40 famous people from Iowa: Ashton Kutcher, Johnny Carson and more – Des Moines Register

As Iowans have not only shaped the course of their own state’s history but that of the nation and — on occasion — the world. From the fondly remembered to modern to the mythical, here are 40 of Iowa’s most significant figures from the past, present and fiction.
It would be impossible to compile a list every earth-moving achievement accomplished by those who called Iowa their place of birth, but here are 15 highlights for the history books.
Born: West Branch
Lifetime: 1874-1964
What he’s known for: The 31st president of the United States
Less than three decades after Iowa became a state, Herbert Hoover was born in the eastern Iowa town of West Branch, the child of a blacksmith. Before his presidency, Hoover graduated from Stanford and witnessed the Boxer Rebellion in China. He served a single term as president from 1929 to 1933.
Born: Davenport
Lifetime: 1880-1960
What he’s known for: The commercial bread-slicing machine
It would be inaccurate to say Otto Frederick Rohwedder invented the best thing since sliced bread since, well, Rohwedder effectively did invent sliced bread. In 1928, despite being a jeweler by trade and losing some of his initial plans in a Monmouth factory fire, Rohwedder created a device that sliced and wrapped loaves of bread.
Born: Sioux City
Lifetime: 1890-1946
What he’s famous for: Advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt
Born in Sioux City and a 1912 graduate of Grinnell College, Hopkins grew up to work on remedying the ripple effects of the Great Depression and become an advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt. After Roosevelt became president in 1933, he named Hopkins the administrator of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and, when the United States entered World War II, Hopkins became a key figure in the efforts of the Allied powers. After surviving stomach cancer, Hopkins died due to liver failure months after receiving the Distinguished Service Medal from President Harry S. Truman.
Born: Anamosa
Lifetime: 1891-1942
What he’s known for: American painter who created “American Gothic”
Grant Wood studied various art forms in France and Germany through the 1920s and went on to display his most recognizable work, “American Gothic,” in the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930. Wood went on to teach at the University of Iowa from 1935 to 1940, and during that time he instructed a young Elizabeth Catlett.
Born: Sioux City
Lifetime: 1900-1993
What he’s famous for: Statistician and educator
Sioux City’s William Edwards Deming made his way into the field of statistical analysis that he applied to achieve better industrial quality control. In the 1950s, Deming’s skills helped Japan as the nation economically recovered from the fallout of World War II and became the namesake for The Deming Prize, an annual award given to Japanese corporations with exceptional quality control.
Born: Mason City
Lifetime: 1902-1984
What he’s famous for: Composer of “The Music Man”
Robert Meredith Willson was himself a music man from a young age when he began playing flute in the Mason City Municipal Band, setting him on track to begin his musical career. In 1958, Willson’s musical “The Music Man,” the most widely known of his works, was given a Tony Award for Best Musical.
Born: Davenport
Lifetime: 1903-1931
What he’s famous for: Jazz musician
Leon Beiderbecke is a Davenport-born musician more widely known under the name “Bix.” As a jazz musician, Beiderbecke became known for the quality of his improvisation in his performances. He joined the Jean Goldkette group in Detroit in the latter half of the 1920s, but, only a handful of years later, died after suffering from lobar pneumonia at the age of 28.
More:From recruiting musicians to selling tickets, Abe Goldstien builds Iowa jazz community one act at a time
Born: Durham, a hamlet near Knoxville
Lifetime: 1903-1996
What she’s known for: Helping create Rice Krispies Treats
Mildred Day, born Harriet Mildred Ghrist, is an Iowan credited with helping to create Rice Krispies Treats after taking a job in Battle Creek, Michigan, with the Kellogg’s cereal company. In that job, she and co-worker Malitta Jensen would develop the recipe for Rice Krispies Treats featured on boxes of the cereal in 1941.
More:From the archives: Love Rice Krispies Treats? You have an Iowan to thank
Born: Ladora
Lifetime: 1905-2002
What she’s known for: Penned many of the original Nancy Drew books
Mildred Wirt Benson is one of many authors who have taken on the pseudonym “Carolyn Keene” to write some of the earliest Nancy Drew mystery novels published since 1930. The University of Iowa graduate penned not only the first teen sleuth adventure “The Secret of the Old Clock,” but was also responsible for 22 of the first 25 Nancy Drew books.
