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But I Play One on TV
"The line between fantasy and reality has been put in a wrist lock and ripped out of its socket. There is now a reality show about Steven Seagal being an actual policeman. Without a doubt, this idea is as incredible as it is insane. All that time we watched him play a cop, he was training to be a real cop. I can only hope all that time I spent watching Wonder Woman was training Lynda Carter to give me handjobs."
Seanbaby, "The 7 Super Powers That Steven Seagal Actually Believes He Has"

Sometimes, an actor will get cast in one type of part so often that, eventually, all he ever gets cast as is that same sort of role. In the case of But I Play One On TV, the actor is so identified with the role he plays that, when people see him walking around town, or actually bump into him and manage to talk to him, the fans refer to him by the name of the character he plays. It isn't uncommon, for example, for an actor who plays a doctor to be asked to dispense medical advice by a fan he meets on the street.

This problem is often exacerbated by tabloid news sources, especially gossip magazines and "news programs" that concentrate on celebrity and entertainment, who in their stories are constantly referring to actors by their characters' names rather than the proper name of the actor. This is generally an editorial decision, as it can make it easier for the audience to identify the actors involved, but at the same time contributes to blurring the line between fiction and reality in viewers' minds.

Most Soap Opera actors say that this happens to them so often that they've become used to just going along with it. This trope is the measure Hispanic Soap Opera actors use to know how well they are doing in the role and how well the soap is going.

It gets interesting when the actor is playing As Himself or Adam Westing. In those cases the line between fiction and reality becomes a bit blurry, and people can be forgiven for thinking they're the same in real life as on the screen if it's not specifically stated that they're playing a caricature of themselves.

Distinguish:
  • I Am Not Spock, which refers to an actor who's unable to get any part other than the character for which he or she is known.
  • I Am Not Shazam, which refers to the confusion of a character with the title of a work or with the character's Catch Phrase.

Truth in Television examples frequently cross over with both Mean Character, Nice Actor and Nice Character, Mean Actor.

A Sub-Trope of Cannot Tell Fiction from Reality. See Actor Role Confusion for the In-Universe version.

Not to be confused with I'm Not a Doctor, but I Play One on TV.


Real Life Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Advertising roles 
  • In the 1970's, James Garner and Mariette Hartley did a number of commercials for Polaroid cameras. The way they played against each other, one would get the impression they were in fact a domestic couple, though this was never stated in the commercials. Mariette Hartley took to wearing these lettered sweatshirts that read "I am not James Garner's wife". Her baby has a shirt that read "I am not James Garner's child".

