nov. 28, 1965, and finds the stern-faced lawmen tracking down a pair of weapons traffickers. While you won’t spot Dalton in that if you order the first season on DVD from Warner Archive, you will see another familiar face in the role he’s meant to play: Burt Reynolds.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is playing in theaters now. Visit Fandango and Atom Tickets for showtime and ticket information.

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