More:From the archives: Mystery solved. An Iowan was behind iconic ‘Nancy Drew’ series
Born: Winterset
Lifetime: 1907-1979
What he’s known for: Oscar-winning actor in American Westerns
Born Marion Michael Morrison, the actor and director we know as John Wayne only took up the name with his first starring role in the 1930 film “The Big Trail.” His five-decade film career that spanned parts in Westerns and war films eventually led to Wayne’s Oscar for the 1969 film “True Grit.” Ten years later, the actor passed away as a result of stomach cancer.
Born: Cresco
Lifetime: 1914-2009
What he’s famous for: Nobel Peace Prize-winning agronomist 
Borlaug was educated at the University of Minnesota, studying to be a forester and eventually returning to study plant pathology and receive his doctorate. He spent a large portion of his professional life working to solve wheat production problems in Mexico. It was 1970 when Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize, recognized for years spent improving food production.
Born: Stanton
Lifetime: 1920-1996
What she’s famous for: Radio and film actress
Originally named Virginia Kraft, Virginia Christine is perhaps best remembered as Mrs. Olson, a character who appeared in television advertisements for Folgers Coffee. Over the course of her career, she also appeared on television in “The Twilight Zone” and “The Lone Ranger” and in cinema in the 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” among other projects.
More:Stanton’s century-old water tower painted to look like a coffee pot
Born: Dennison
Lifetime: 1921-1986
What she’s known for: Oscar-winning actress who starred in “It’s a Wonderful Life”
Born an Iowa farm girl, Donna Reed is most recognizable for her role as the leading lady in the 1946 Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” She would later win an Academy Award in 1954 for Best Supporting Actress in the film “From Here to Eternity,” and in 1957 launched the “Donna Reed Show.” She died of pancreatic cancer just before her 65th birthday in 1986.
More:Actress Donna Reed left an impact as ‘Iowa’s Daughter’ in Hollywood, and Iowans are celebrating her legacy
Born: Corning
Lifetime: 1925-2005
What he’s known for: Known as the “king of late night”
Following his birth in Corning, Carson’s family moved to Norfolk, Nebraska, while he was still young. After serving in World War II, Carson hosted NBC’s “The Tonight Show” from 1962 to 1992 when he handed the reins over to Jay Leno. Carson is credited with creating the template of a guest couch and studio bands still seen in modern late-night talk shows. His 30-year tenure on the show makes him the program’s longest-serving host since its creation in 1954 and earned him the reputation as “king of late night.”
More:From the archives: Late-night legend Johnny Carson spent his early days in southwest Iowa
Born: Des Moines
Lifetime: 1926-2021
What she’s known for: Actress who won an Academy Award for her role in “The Last Picture Show”
Cloris Leachman had a vast and varied career that led her to into multiple television shows from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “Malcolm in the Middle,” and movies such as “Young Frankenstein” and her Oscar-winning role in “The Last Picture Show.” The actress also became the namesake for The Cloris Leachman Excellence in Theater Arts Award, an honor given annually to recognize members of the Des Moines theater community.
More:Cloris Leachman got her start in Des Moines and never forgot her hometown
Arguably even more varied than Iowa’s past is Iowa’s present. From living legends to movers and shakers whose greatest work may be yet to come, here are 19 fantastic Iowa-born individuals you can still follow today.
Born: Centerville, 1938
What he’s known for: Internationally recognized opera singer
Born and raised in Centerville, Simon Estes went on to study at the University of Iowa and briefly at Juilliard in New York City. He has become an internationally known opera singer, performing with artists such as Ray Charles, Barry Manilow, Johnny Cash and Whitney Houston. In August 2019, Des Moines Area Community College created the Simon Estes School of Fine Arts to honor the renowned bass baritone.