    Film roles 
  • A possibly apocryphal anecdote about Christopher Reeve: When the actor (before his accident) confronted someone trying to steal his bicycle, the thief panicked and said, "No, Superman! Don't hit me!"
  • In September 2008, when Michael Douglas spoke at the United Nations about the U.S. financial crisis, a reporter asked him, "Are you saying, Gordon, that greed is not good?" The actor replied, "I'm not saying that. And my name is not Gordon. He's a character I played 20 years ago." It was even worse than that; he was actually there to talk about nuclear proliferation. The reporters derailed it into a discussion of the financial crisis, just because they were talking to the guy who played Gordon Gekko.
  • With the release of the Twilight film adaptation, it seems a number of young fangirls have confused actor Robert Pattinson with his character Edward Cullen. According to the New York Times one girl, seeing him at the Apple store in SoHo, asked him to bite her.
  • James Caviezel, who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, reportedly had this happen to him while on a vacation in Mexico.
  • Morgan Freeman reported in an interview that in the press conference for Deep Impact (where he plays the President of the US), many reporters called him "Mr. President".
  • Jerome "Curly" Howard has been assaulted in public simply because it was so funny when they did it on The Three Stooges.
  • Harry Potter:
    • Fiona Shaw and Richard Griffiths (who played Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, respectively) have noted that small children are sometimes scared when they see them. Shaw mentioned that one little boy was even reduced to tears.
    • Tom Felton (a.k.a. Draco Malfoy) has noted that when younger children meet him, they tend to be afraid: "We get a lot of kids down in the studios all the time and are very excited to meet Daniel, Rupert and Emma, and they get the handshakes and the hugs! I try to be as friendly as I can, but no matter how much I try they seem to hide behind their parents legs or cower behind some object. I donít get a good rap from the children! I take it as a compliment, if they think Iím evil then I must be doing something right!" However, there was also a bizarre incident with a not-quite-so-young fan. An American man legally changed his name to "Lucius Malfoy" and sent Felton paperwork which would allow him to disown his parents and be adopted by "Lucius", who had additionally named his house "Malfoy Manor".
    • Maggie Smith has apparently frequently explained to young children that she can't really turn into a cat.
    • Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley) "went out with the twins and Rupert, and we went out for a curry and a pint, that was hilarious. There were a load of teenagers with their phones, really polite, going, 'Can we take a picture of you?' to the guys. And one girl turned to me and said, 'And your dad.'"
  • Liv Tyler reports this happening to her after the release of The Fellowship Of The Ring. "My husband and I were sleeping, and I woke to the sound of our friend's two little boys going around the bedrooms opening the doors and looking in. When they got to our door, one little boy went to open it and the other said, 'No! Don't open that door. The princess is sleeping in there."
  • According to Jimmy Stewart, people asked if Harvey was around for many years after that movie. He usually said that Harvey was at home with a cold.
  • Tim Curry spent a long time after The Rocky Horror Picture Show trying to distance himself from Dr, Frank-N-Furter. His "more rabid fans" is the reason Tim put on weight, grew a beard and refused to have anything to do with Rocky Horror until recently.
  • Sir Ian McKellen has stated that, outside of his native British Isles, most fans recognize him as characters such as Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings. When he came to New York to lend support post-911, a policeman actually smiled at him and said, "Thanks for helping out, Magneto." Rather than be upset by it, he finds it an honor to be associated with such iconic characters. In fact, apparently when a reporter said "I don't know how to call you, Sir, Sir Ian, Sir McKellen" his reply was "Call me Gandalf". (helps that he discourages being called "Sir Ian")
  • Ellen Page has a strong Hatedom among some people who actually think that she is exactly like her character in Hard Candy in real life. Sadly, these same people haven't seemed watch any of her other movies or seen her in real life.
  • John Hinckley, Jr., Loony Fan and probably the greatest example of a Misaimed Fandom in history, thought assassinating Ronald Reagan would impress 18-year-old Jodie Foster, through some sort of confused combination of the plot elements of Taxi Driver. He didn't just confuse Foster for her character in the film; the attempted assassination of a politician by the main character was also completely unrelated to her character even within the film's story. Mentioning this to Ms. Foster, by the way, is a supremely bad idea.
  • When his daughter was in elementary school, Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissan in Star Wars would have children run up to him and angrily say "You betrayed Han Solo!", and he'd attempt to explain why Lando did what he did.
  • According to Laurence Fishburne, it took a few years for women to stop giving him the evil eye after playing Ike Turner in What's Love Got to Do with It.
  • Canadian actor Julian Richings starred in the Casper Van Dien sci-fi/action vehicle The Time Shifters, in which he played a tourist from the future who went back in time to visit various mass disasters as an exotic form of disaster tourism. When Van Dien's character spots him onboard a plane, he immediately realizes that the plane is about to crash. As a result, anytime someone recognized Richings when he had to fly somewhere they would mildly panic, and he had to reassure them that nothing was going to happen to the flight. Nowadays, since his exposure on Supernatural, people who recognize him instead go "hey look, it's Death!"

