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Trading Surnames for Stage Names

By Catherine Foster / April 23, 1991

I WAS on a temp job in New York City when I saw the name "McCandless" on a door. That's it, I thought. I've found my name! I needed one because my actor's union wouldn't let me use my own. They said somebody already had it, and they were firm about it: one person per name. It made sense; you couldn't have two Clint Eastwoods in the film business. But I thought it boded ill for my acting career.

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So I looked for another one. It's hard enough to pick children's names, but to rename yourself is much harder, particularly when you don't want to. A lot is riding on it. Do I pick something that rings with the truth of my being, or something that describes how I'd like to be but don't feel I actually am, yet? If I hadn't liked my name, I'd have been glad to start over. But I liked Catherine just fine and didn't want to change both names, so I started hunting around for another last name. The pity w as, I liked Foster, too. It means "to nurse or nurture." It's a name I don't live up to enough, but I like having it, if only as a goal. Of course I did have to put up with fools cackling about me being a foster child.

And, being an actress, I had to be careful about the kind of name I chose. Something like Jessica Forsythe, say, would have gotten me relegated to soap-opera roles. Glamorous has a way of sounding pompous; distinctive can turn into eccentric, subtle into forgettable. And it can't be too close to anyone else's (Meryl Stripe?).

Then I found the door with McCandless on it and thought my troubles were over. It had a "Mc" (I was enamoured with the Irish at the time), a "C" for alliteration, and candles represented light. That fit in with what I had decided was my motive for being an actress - to "enlighten." I didn't just want to get out there and knock people's socks off, I wanted to brighten their lives, shed light on their problems, be the light at the end of the tunnel.

So I got resumes printed with my new name, and new postcard-sized pictures, the ones actors send out saying, "I'm playing Celia in 'The Importance of Being Earnest.' Do come." Or, "Did you get my resume?" I learned to stand up when Catherine McCandless was called out at auditions. The only problem there was keeping from bursting into brogue.

I enjoyed McCandless at first, but after a few months it started to feel artificial. Face it, I'm blonde, not red-haired; English, not Irish.

When I'd introduce myself at parties and acting classes as Catherine McCandless, a little voice would snip, "No, you're not." Being a Hibernian wannabee wasn't working.

SO, when my stepmother called up and asked if it was too late to change my name, I said no.

"What about your famous relative?" she said.

"What famous relative?" I perked up. This was the first I'd ever heard of a famous relative.

"Gustave Dore."


"Who's Gustave Dore?"


"The French book illustrator?" said Anne, my stepmother. "Dante's 'Inferno'?"