More:Renowned singer Simon Estes announces his final opera performance and first in Iowa, in ‘Porgy and Bess’
Born: Creston, 1932
What he’s famous for: The first Iowan in space
The idea to propel a human outside of Earth’s atmosphere was still the stuff of science fiction when Cunningham, born Ronnie Walter Cunningham, came into the world in 1932. However, in 1968, he became the first Iowan in space aboard Apollo 7 — the first crewed Apollo space mission — on which he was the lunar module pilot.
Born: Marshalltown, 1946
What she’s famous for: Film and television actress
According to the book “Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film” by Emanuel Levy, when Mary Beth Hurt was growing up in Marshalltown, her babysitter was Jean Seberg, another Iowa-born actress from Marshalltown who became an icon of French New Wave cinema with the film “Breathless.”
Hurt would go on to play Seberg in the docudrama film “From the Journals of Jean Seberg.” However, Hurt is more easily recognizable for appearing in the movie “The World According to Garp” with Robin Williams as well as multiple episodes of “Law & Order.”
Born: Muscatine, 1948
What he’s famous for: A writer of comics, novels, and screenplays
Collins was born Max Allan Collins Jr. in Muscatine, where he continues to live today, writing with such fervor that he’s published more than 230 works over the course of his career. These writings include frequent contributions to the “Dick Tracy” comic strip and several entries in his “Quarry” crime fiction series of novels, which has been adapted into a Cinemax series of the same name. His 1998 graphic novel “Road to Perdition” was the basis for the 2002 film featuring Tom Hanks and Daniel Craig.
More:Crime novels, comics, plays and movies: Prolific Iowa author Max Allan Collins writes them all
Born: Sioux City, 1948
What he’s known for: Actor in “The Love Boat” and politician in the U.S. House of Representatives
Before serving for eight years in Congres, Grandy was familiar to the nation as Gopher on “The Love Boat” and Walter in the 1976 series “Monster Squad.” After losing an election for Iowa governor in 1994 to Terry Branstad, he co-hosted the radio program “The Grandy and Andy Show,” and has appeared in film and television projects.
Born: Sioux City, 1953
What he’s known for: Animator and director of Disney films
Ron Clements is not the only Disney-film director born in Iowa (the same can be said for his Oscar-winning “Moana” co-director Don Hall, who hails from Glenwood) but he has arguably most impressive resume. Inspired at a young age by the animated film “Pinocchio,” Clements helped animate “The Black Cauldron” before going on to co-directing classics such as “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin.”
Born: Cedar Rapids, 1954
What he’s famous for: Film and television actor
Michael Emerson, born in Cedar Rapids, played a recurring character in the television show “Lost,” where he first appeared as Benjamin Linus, one of the “the Others” on the island in the show. Since then, Emerson also appeared in the CBS show “Arrow” and the Amazon original series “Mozart in the Jungle.” Over the course of his career, he’s been nominated for five Emmys and a Golden Globe.
Born: Davenport, 1970
What she’s known for: Actress in the television series “Twin Peaks”
Though born in Davenport, Lara Flynn Boyle was primarily raised in Chicago before going on to perform in film and television. She played Donna Hayward in David Lynch’s cult classic television show “Twin Peaks.” She’s also appeared in “Men and Black II” and the ABC series “The Practice.” Her most recent film, “Death in Texas,” was released in 2020.
Born: Des Moines, April 26, 1970
What she’s famous for: Member of the hip-hop group TLC
Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins is a founding member of TLC, an R&B group that also included Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas. The group — most popular through the 1990s and early 2000s for songs such as “Creep” and “No Scrubs” — formed in Atlanta, where Watkins’ family moved when she was 9.
Born: Iowa City, 1972
What she’s known for: Science fiction/fantasy author
Among the most awarded science fiction writers of the modern era, N.K. Jemison has penned novels such as “The Broken Earth Trilogy” to her recent “Far Sector” comic. Jemisin’s recent urban fantasy novel “The City We Became” was nominated for Best Novel at both the Hugo Awards and the Nebula Awards.
Born: Des Moines, 1973
What he’s known for: Lead vocalist for Slipknot
Though many members of Slipknot, the heavy metal band, have origins in Iowa, specifically Des Moines, Corey Taylor is the face of the band (as much as a group famous for wearing masks can have a face). Taylor is not only one of Slipknot’s longest continuous members, he’s also published multiple books about his life and time with the band.