    Live-Action TV roles 
  • Robert Young, who played Marcus Welby, M.D., often said that people would ask him for medical advice.
  • People today associate actor turned U.S. Senator Fred W. Thompson with being tough on crime more because of his role as District Attorney Arthur Branch in Law & Order than because of his career as an attorney and service as minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee.
  • There are actually people who think Stephen Colbert really is that much of a conservative whackadoo, including the organizers (and attendees) of the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, who were, needless to say, relatively shocked when they found out otherwise. (Though apparently not George W. Bush, given the opening act.)
  • Dennis Haysbert (who played President David Palmer on 24) tells a story about a couple of fans who freaked out when they saw him hanging out with actor Gregory Itzin (who plays President Charles Logan, the man who ordered his assassination, on the same show). The fact that the two actors are good friends apparently never occurred to anyone.
  • The late David Jackson was once mistaken by a kid for Olag Gan, his Blake's 7 character, while the actor was shopping in Harrods.
    "Mum, he's got a chip in his head!"
  • Infotainment shows constantly referred to the star of Grey's Anatomy as "Doctor McDreamy". Hey, you... yes, you the guy at Entertainment Tonight! He's got a name. It's Patrick Dempsey! He's only been a fairly well-known actor now for the last 20 years or so.
  • David James Elliott was constantly referred to as JAG during the run of that show. The really stupid part being that wasn't his character's name... it was his character's job. Entertainment Tonight later did a story about Elliott joining the cast of Close to Home. They still called him "JAG".
  • In a guest appearance on The Tonight Show, Jason Hervey, who played Kevin's bullying older brother on The Wonder Years, said that a man once drove up beside him and demanded to know why "he" was always so mean to his brother and why didn't he pick on someone his own size?
    • Another Wonder Years cast member, Alley Mills (Kevin's mother Norma), also a Tonight Show guest, said that a fan once asked her whether she was related to Jay Leno. When Mills asked what she meant, the fan explained, "Well, you're Kevin's mother, and Kevin looks like a young Leno, so..."
  • The Adventures of Superman star George Reeves had it much rougher than Christopher Reeve, as his younger fans would often try to test his invulnerability. The worst case was when a boy brought his father's gun to a set to see if Superman was really bulletproof. Reeves convinced him to hand over the gun saying that the bullet would bounce off and hurt somebody else. (The incident was depicted in the biopic Hollywoodland, where he's played by Ben Affleck.) When he appeared on I Love Lucy, Reeves was only referred to as "Superman" so as not to break the illusion of younger viewers. Basically, to enforce this trope.
  • In one of his books, Tim Allen mentions that while on a flight one of the pilots came back and asked for actual advice on fixing up his home. Which just goes to show it's not just actors who play competent experts that have to deal with this.
  • William Shatner:
    • He was on a tourist cruise when another tourist fell into the water and began drowning. Like any normal human being, he stood aside while professional help was obtained. So many people were staring at him, expecting him to act the hero that he eventually caved in to peer pressure and dived in after the struggling tourist. As any lifeguard will tell you, this is the worst thing you can do. Both Shatner and the original victim had to be rescued.
    • Several pages on Priceline.com are written in first person in the voice of Shatner's "Priceline Negotiator" persona. The "terms and conditions" link at the bottom of the page is introduced with the text: "I'm not a lawyer (I played one on TV), but here is the legal information you need to know."
    • He was traveling in Nepal, riding a little mountain pony up a steep slope. His group came upon a little hut/tea house and the old dude running the teashop looked at Shatner and said "Captain Kirk?". Turned out he had an ancient black & white TV, run off a truck battery and Star Trek was one of his favorite programs.
  • There were stories back when The West Wing was on that people around Hollywood started treating Martin Sheen like he was the President. The story goes that Sheen enjoyed this and began forming receiving lines, similar to what the real life President would do.
  • People have often said "Hello, Newman" to Wayne Knight from Seinfeld in public. He hates it now.
  • Zachary Quinto from Heroes mentioned in an interview that he has walked into Starbucks before only to have the employees refer to him as Sylar.
  • Children used to come up to Doctor Who's Tom Baker and ask him if he enjoyed travelling in time and could they come with him. (Apparently he used to play along with it rather than traumatize a young mind.) He also has said in interviews that once in a while men would try to pick fights with him, to show they were tougher than The Doctor, and he would have to talk them out of it.
  • Rhys Darby from Flight of the Conchords has been asked on multiple occasions to manage peoples bands, where he's given a response along the lines of "First, my name is Rhys, second, I only play a manager on TV, and thirdly, not a very good one."
  • When Christopher Moltisanti was "whacked" from The Sopranos, actor Michael Imperioli said that he had been receiving flowers as condolence - for his own death!
  • A shoplifter once surrendered to uniformed actors on the set of Homicide: Life on the Street, believing them to be real law enforcement personnel.
  • James Michael Tyler (Gunther on Friends) was yelled at by a woman on the subway for being partially responsible for breaking up Ross and Rachel.
