The Paul Newmans of the World

By ALBERT MCKEON Telegraph Staff Writer

What’s in a name? Larry Bird gets late-night telephone calls from obsessed Celtics fans. Jennifer Lopez has crowds waiting at her car. Paul Newman is applauded for his pasta sauce.

Such is life for people who share names with celebrities.

Bird is a construction worker who’s played hoops only in his driveway. Lopez is a bus driver who can’t sing. Newman is an urban program director with little acting flair.

Yet a day rarely passes without incident: an innocent remark, a look of disbelief, a comparison to the more recognized figure.

All they can do is accept this matter of fate, this quirk of coincidence – irritating as it sometimes may be – and savor a spotlight that lacks the wattage of the one shone on their celebrity soul mates but is a spotlight nonetheless.

“Everybody likes their five minutes in the limelight,” said Steve Martin, a Nashua resident who, unlike his namesake, is not “a wild and crazy guy.”

“It’s a name people don’t easily forget. . . . People make note of the fact you have a famous name.”

This is, after all, America, where even third-rate, reality-TV contestants have star power. More Americans can probably smartly comment on Tom Cruise’s September-May relationship with actress Katie Holmes than they can speak to the historical importance of President John Adams’ fascinating connection with his spouse, Abigail.

Perhaps the most remarkable product of our celebrity-obsessed culture is how some people intentionally imitate the fashions and expressions of pop stars: from Beatles haircuts and the hippie catchphrase “groovy” to Paris Hilton’s small dog dotage and the contemporary fascination with the term “bling bling.”

But there are a select few who have a more natural, more respectable tie to stardom: their names. Their lives define who they are – ordinary people with ordinary jobs – but for better or worse, the wording of their names instantly triggers thoughts of someone more celebrated.

“Some people say, ‘I feel sorry for you,’ with him being the kind of person he was,” Bill Clinton said. “I was born before he was. And it doesn’t bother me. I’m proud of me, so he has to live up to my standards.”

This Bill Clinton lives in Center Ossipee and has never slept in the White House. This Bill Clinton sells dollhouses.

Let it be said that he wouldn’t reject some presidential treatment. After all, he occasionally benefits when a hotel or restaurant prepares something special, anticipating a visit by the 41st commander in chief. But this Clinton has no presidential aspiration; he is quite satisfied with the life he’s led.

Other celebrity name-a-likes who live in this state expressed similar contentment. They would not object to the perks of fame – especially the riches – but feel complete anyway. They just happen to have the same name as a celebrity, or the celeb just happens to have his or her name.

“I think I’ve made a good name for myself in my profession,” said Nashua’s Larry Bird, who is a superintendent for Maple Leaf Construction.

Bird learned of the other Bird before Larry Legend slipped on a Boston Celtics uniform. A colleague of his wife’s visited Indiana in the late 1970s and brought home some newspaper clippings recording the collegiate hardwood feats of the “Hick from French Lick.” Little did the other Bird realize he would soon hear and his see his name attached to sports greatness for the better part of 13 years.

“Lo and behold, he became seriously famous,” Bird said. “It’s kind of a neat thing. But the phone calls were a little irritating after a while.”

Jaffrey’s John Lennon also got prank calls. But no more. “The younger generation doesn’t know him too much,” Lennon said of the Beatles icon. (By the way, this Lennon never liked the other’s music.)

Indeed, the brightest of stars eventually lose their light. To many youngsters, Louis Armstrong is not one of the 20th century’s most storied musicians, but maybe the man who walked on the moon. Tellingly, Louis Armstrong of Rye gets feedback nowadays from only senior citizens.

For the most part, no one mistakes our local stars for their more renowned counterparts. Similarities end at the name; most of those interviewed do not physically resemble their popular complements.

No one confuses 79-year-old Eddie Murphy with the 44-year-old funny man. “Nobody asked me to be a comedian at this age,” added the Murphy who lives in Manchester.

