March 15, 2022
WRITTEN BY:
Melinda Head

Celebs with a Ukrainian Heritage + More

The world is a better place because of them

Leonard Bernstein – arguably the first American celebrity conductor, both of his parents were from Rivne. If you are too young to remember Bernstein, you know his work – hint: he composed the music for “West Side Story”

Michael Bolton – singer/songwriter whose true family name is Bolotin. Mr. Bolton’s ancestors are from Kyiv. Here’s a great clip of him performing one of his most famous songs, “How am I supposed to live without you”, accompanied by saxophonist Kenny G

Bob Dylan – aka Robert Zimmerman, one of the greatest activist songwriters of all time and a Nobel Prize winner. His grandparents were from Odessa. Dylan’s high school ambition was simply to join “Little Richard”. He just sold his song-writing catalog to Universal Music for more than $300 million

“I love Bob Dylan … I saw this guy in a car blasting “Like a Rolling Stone” and singing at the top of his lungs, (the driver was) 30 years old in a suit, just rocking. I could hear Bob’s voice. This is the essence of his feeling. I went “Wow, it is so powerful”. You can’t keep that. It comes and goes through you.” (Neil Young on Bob Dylan)

Leonardo DiCaprio – this incredibly successful actor’s maternal grandmother was born in Odessa. “Titanic” catapulted DiCaprio’s career to new heights, with many other films following, including “Catch Me If You  Can”, “The Aviator” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”. An active environmentalist, Mr. DiCaprio just donated $10 million to aid Ukraine’s fight against Russia. Mr. DiCaprio – thank-you, thank-you, thank-you

David Duchovny – this ”X-Files” and “Californication” Golden Globe awards winner grew up thinking that he was Russian, but realized that he has always been Ukrainian

Vera Farmiga – known for “The Conjuring”, “Up in the Air” and “Bates Motel”, you’ve also seen her in “The Departed” and “The Boy in Striped Pajamas”. She is the child of Ukrainian parents

Stan Getz – the late jazz saxophonist’s paternal grandparents emigrated from Kyiv. Mr. Getz basically introduced bossa nova music to America, winning his first Grammy with Charlie Byrd in 1963. Don’t know him? You do: listen to this. And here is what happens when you put Stan Getz together with John Coltrane and beloved Canadian Oscar Peterson

Dustin Hoffman – grandchild of immigrants from Bila Tserkva, Ukraine. Who can forget Mike Nichols’ critically acclaimed film, “The Graduate”, in which Hoffman plays a recent university grad who has an affair with his father’s partner’s wife, Mrs. Robinson (played by Anne Bancroft)? “Midnight Cowboy”, “Papillon”, “Lenny”, “Marathon Man”, “All the President’s Men”, “Rain Man” and more make up his incredible accomplishments

Milla Jovovich – supermodel, actor and musician, Milica Bogdanovna Jovovich was raised in Kyiv. In high school she was called a “commie” and a “Russian spy” by her American classmates, and eventually dropped out. She has often been compared to American Brooke Shields, who also started in the business at a very young age, who was beautiful and also appeared nude on screen as a teen. Milla’s greatest success has been in her role as Alice in “Resident Evil”

Lenny Kravitz – multiple Grammy Award winner, his father, Sy Kravitz, is of Ukrainian ancestry. Kravitz’s song “Let Love Rule” is a mantra that we should all follow, especially now

Mila Kunis – actor best known for “That ‘70s Show” and “Black Swan”, Kunis was born in Chernivtsi. Did you know that she also voices Meg Griffin on “Family Guy”? She was married to Ashton Kutcher and is now the partner of Macaulay Culkin, child star of “Home Alone”

Olga Kurylenko – played Bond girl Camille Montes in “Quantum of Solace” and supervillain Taskmaster in the Marvel Studios film “Black Widow”. She is from Berdyans’k, Ukraine

“I admire that young Ukrainians are fighting and resisting against Russia. Ukraine now symbolizes strength, tenacity and struggle … it is urgent to act together to stop this massacre.”

Leonard Nimoy – “Star Trek” super star, Spock’s parents were from Iziaslav, now part of Ukraine. His father walked across the border into Poland as Ukrainians are doing now

Steven Spielberg – director, producer and screenwriter, both of his grandfathers came from Ukraine (Odessa and Kamianetz-Podolsky). His filmography includes “Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, the “Indiana Jones” series, “The Color Purple”, “Empire of the Sun”, “Jurassic Park”, “Schindler’s List”, “Saving Private Ryan”, “Munich”, “Bridge of Spies”, “The Post” and, most recently, “West Side Story”, among others. This a man of epic accomplishments

Sylvester Stallone – the role of Rocky Balboa put him on the map big time. His maternal ancestors lived in Odessa

Isaac Stern – there are no words to describe this world renowned violinist. He is credited with having saved Carnegie Hall from demolition. He also discovered cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Jian Wang, as well as violinists Itzhak Perlmann and Pinchas Zukerman. He was born in Kremenets, Ukraine

Lee Strasberg – famed method acting coach, Strasberg was born in Budaniv, which is now part of Ukraine. Pupils included Al Pacino, Anne Bancroft,  Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Paul Newman, Ellen Burstyn, Robert De Niro and others

Alex Trebek – the late “Jeopardy” host was the son of a chef who emigrated from Ukraine

Steve and Liv Tyler – the real family name of this Arrowsmith front man is Tallarico. Liv is the offspring of a relationship Steve had with fashion model Bebe Buell (OMG have you seen Liv in “Stealing Beauty”?). Tyler’s grandfather was Ukrainian. The lyrics: “Dream on, dream on, dream until your dreams come true” were sung by Mr. Tyler and the Southern California Children’s Chorus to give courage to citizens after the Boston Marathon bombing. It could just as easily be sung today to those sheltering below ground and those fleeing Ukraine today

Natalie Wood – aka Natalia Zacharenko, her family fled from Kharkiv. Ms. Wood starred in “Miracle on 34th Street”, “Rebel Without a Cause”, “West Side Story”, “Splendor in the Grass” and “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”, among others, before drowning mysteriously

More Notables:

Max Levchin – PayPal co-founder was born in Kyiv

Ruth Bader Ginsburg – Supreme Court justice. She was the first Jewish person to sit on the court and the second female. Gender equality, women’s interests, and civil rights and liberties were her passion. Her father, Nathan Bader, immigrated to NY from Odessa

Jan Koun – Co-founder of WhatsApp, which was sold to Facebook for $19.3 billion, making him one of the richest Americans at the time. His mother worked as a babysitter and he worked as a grocery store cleaner after they emigrated to the United States from Kyiv

Jay Pritzker – created the Hyatt hotel chain with his brother, and owned Ticketmaster before selling it to Microsoft co-owner Paul Allen. His parents came from Kyiv

Chrystia Freeland – Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. Has also held posts as Minister of International Trade, Foreign Affairs and Intergovernmental Affairs. This former journalist is fluent in Ukrainian and Russian, studied Russian History and Literature at Harvard and Slavonic Studies at Oxford. Her family roots are in Stronyatyn and Ivano-Frankivsk. One can only imagine how strong her understanding is of the current conflict and what an asset she must be to the Canadian Government right now. Here is a recent article she penned for the Financial Times:

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About the Author

A serial entrepreneur, Melinda is a sociologist and statistician who believes there is no currency with greater value than knowledge

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