  • Smallville's Tom Welling intervened and fought off men attempting to mug a woman. When she saw who had saved her, she reportedly said, "Wow, you really are Superman." She was kidding, but she apparently wasn't that far off.
  • Ed Westwick gets a lot of disappointment from fans when they realise he's not as dark and brooding as his Gossip Girl character. While he seems a bit tired of being mistaken for having the same faults as his character he has admitted that the line: "I'm Chuck Bass" usually works really well for him to pick up women.
  • Malcolm Jamal-Warner, who played Theo on The Cosby Show, wrote in his autobiography that half his fan mail was addressed to his character's name, and kids would frequently ask to be adopted into his family so they could appear on the show.
  • At the height of the show's popularity, so many people approached Edward Woodward who played The Equalizer for help that he started carrying leaflets for various organisations that could assist them. He would also top off about to expire parking meters and leave a "courtesy of The Equalizer" calling card on the car's windshield.
  • When Ron Palillo of Welcome Back, Kotter died in 2012, at least two media outlets (The Stephanie Miller Show and local Cleveland radio show Rover's Morning Glory) referred to him only as Horshak (his character's name).
  • David McCallum has studied so much forensic science during the 11 years playing Medical Examiner Ducky Mallard on NCIS that he has been invited to speak at conventions to actual medical examiners and coroners. Donald P. Bellisario (the creator and producer of NCIS) has joked that he owes McCallum about five years' worth of back pay for being the show's unofficial scientific adviser.
  • John Barrowman has recounted being accosted on the street by fans who insist that he is Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood. One time on the Paul O'Grady show, he told of an occasion in which he'd played along, telling a little boy he'd been sent by the Doctor to find a Cyberman...
  • When Michael Richards got in trouble for his racial outburst about lynchings at a comedy club in 2006, people would refer to him only as Kramer and gave nicknames like "KKKramer". It got to the point that Kenny Kramer, the Kramer character's namesake, issued a statement saying he wasn't racist.
  • On a special detailing Australian police shows John Wood tells a story of an incident that occurred during Blue Heelers: he was walking down the street one day and a crook climbs over a fence in front of him. The crook sees him and goes, "Oh shit, you're Tom Croydon," and bolts.
  • When Dragnet was on the air, so many people came to the LAPD asking to meet Joe Friday that the desk people took to telling them it was Joe's day off. Jack Webb did get an LAPD funeral, though, and Friday's badge 714 was retired.
  • Several fans have approached William Petersen on the golf course and tried to speak to him in sign language, not realizing that he only learned a little for one CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode.
  • Although Gary Sinise is best known for Forrest Gump, he does relate a story about getting in a minor accident and how the other driver kept giving shocked reactions that indicated he was sort of blending Gary with his Mac Taylor character on CSI NY.
  • Ted Knight used to get irritated because people kept confusing him with his ditzy Ted Baxter character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
  • Mia Kirshner told a story about how once when she was with some friends in a club in Vancouver, another girl came up to her and said "I hope you die." Presumably she was talking about Jenny Schecter from The L Word. Mia Kirshner however would have none of that took the woman aside and explained, she (like the woman) was here to have fun, and she worked to make money. Jenny was a fictional character, and it was fine it she wanted her to die. It was not okay to want Mia herself to die, because that was hurtful. The woman was taken aback.
  • Some people confuse Jack Gleeson for the detestable King Joffrey, Worst of His Name from Game of Thrones, sometimes even to the point of harassment. Gleeson's real-life personality couldn't more strongly contrast to Joffrey.
  • Another GoT example: Lena Headey, who portrays Cersei Lannister, recalls in some interviews that some people call her a bitch to her face because they found her character so unlikeable. Her notable earlier roles, such as Sarah Connor in The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Queen Gorgo in 300, seem to have been forgotten.
  • Michael Weatherly, who plays Anthony Dinozzo on the crime drama Series/NCIS, has noted that he has been slapped on the back of the head in public because in-show, his boss Gibbs often gives him "Gibbs slaps". (Although in-show, it's not done out of spite, as Gibbs has a funny way of showing appreciation.)
  • Alan Alda at one time visited Chile, and during his time there developed a severe intestinal problem which required surgery. The Chilean surgeon tried to explain the procedure... before Alda cut him off and described the entire procedure in correct, technical terms. He then explained to the surgeon that he played a surgeon on a TV show called MASH, and that his character had performed the exact same procedure in an episode recorded a while earlier. The surgeon cracked up.
  • In an entertaining inversion of this trope, during a red-carpet interview at the Golden Globe Awards, actress Mayim Bialik of Big Bang Theory was asked if people expected her to be able to do calculus in her head and act like a scientist when they met her in real life. Bialik gave the interviewer a short, scathing look, then pointed out that, as she had earned a PHD in Neuroscience, she is a scientist in real life, and yes, she can also do calculus in her head. The interviewer looked suitably sheepish after that.

