17 Famous People Who Started Out As Heroes But Lived Long Enough To Become Major Villains

·8 min read

There are plenty examples of hero-to-villain arcs in TV and film, but that's not the only place we find them — they also, unfortunately, happen in real life.


Reddit user u/do_u_liek_ButtSchexx recently asked just this — "Who is your example of 'You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain?'" — and there were some super interesting replies.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Here are 17 people who ended up becoming pretty big villains, despite starting out as heroes!

Note: Some of these submissions contain mentions of rape, abuse, and animal cruelty.

1."Jim Jones. He originally stood up for civil rights when it was really unpopular. [He] was hospitalized and accidentally placed in the Black ward. When the doctors found out, they tried to move him, but he refused. Then he became a cult leader and used his power and influence to end the lives of [almost] a thousand people."

Jim Jones
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2."Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church started out as an attorney defending civil rights."

Fred Phelps


Phelps took on a number of civil rights cases, and even won awards from places such as the NAACP for his work. However, faxes indicate he was possibly racist despite this work. He was disbarred in 1989 after providing false statements to court.

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

3."Henry Heimlich, inventor of the Heimlich maneuver, made up a bunch of untested uses for it (treating...drowning victims)...that he publicly talked up. Later, he funded an experiment that involved injecting people with malaria to see if it would treat other conditions."

Harry Heimlich


Heimlich's son Peter has spent a considerable amount of time trying to show the misjudgments of his father, including bringing light to his use of malariatherapy in Ethiopia and China. Heimlich even got celebrities to give money to help fund this ineffective and dangerous treatment, which the Ethiopian Ministry of Health said they had no knowledge of.

Gene Arias / NBCU Photo Bank / NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

4."Philippe Pétain. In WWI, he led the French to victory at Verdun, one of the worst battles in human history. In WWII, after France was beaten, Pétain was the head of state of Vichy, France. Guy went from the Lion of Verdun to the biggest Nazi collaborator in France."

Phillippe Petain


Pétain later said he was playing a "double game" by working with the occupying Nazis, but the government he led adopted numerous anti-Jewish measures, particularly for foreign Jews, many of whom were handed over to the Germans or interned. After the war, Pétain was tried and sentenced to death (later commuted to life in prison) for his actions.

Central Press / Getty Images

5."Benedict Arnold. Almost died during the Revolutionary War, if I recall correctly, and if he had, he would have been remembered a huge hero and a martyr. Instead, he lived and changed sides, and is remembered only for his being a traitor."

Benedict Arnold
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6."Fritz Haber. He revolutionized the ability to fertilize crops...which has allowed the earth’s population to increase. ... He created other technologies that would then be used in WWI chemical warfare and eventually Zyklon B in WWII that was used to perpetrate the Holocaust."

Fritz Haber


Close to half of the people in the world survive on crops that are grown due to the Haber-Bosch process. He received a Nobel prize for this work. Haber, who was born Jewish though later converted, died before World War II. He did not himself create Zyklon B, which was used in gas chambers, but his work did lead to its invention.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

7.Chris Benoit was a famous, celebrated pro wrestler until he murdered his wife and child. Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring has gone into this case in detail, and spoken to many of Benoit's friends who believed Benoit was largely a family man until steroids, a brain injury from wrestling, and alcohol affected him to the point where he carried out a murder-suicide.

Chris Benoit

Suggested by u/DegreeOffWhite

"This was terrible to see. I was a huge pro wrestling fan back in the day. To my knowledge, Benoit was actually a great person until he suddenly wasn't. That 'suddenly wasn't,' though, carried a hell of a consequence. It's actually kind of amazing how people with severe CTE act very similarly. When your job is basically to pound your brain in every night, who knows what will happen? Just look at all the NFL guys who have similar issues, i.e. Steve McNair. I feel bad for everyone involved, which includes Benoit himself. I don't think he even had the ability to reason anymore. Steroids didn't help, but I think they only expedited things."


Kmazur / WireImage via Getty Images

8.O.J. Simpson, similarly, was a celebrated figure in football before being arrested in the 1994 homicide of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. While he was not found guilty, he was later put in jail for armed robbery and kidnapping, though he was released last year.