And Paul Pierce of Warren hardly resembles the Celtics’ talented but emotional captain. (He does own a Pierce jersey.)

But Nashua resident Barry Sanders has had some fun with his name and appearance. This Barry Sanders works out regularly, looks younger than his 48 years and played running back for Nashua High School in 1976. It’s easy for a casual football fan to meet Sanders and think he’s the gridiron legend of the 1990s.

He’s happily played along at restaurants, barbecues, airports and nightclubs. He’s even benefited when someone knows he’s not the Hall of Famer.

“Another time, I was speeding, which I shouldn’t have been,” Sanders said. “The cop looked at my license. He said, (‘The other Sanders is) one of my favorite running backs, so I’ll give you a warning.’ ”

Paul Newman, on the other hand, would need to present identification to convince doubters; he looks nothing like the famed actor, racecar driver and philanthropist. Newman, who heads Nashua’s urban program, felt the sting of rejection when he had his hair cut in upstate New York, the same weekend that an auto race was held in the area.

“As I sat in the chair, a steady stream of people were coming by to see,” he said. “They all left with a kind of disappointment.”

The name makes Newman proud, and not for the obvious reason. His father was also named Paul Newman. But it also doesn’t hurt that the other Paul Newman has done much for the name. “I appreciate that the person I share a name with is someone honorable and very charitable.”

Ray Bourque of Nashua appreciates that he’s linked to a talented and classy hockey player. Jimmy Stewart of Peterborough likewise feels fortunate he’s identified with an actor who had character on and off the screen.

“If my name was Michael Jackson, I probably wouldn’t be pleased,” Stewart said.

Sandra Bullock is quick to point that she’s had a stake in her name long before the arrival of another. She acquired her surname through marriage, more than 20 years ago. She has watched with interest as the other Sandra Bullock pursued an uneven but lucrative acting career.

“I did get a letter from a high school kid thinking I was her,” said Bullock, a Belmont resident. “It was typed. It was creepy. He was doing a report for school seeing if celebrities would write back to him . . . and I didn’t. It just gave me the creeps.”

Bullock has seen only two of the other Bullock’s movies. “She was OK. I’m more of a Julia Roberts girl.”

Jennifer Lopez, a bus driver for Greater Lowell Technical High School, has a bit more appreciation for her namesake: Jennifer Lopez, actress, singer, dancer, and the other half of the former celebrity creation known as Bennifer.

“I’d like to have her body,” she said. “I’d like to have Ben (Affleck, J.Lo’s former fiance). I don’t like this new guy,” that being the performer’s third husband, singer Marc Anthony.

Jenny from Nashua even has the same full name as Jenny from the Bronx: Jennifer Lynn Lopez. And the two were born only months apart.

The staff at a fancy Boston restaurant once did not accept that Jennifer Lopez, the bus driver, was Jennifer Lopez. And as a limousine waited for her and her family at Disney World, a large crowd had gathered, excited by seeing the driver holding a large “Jennifer Lopez” placard.

“Swarms of people were waiting to see,” she said. “I was embarrassed that I wasn’t what they were expecting.”

Indeed, these ordinary folk have let down some, as in the time Clinton walked out of his room and into the lobby of a New York hotel and saw a banner proclaiming, “Bill Clinton is sleeping here tonight.”

But what does that say about the disappointed? Why do people feel slightly shortchanged when meeting a celebrity name-a-like and inevitably compare one to the other? Hasn’t Bill Clinton, owner of Little World Miniatures, lived as complete a life as Bill Clinton, an impeached American leader?

Well, leave it to Larry Bird to give some game-winning perspective.

“I wouldn’t want to trade places,” Bird said. “A lot of people, including myself, think of the monetary end of it. I would like to have his bank account. But I wouldn’t like to be him.

“I made my own name for myself, even though I haven’t got as truly popular as him. I’ve worked hard, too. I’m happy with who I am. As far as Larry Bird is concerned, I’m sure he’s happy with who he is.”

© 2010, Telegraph Publishing Company, Nashua, New Hampshire