More:Slipknot founding member and Des Moines native Joey Jordison dies at 46
Born: Pella, 1976
What he’s known for: The guitarist with the rock band The Killers
Though born in Pella, it wasn’t until Dave Keuning moved to Las Vegas that he placed an ad in the Las Vegas Weekly to form a band. That eventually lead him to Brandon Flowers, with whom he co-founded the rock band The Killers. The band is behind the classic song “Mr. Brightside” and more recent hits such as “Caution.” In 2021, Keuning released his latest solo outing, “A Mild Case of Everything.”
More:Iowa-raised Dave Keuning, guitarist and founding member of The Killers, launches his second solo album
Born: Cedar Rapids, 1978
What he’s known for: Actor from “That ’70s Show” and “Jobs”
Ashton Kutcher was too beautiful for the University of Iowa, or, perhaps more accurately, he was handsome enough as a student to stand out in the crowd. When a then-unknown Ashton Kutcher was enrolled at the UI, studying to become a biochemical engineer in the late ’90s, he was approached by a model scout while in Iowa City’s The Airliner Bar. He dropped out of college, headed west and it wasn’t long before Kutcher hit pay dirt as an actor.
Inside of a decade, he appeared in “That ’70s Show” and picked up projects with comedy legends such as Bernie Mac (“The Bernie Mac Show”) and Steve Martin (“Cheaper by the Dozen”). Since then, the actor led the 2013 Steve Jobs biopic “Jobs” and has more recently appeared in the Netflix show “The Ranch.”
More:‘Not a smart family decision’: Mila Kunis convinced Ashton Kutcher to sell his ticket to space
Born: Grinnell, 1978
What she’s known for: Actress in “The Walking Dead” and “Black Panther”
Born in Grinnell to parents who immigrated from Southern Rhodesia, Danai Gurira has gone on to become a star of television and film. Her most recognizable screen roles are her portrayal of Michonne in “The Walking Dead” franchise and Okoye in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she’s also the playwright behind the 2010 Tony-nominated play “Eclipsed.”
More:‘Black Panther’ matters beyond box office blockbuster numbers, Iowans say
Born: Des Moines, 1979
What he’s known for: Actor portraying Superman across DC properties
Despite being from Iowa and not Smallville, Kansas, Brandon Routh was tagged to play the titular figure of DC’s “Superman Returns,” which was released in 2006. Since then, the former University of Iowa student has appeared in movies such as “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and the television shows like “Chuck.” He recently donned the Superman cape again in CW’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” multi-program television event.
Many Iowans will also know that Routh grew up playing soccer with his fellow DC superhero, Jason Momoa (“Game of Thrones,” “Aquaman”) who — while not born in Iowa — was high school friends with Routh when they were kids in Norwalk.
More:Norwalk Central development may include parks honoring famous residents, local heroes
Born: Iowa City, 1982
What he’s known for: Member of the band Fun
Nate Ruess was born in Iowa City before going on to become the lead singer in the indie rock band, Fun, known for hits such as “We Are Young” and “Some Nights.” The band won a Grammy in 2013 for Best New Artist. Currently, Ruess is fostering a solo career and released his solo album, “Grand Romantic” in 2015.
Born: Des Moines, 1982
What he’s known for: Creator of the website Pinterest
Growing up in Des Moines, Silbermann graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School before going on to attend Yale. In 2009, he co-founded Pinterest with Evan Sharp. The image-centric, social media website is a place to share mood boards, recipes, crafting ideas and the like and is valued at more than $20 billion.
Born: Mount Vernon, 1987
What he’s famous for: Actor on “Yellowstone”
Jefferson White is another actor on this list who has ventured into “The Twilight Zone,” albeit in the 2019 reboot of the classic television program, several decades after Virginia Christine appeared in the original show. White is likely more familiar to audiences as Jimmy Hurdstrom in the show “Yellowstone,” where he appears alongside Kevin Costner. White has been in other programs such as “The Americans” and “House of Cards.”