O.J. Simpson

Suggested by u/ChickenTendy27

Pool / Getty Images

9."Rudy Giuliani. Dude was 'America’s mayor' just 20 years ago. A...prosecutor who took down the mob then shepherded NY through 9/11. Now, he’s just thought of as the increasingly unhinged Trump lackey that sweat hair dye in front of a landscaping company that should've been a hotel."

Rudy Giuliani
Spencer Platt / Getty Images

10."Richard Nixon. Won the 1972 election by a landslide, with only Massachusetts and DC voting for McGovern, on the back of a strong economy. Two years later, resigns in disgrace over Watergate, in the midst of stagflation, and his reputation has never been rehabilitated."

Richard Nixon
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

11.Bill Cosby was once known as extremely wholesome and "America's Dad." He was given the presidential medal of freedom in 2002, and the Emmys gave him a humanitarian award in 2003 "for his long history of charitable work and activism in support of education and racial equality."

Bill Cosby

Suggested by u/shaka_sulu

Kmazur / WireImage via Getty Images

12.Similarly, Kevin Spacey used to be an activist to promote AIDS awareness and participate in fundraisers for people with AIDS...before his fall from grace after numerous allegations of sexual assault and misconduct.

Kevin Spacey

Suggested by u/Patri100ia

Jeff Spicer / Getty Images

13.Joe Paterno, Penn State's celebrated head coach, was fired after not doing enough to prevent assistant coach Jerry Sandusky from committing child sex abuse crimes. After his death, Paterno was further accused of helping cover up Sandusky's actions, though it's debated how much he was involved.

Joe Paterno

Suggested by u/3lon_Mu5k

"I immigrated to the US to go to college, and college football was a key part of my integration into American college culture and by extension into a fascinating part of American culture that doesn't really exist in most other parts of the world. JoePa was the shining beacon of what it meant to be a college coach when I was getting inducted into college football. And then...wow."


Rob Tringali/Sportschrome / Getty Images

14."Harry Harlow. He began his career as a young and unconventional scientist who wanted to prove that humans cannot survive without love and affection. To do so, he needed an animal that was sufficiently humanlike and easy to manage. He settled on rhesus monkeys. Harlow's research went in a really dark direction. ... He decided to deliberately raise monkeys from birth with as little love and affection. ... They were depressed and pretty much became empty shells of living animals."

—u/ugagradladyHarlow was able to prove the importance of early social interaction in social development, and the importance of family and love, but he did so through exceedingly cruel methods that ended up causing some of the monkeys to engage in self-mutilation or starve themselves until they died.


Harlow was able to prove the importance of early social interaction in social development, and the importance of family and love, but he did so through exceedingly cruel methods that ended up causing some of the monkeys to engage in self-mutilation or starve themselves until they died.

Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images

15."Dr. Oz is the perfect example. He started out a legitimate talented accomplished cardiothoracic surgeon. Then he started with his snake-oil peddling on TV and has now completely devolved into a pandering narcissistic Trump-loving politician."

Dr. Oz
Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

16."Phoenix Jones, that superhero from Seattle. Saved some people over the years, then eventually was caught by an undercover cop selling MDMA."

Phoenix Jones


Jones became known for donning a superhero costume and stepping in to stop fights and other crimes, like a car robbery. There are varying reports of how much the people/authorities of Seattle appreciated this, and Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes called Jones "deeply misguided." After he was arrested, it's unclear if he was charged, and he seems to still be active in crime-fighting according to his Twitter.

Kevin Winter / Getty Images

17.And finally, J.K. Rowling went from beloved children's author to a TERF after making a number of anti-trans comments, then repeatedly doubling down on them.

J.K. Rowling

Suggested by nibo001

"She could have chosen to bow out of the public eye with grace."


"Seriously. Hell, she could’ve even kept milking HP for all it’s worth (and then some) if she wanted to stay in the public eye. Instead, she chose to use her platform to spew hate…toward part of a demographic that very much loved her books. It’s baffling (and yes, really upsetting to me as a queer person who grew up with HP)."


"Wrote Harry Potter, and it was great and also an inspiration to many kids. Now she’s fighting against LGBTQ rights. Wasn’t including people who are different and not necessarily born into your world, like…the whole point of at least two of her books?"


Mike Marsland / WireImage via Getty Images