    Voice acting roles 

    Web Videos 
  • People who do Video Review Shows in-character, such as The Nostalgia Critic, have noted how often people think they are just like the characters they play. This is more understandable than most examples on this page because quite a lot of these people knowingly or unknowingly create a lot of overlap between their online selves and the characters they purport to play, sometimes even using the same online names they use in their review shows when they add comments as their "real selves". The Spoony Experiment is a good example, and Spoony / Noah Antwiler has even cited the problem of not sufficiently separating himself from "The Spoony One", which caused people to think they're the same. These reviewers also inject a lot of their personal opinions into their reviews, even when they're technically playing a character. It's hardly surprising that people start to wonder where to draw the line.

    Actors invoking or playing with this 
  • Harlan Ellison wrote in the intro for his book Strange Wine that he talked with Dan Blocker (Hoss from Bonanza) about this phenomenon. Apparently, Blocker once had a woman come up to him in a supermarket and ask him about how Hoss was. When Blocker replied that he wasn't Hoss and Hoss was fictional, the woman said, "I know that, all I want to know is if he's alright!"
  • At the Star Trek 30th anniversary celebration, Joan Collins mentioned that whenever she was asked "Aren't you Alexis, that bitch from Dynasty?", she replied, "No, I'm Edith Keeler, Depression-era social worker from Star Trek" ("The City On The Edge of Forever")
  • Dr Pepper has had some fun playing with this lately in a series of commercials where celebrities Neil Patrick Harris, Gene Simmons, and Julius Erving tell us that we can trust them, because they're doctors. That'd be Dr. Doogie Howser (played on TV), Dr. Love (popular song), and Dr. J (nickname), respectively. Neil Patrick Harris also did this commercial for Old Spice, claiming he "used to be a doctor for pretend." note 
    • Sadly, no one who played The Doctor was there...
  • John de Lancie, the actor playing Q in Star Trek, said at one time that he was, more jokingly or more seriously, randomly asked by people on the street how is it to be an all powerful entity. Reportedly, he'd answer them "It's just a role". OTOH he told an anecdote about being confronted by a big tattooed biker type who he was sure was going to mug him, at the very least:
    Biker: "You're Q right?"
    John: (deciding his chances of survival are greater if he pretends to be omnipotent): "Um ... Yeah"
    Biker: "So can you bring dead people back to life?"
    John: "Only if I like them"
    Biker: (grunts and walks off and John thinks 'Trekkies come in all forms.')
  • Amy Adams told the story on a talk show about how a young girl recognized her as Giselle from Enchanted, and wondered why she was walking around as a regular person. Adams replied that she didn't want to draw attention to herself, and asked the girl not to tell anyone.
  • A similar story was told by Selena Gomez. A young fan came up to her and asked, "Alex? Is the magic real?" She asked him, "Do you believe it's real?" He replied, almost crying, "Yes, I do believe it's real." She smiled and said, "That's all that matters."
  • Franz Xaver Kroetz who played gossip reporter "Baby Schimmerlos" in the German series Kir Royal was asked by some newspapers to write columns for them and did so - despite the fact that he had no experience with this kind of writing and the result was... meager. Though Kroetz was an already a renowned playwright, they just overestimated his ability to write for them.
  • In one of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD extras, James Marsters says, "I'm not a vampire, but I play one on TV."