Born: Cedar Rapids, 1981
What he’s known for: Movie, television and video game actor
Undoubtedly most recognizable for his depiction of Frodo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings,” Elijah Wood is originally from Cedar Rapids, where he grew up and lived until age 7. From there, he began appearing in films including the 2001 release of “The Fellowship of the Ring.”
Iowans really are everywhere, not content to be constrained to the realm of the real. Individuals from the state are also scattered across fiction.
While certain characters, such as Ray Kinsella from “Field of Dreams” or Francesca Johnson from “Bridges of Madison County” are obvious picks as they are part of stories set in the state, the following six characters all hail from the Hawkeye State.
Born: Haggleworth, a fictional Iowa town, Feb. 28, 1938
What he’s known for: Newsman of the 1970s from “Anchorman”
You won’t find the birth city of Ronald Joseph Aaron Burgundy on a map. Haggleworth, according to Burgundy’s autobiography, “Let Me Off At the Top!,” is a small coal-mining town where Burgundy spent his early days. Burgundy would go on to become part of San Diego’s Channel 4 News Team, as depicted the 2004 film “Anchorman” and its 2013 sequel.
Born: Fallville
First appearance: January 1940
What he’s known for: Member of the Justice League
The character of Barry Allen is perhaps better known as The Flash, “The Fastest Man Alive.” The character has more than 80 years of history since appearing in “Flash Comics No. 1,” and part of that history includes claiming the fictional Fallville, Iowa, as his place of birth before making the move to the more metropolitan Central City.
The character has appeared in a variety of incarnations across comic books, television and film. Perhaps his most prominent depictions include Grant Gustin’s take on the character in the CW’s “The Flash” and Ezra Miller’s cinematic appearance in “Justice League.”
Born: June 18 in Waverly
What he’s known for: Member of the Avengers
First appearance: 1964
Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye, made his first appearance in the pages of Marvel Comics in 1964 as a rival to Iron Man. The archer would go on to team up with his former enemy in Avengers #16 a year later.
In the world of film, Clint Barton is portrayed by Jeremy Renner, who first appeared on screen in the role during the 2011 film “Thor” before joining the Avengers a year later as a founding member of the superhero group. In 2021, coinciding with the Hawkeye State’s 175th anniversary, the avenging archer received a Disney Plus show titled after him.
Born: Ottumwa
What he’s known for: Corporal in the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.)
First appearance: 1970
Depicted in both the 1970 film “M.A.S.H.” and its subsequent television series of the same name by Gary Burghoff, Walter “Radar” O’Reilly is known as a corporal in the U.S armed forces’ Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Prior to these iterations, the character appeared in the novel by Richard Hooker and W. C. Heinz.
Radar’s origins stretch even further back than the book through Don Shaffer, the real-life person who served with Hooker and on whom Radar is based. Shaffer served in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars and, like Radar, Shaffer was born in Ottumwa, though, unlike Radar, Shaffer has no ESP to speak of.
Born: June 14, Keystone
What she’s known for: A recurring cast member with Jim Henson’s “The Muppets”
First appearance: 1974
On Oct. 13, 1974, Miss Piggy made her on-screen debut on “Herb Alpert and the TJB” and from there became a star known the world over. When “The Muppet Show” came calling just a few years later, Piggy answered the call and the Keystone-born celebrity has appeared in numerous theatrically released films and television specials over the course of her long career.
Born: Riverside, March 22
Lifetime: 2233-2371
What he’s known for: Seminal protagonist of the long-running “Star Trek” franchise
Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, James T. Kirk led the space fairing vessel on a five-year mission exploring various worlds yet unknown to the United Federation of Planets, founded in 2161. Though suspected dead in 2293, his death actually took place in 2371 on the planet Veridian III, where he was buried by his successor, Captain Jean-Luc Piccard. 
James T. Kirk was portrayed by actor William Shatner across multiple “Star Trek” television seasons and motion pictures as well as, more recently, actor Chris Pine playing an alternate universe version of the character.
More:50 years of ‘Star Trek’ and 35 Years of TrekFest
Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Des Moines Register. Reach him at [email protected] or 319-600-2124, or follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet.



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