It would be a pretty hard sell convincing you that without Robin, Batman would be nothing more than an insomniac running around Gotham in his footie pajamas. Or that without that screaming ninny Willie, Indiana Jones would have found himself on the business end of a crocodile's gaping maw. Because those statements are obviously stupid.
But that's not the case with these lesser-known, real-life sidekicks who, for one reason or another, got shafted by history.
Ub Iwerks was a Missouri-born animator and Walt Disney's oldest and closest friend. He was also the guy who invented Mickey Mouse.
You read that right. Before there was Disney, the multi-billion-dollar global conglomerate, there was just Walt, the young man kicking around at someone else's animation studio, and his buddy Ub, the guy doing the grunt work. Ub's first success as Walt's go-to guy was the creation of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit:
Which happened to look like Mickey Mouse, if some sadistic bastard had hung Mickey up by his ears for a week and a half. Unfortunately for Disney, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was actually owned by Universal Studios, and Universal Studios decided itdidn't need Walt's involvement to keep this scrappy character going. So Walt asked his BFF Ub to whip up an Oswald 2.0:
Did everyone just look like Charlie Chaplin back then?
Iwerks not only conceptualized Mickey Mouse, he animated Mickey's first cartoon, all by himself. In fact, because Disney was shorthanded, Iwerks ended up animating Mickey's first five cartoons, plus the first Silly Symphonies. And Disney was so appreciative of his friend's work that some of those first cartoons' titles read like this:
Notice how Iwerks' name is bolded and bigger than Disney's.
So why have we never heard of him? Apparently, because Iwerks was shy and didn't have a very good sense of humor. Believe it or not, back in those days people thought Mickey Mouse was hilarious. Like, pee-your-pants, snort-milk-out-of-your-nose hilarious. And even though Iwerks was recognized as one of the most technically talented animators in the field, he just wasn't all that funny.
"I cannot breathe for my vigorous laughter!"
So when he left Disney to start his own studio, it flopped like a wet bologna on a lube-covered Slip-N-Slide. Walt could replace Iwerks with new animators, but Ub couldn't replace Walt's sense of humor. Eleven years after leaving Disney, he came back to the studio, but this time around, he spent his talent concentrating on solving more technical problems, like how to integrate archaic live-action racial stereotypes with blatantly offensive animated animals.
In the end, Disney himself said his friend's personality was the reason no one had ever heard of him. Iwerks was too shy to promote himself, and no one makes it in Hollywood without a little bravado. As a result, when people all over the planet see the face of one of the most recognizable characters in the history of human culture ...
And also, some broad in an ugly dress.
... they think one word and one word only: "Disney."
Despite having a name that sounds like a musical garbage compactor, Octave Chanute was one of aviation's earliest champions. Already an old man and a retired engineer in 1890, he began tinkering with flying machines as his second career, publishing the very first history of aviation before anyone had actually taken flight. Which, coincidentally, inspired us to publish The History of the First Blow-Job Powered Hovercrafts, but that's another story.
One with alligators.
More importantly, Chanute developed collaborative relationships with his contemporaries, freely sharing knowledge with the hopes that someone, anyone, would finally get a plane up in the air. One of those aviators, Percy Pilcher, actually took Chanute's design of the first triplane and built one but tragically died in a glider accident days before he could test the plane out. Which was a shame, because over a hundred years later, some British university students reconstructed the plane and flew it for over a minute. Which means that Octave Chanute probably designed the world's first functioning airplane, four years before the Wright brothers flew theirs.
So, one year after Chanute designed a plane that would have flown had it been tested, the Wright brothers contacted him for advice. Octave not only gave them beaucoup advice, he practically became their champion for the next few years. He publicized their experiments, visited them, exchanged hundreds of letters with them and pretty much legitimized their work to the rest of the aviation community.
Oh, and they modeled their glider after his designs.
Also, we're not sure, but we think KFC may have stolen his image for Colonel Sanders.
And as a measure of their thanks for all his help, the Wright brothers became intensely secretive about their methods and designs, patenting everything and scrambling to secure government contracts before anyone stole their ideas. While Chanute did everything he could to promote the work and efforts of others, even investing up to $100,000 of his own money in his and others' experiments, the Wrights subscribed to the "gotta get mine" philosophy of aviation innovation.
And for that, Octave Chanute practically disowned them. In 1910 Chanute died, beloved within the aviation community, unknown outside it. Meanwhile, the Wright brothers got so famous that 100 years after their biggest flight, they were played by the Wilson brothers in the 2004 Jackie Chan vehicle Around the World in 80 Days.
It could probably have been worse, but we're not quite sure how.
We're starting to suspect that being a success is five percent inspiration, and 95 percent not having a ridiculous-sounding name. Too bad for Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa guide of famous Mount Everest climber Sir Edmund Hillary, that one of those elements was not in his favor.
Where do you even buy a suit like that?