    Inversions 
  • In a weird reversed example, Star Trek's Grace Lee Whitney states in her autobiography that she sometime has difficulty differentiating reality and fantasy. For example, she recalls being disillusioned when she filmed an episode of The Western Bat Masterson and saw Gene Barry wincing in pain after stubbing his toe, despite the fact that any injury he sustained while in-character was Only a Flesh Wound. She also apparently tended to get so into roles that she started to forget it was fake. A therapist even told her that part of the reason she was so upset about being written out of Star Trek was because she had difficulty separating herself from Yeoman Rand.

In-Story Examples

    Advertising 
  • In a commercial for a credit card company, where they advertise that if you have 25,000 points you can get airline tickets, Alec Baldwin end up sitting in the co-pilot seat of an airliner, telling the pilot, "Don't worry, I've played a pilot before."

    Comicbooks 
  • Subverted in American Flagg, where Reuben Flagg, famous for playing a Plexus Ranger on TV, actually becomes a real one (though not by choice).

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Idiocracy features a TV show called Ow, My Balls! with a character constantly getting situations where he gets hit in the balls by something. When Joe meets the show's actor later, he finds that people commonly run up to the actor and kick him in the balls because they saw it on TV.
  • Basically all of Galaxy Quest.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Parodied in an episode of Stargate SG-1. A nervous villager points out that Teal'c is a Jaffa. O'Neill then replies in his typical fashion that...
    O'Neill: No. But he plays one on TV.
  • On the Season One finale of Party Down, Roman harasses George Takei concerning his take on the Vulcan Mind-Meld - which, of course, was not Sulu's area of expertise.
  • In Friends, this is shown to be one of the repercussions of Joey playing a physician in Days of Our Lives: he gets temporarily hitched with a Loony Fan who believes he really is Dr. Drake Ramoray. As loony as she was, she was also stunning, so Joey didn't find it in himself to break it to her until things came to bite him in the ass.

    Videogames 
  • An in-story example occurs in Zork: Grand Inquisitor with the actor Antharia Jack, who plays an adventurer on TV and plays a lot of adventure computer games. He does manage to act a bit like an adventurer during the rescue scene in the Grand Inquisitor's prison complex.
  • Early in Mortal Kombat 9's story mode, this is Johnny Cage's reaction when Liu Kang and Raiden try to recruit him for the fight against Shao Kahn. While Johnny does have actual superpowers, he thinks Liu and Raiden are just roleplayers who are too in-character and that the tournament is just that, a tournament. he tells them, "I'm an ACTOR. I save people in the movies. If this 'Shao Kahn' is such a threat, get the military."

    Web Original 
  • Parodied in the Yu-Gi-Oh! The Abridged Series'' video "Marik's Evil Council 3"
    Marik: Also joining us is celebrity voice actor Dan Green!
    Dan Green: Hi. I'm Dan Green.
    Bakura: What the bloody hell is he doing here? He's not a villain!
    Dan Green: No, but I played a villain in one of the Pokemon movies.

    Western Animation 
  • An in-universe example: in Batman: The Animated Series, a certain Simon Trent played a Batman-like superhero named Gray Ghost in an immensely popular TV show which little Bruce was a big fan of. In the episode "Beware of the Gray Ghost", set decades later, Trent is facing poverty partly because he cannot get any roles because everyone still thinks of him as the Gray Ghost. Then Batman comes along on a case and ropes him in to assist him. Much to his own surprise, Trent make a passable superhero (and more importantly, learns that the Big Badass Batman is primarily inspired by his portrayal of one).
  • Series one of Monkey Dust had a sketch where the comedian David Baddiel would frequently be called on to perform difficult specialist tasks (such as brain surgery or piloting a space shuttle) because as a famous comedian he should be able to adapt to any role, even off-stage.


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