In 1953, Norgay joined John Hunt's 400-member strong Everest Expedition as one of the 20 Sherpa guides. And it was a good thing, too. Tenzing had already attempted to mount Everest in six previous climbs so he was by far the most experienced of the climbers, and was chock-full of lifesaving tidbits that came in handy as the expedition wore on. Like the time he saved Edmund Hillary from certain death when Edmund fell into a crevasse and Tenzing quickly used an ice ax to secure his rope. From that moment forward, Sir Edmund Hillary made Tenzing Norgay his mountain buddy of choice.
The two were such a good team that it was a no-brainer when Hunt picked them to do the last little climb to the summit. In fact, the only picture of their feat was taken by Hillary of Norgay at the top:
... because Tenzing didn't know how to use a camera and the summit of Mount Everest was no place to get a photography lesson. For their success, Sir Hillary was knighted, given India's highest civilian honor, put on the New Zealand five-pound note and made an honorary citizen of Nepal.
Tenzing got a medal and India's third-highest civilian honor. And you've almost certainly never heard his name.
So why don't you know about him? You would, if you were Indian or Nepalese. Over there, Norgay was a national hero. He spent the next 22 years after the climb as the field director of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Which wasn't so bad a gig for the illiterate son of a yak herder.
And while Time magazine did throw him a bone and put him on the list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, when we in the West think of "Everest" we think "Edmund Hillary," and when we think of Tenzing Norgay, we think "What is that? An STD?"
Is that the name of the weird hat he's wearing?
Yakima Canutt was a real-deal cowboy, the kind who grew up on a ranch and busted broncos for fun. He was also a major hit on the rodeo circuit, a war veteran and an expert horse rider. But it wasn't until he began wintering in Hollywood between rodeo seasons that he found his true calling: as a best boy. Just kidding -- Yakima was a really good stunt man. By the time talkies rolled around, Yakima had logged onscreen time in 48 movies and was staging scenes as much as he was acting in them.
His butt-chin was the stuff of legends.
In 1932, he met a little-known actor named John Wayne. A cowboy bromance was formed. Canutt not only doubled for Wayne on his trickiest stunts but he also taught him how to fall off a horse without dying and how to twirl a gun real fancy-like, and together they developed realistic punching techniques for the camera. But more importantly, John Wayne pretty much tailored his on-screen persona after Yakima. Everything that we remember about John Wayne -- his walk, his slow, long drawl and stilted speech, even the way he stood -- were all ripped right off of Yak Canutt.
Yak Canutt, seen here diving into horses.
This isn't some kind of conspiracy theory. The Duke was the first to admit it:
"I spent weeks studying the way Yakima Canutt walked and talked. He was a real cowhand. I noticed that the angrier he got, the lower his voice, the slower his tempo. I try to say my lines low and strong and slow, the way Yak did."
So Canutt not only taught Wayne the skills he needed to be a believable cowboy, but he was the real-life John Wayne. He invented all of the mannerisms that John Wayne would use in every freaking role he played. Wayne became one of the most famous actors of all time; Canutt was forgotten.
Seriously, spend more than 10 minutes on your book cover, guy.
The hilariously long-named Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben was a Prussian-born soldier who actually could have doubled for his future boss, George Washington:
Seriously, those two could have pulled off some Parent Trap-level shenanigans:
Except that von Steuben didn't speak a word of English, so that would have been pretty hard to do. And it's also probably why you've never heard of him.
In 1777, after over 30 years in military service and eight years of fooling people into thinking he was a baron, von Steuben was introduced to American legend Benjamin Franklin, who in turn recommended him to Gen. Washington. And when Franklin made that introduction, he made sure to let Washington know that the fake baron was also a lieutenant general (which he was not). The record is unclear, but we're pretty sure von Steuben also bragged about his score of 2400 on the SATs and how MIT was totally offering him a full ride. Washington was duly impressed.
At this point, you'd think that this non-English-speaking George Washington look-a-like fraud was probably knee-deep in shit he was ill-prepared to handle, but you'd be wrong. Within months of arriving in America, he rose from drillmaster to inspector general of the Continental Army, wrote the army's drill manual and taught soldiers how to not defecate all over their own campsites, how to actually use a bayonet for something other than a shish kebab skewer and how to march, stand, use their muskets correctly and pretty much how to be an army that could defeat the most powerful military force in the world. Two more things: 1) He did all this for free, and 2) He was probably gay.
... and now the Steuben Monument makes sense.
So what happens to a foreigner who saves America? Untold riches? The adoration of millions? All the Cristal you could shake a stick at?
Not quite. Congress gave him land (there was plenty to go around after stealing so much from Indians and former royalists) but refused to pay the money he had been promised when first volunteering. It took the intervention of Washington and Franklin to persuade Congress to provide the Baron with a bankruptcy-saving pension. And even then, the guy still died in debt and pretty much forgotten.
It wasn't until America's involvement in World War I, when everyone got in a tizzy over the German Hun, that some German-Americans resurrected Steuben's memory as proof of their American patriotism. And also to set up some sweet future parades for truant egomaniacs:
"It was all worth it!"