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Famous people from Rochester NY: Actors, athletes and more – Democrat & Chronicle

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You know about George Eastman, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony — people who moved to Rochester and did great things.
But scores of people who were born here or in the surrounding area achieved excellence or made a mark on the world in some way, from Maud Humphrey, an acclaimed illustrator and the mother of film star Humphrey Bogart, to David Walentas, who rose from poverty to create Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood and become a billionaire in the process.
Here, in alphabetical order, are 24 notable people (and one dog) who were made in Rochester.
Born in Rochester in 1977, Aesha Ash started dancing at the age of 5, studying at the Joyce Winters School of Dance. She was accepted to the American School of Ballet in New York City at 14 and joined the New York City Ballet at 18. After seven years there, she moved to Switzerland and danced there before returning to the United States and retiring from performance in 2008. Three years later, she founded the Swan Dreams Project to encourage Black children to take up ballet. In 2020, she was chosen as the first Black female full-time instructor at the School of American Ballet in New York City.
The author of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, Francis Bellamy was born in 1855 Mount Morris and graduated from the University of Rochester and the Rochester Theological Seminary. He served as a Baptist minister and was a magazine writer when he composed the pledge in 1892. He later worked as an editor and in advertising. He died in 1931.
An internationally syndicated cartoonist and longtime staff cartoonist and cover artist for The New Yorker, Harry Bliss was born in Rochester in 1964, grew up in Henrietta in a family of artists and in 1982 graduated from James E. Sperry High School (now Rush-Henrietta High School). He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and University of the Arts, both in Philadelphia, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree, and Syracuse University, where he got a master of fine arts in illustration. After being introduced to Steve Martin by his New Yorker editor, he teamed with the actor and comedian on 2020’s “A Wealth of Pigeons,” a collection of cartoons written by Martin and drawn by Bliss. They followed it up in 2022 with “Number One is Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Diversions.” Both books were New York Times bestsellers. Bliss, who splits his time between homes in Burlington, Vermont, and Cornish, New Hampshire, is working on his own cartoon memoir, “You Can Never Die,” to be released in 2024.
Renowned jazz singer and big-band leader Cab Calloway was born in Rochester on Christmas Day in 1907 and lived in the city’s Swillburg neighborhood. He moved to Baltimore with his family when he was 10 and grew up to be an internationally famous performer, also appearing in movies, on stage and on television and along the way helping to popularize the zoot suit and the jitterbug. In 1980, he was featured in the movie “The Blues Brothers,” performing “Minnie the Moocher,” his best-known song, which he first recorded in 1931. Calloway died in 1994 at the age of 86 in a Hockessin, Delaware, nursing home after suffering a stroke.
Character actor Robert Forster, who got a career resurgence and an Oscar nomination for playing bail bondsman Max Cherry in the 1997 Quentin Tarantino movie “Jackie Brown,” stumbled into acting. A 1959 graduate of Madison High School in southwest Rochester, Forster enrolled at the University of Rochester with plans to become lawyer but one day followed a female student he was trying to talk to into an auditorium where “Bye Bye Birdie” auditions were being held. He would be cast in the show, marry the student, have three daughters with her and choose acting as a profession. A role in the 1965 Broadway production “Mrs. Dally Has a Lover” led to Forster being signed to a movie studio contract and roles on TV before entering what he described as a “27-year slump.” After “Jackie Brown,” he worked consistently and at a high level. In 2019 at the of age 78, he died of brain cancer in Los Angeles.
Irondequoit native and renowned drummer Steve Gadd perhaps is best known for his work with Paul Simon, especially for the iconic groove on “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” A 1964 graduate of East Ridge High School, Gadd was one of the Eastman School of Music’s first percussion majors and spent three years as a drummer in the U.S. Army Music Program. Throughout his career he has backed a slew of music-industry legends, including Frank Sinatra, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Paul McCartney and James Taylor. Other classic hits featuring his beats include “Chuck E’s in Love,” by Rickie Lee Jones (1979), “Aja,” by Steely Dan (1977) and disco-era sensation “The Hustle,” by Van McCoy (1975). Gadd lives in Phoenix, Arizona.
Born in 1876, Frank Gannett, who started and gave his name to what would become a frontline media company, grew up in South Bristol, Ontario County, and delivered newspapers for the Democrat and Chronicle. He attended Cornell University, where he worked on the campus newspaper and as a stringer for other papers. At the age of 29, he bought half interest in the Elmira Gazette. That began a long string of purchases, from Ithaca to Rochester and beyond. A Republican, he unsuccessfully sought his party’s presidential nomination in 1940. In 2019, Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain with holdings including the D&C and USA Today, was sold to GateHouse Media for $1.1 billion.
The captain of the U.S. men’s hockey team in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games and a member of the 2006 Olympic team, Brian Gionta was born in 1979 and grew up in Greece. He graduated from Aquinas Institute in 1997 and went on to be a star hockey player at Boston College, captaining the 2000-2001 national championship-winning team. He played in the National Hockey League from 2001-2017, first for the New Jersey Devils, winning the Stanley Cup in 2003, then the Montreal Canadians, where he served as team captain, and then the Buffalo Sabres. He retired from the NHL in 2018 and in January of this year announced he was joining Niagara University as director of player development for its Division 1 hockey team.
Born in 1950, Gates native Lou Gramm (born Louis Grammatico) rose to fame as the front man of rock band Foreigner. In 1977, the group released its self-titled debut album, the first of four straight releases to be certified at least five times platinum in the United States. Gramm was one of the preeminent rock vocalists of the late 1970s and ’80s, singing lead on all of Foreigner’s hits, including “Cold as Ice,” “Urgent,” “Juke Box Hero,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “I Want to Know What Love Is,” which reached No. 1 in eight countries. A 1968 graduate of Gates Chili High School and of Monroe Community College, Gramm battled illness in the 1990s but regained his health and continues to tour with his own band, the Lou Gramm All Stars. They have an 8 p.m. show Oct. 7 at Kodak Center on West Ridge Road. After living elsewhere during his Foreigner years, he returned home, buying a home in Webster.
Born in Rochester in 1892, Walter Hagen grew up in the Corbett’s Glen area of Brighton, the son of a blacksmith. At the age of 5 he discovered golf, and the first course he played was the one he created in the family’s cow pasture. He later worked as a caddie at the Country Club of Rochester and took golf lessons there. In 1914, at the age of 21, he won his first U.S. Open, and his professional career took off. Hagen went on to win the tournament four more times and by the time retired in 1939, he had racked up 75 victories worldwide. Not only did he pave the way for pro golfers at a time when amateur golf was the more respected pursuit, he was the first pro athlete to become a millionaire. He relocated to Michigan in 1918 and died in Traverse City in 1969. In 2000, Golf Digest ranked him as the seventh greatest golfer of all time.
Widely hailed as the greatest actor of his generation, Philip Seymour Hoffman grew up in Fairport, graduating from Fairport High School in 1985. He went on to earn a bachelor of fine arts degree in drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and began acting in television and movies, breaking through with a role as awkward, love-struck boom mic operator Scotty J. in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” (1997). Hoffman was nominated for Oscars four times, winning in 2006 for his lead performance in “Capote.” He also received several Tony Award nominations for his work on Broadway, including as Willy Loman in a 2012 production of “Death of a Salesman.” On Feb. 2, 2014, in his adopted home of New York City, Hoffman died at 46 of an accidental drug overdose. His son, Cooper, starred in Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” in 2021.
To his friends in Rochester, he was Jon Huber. But to wrestling fans, he was World Wrestling Entertainment performer Luke Harper and All Elite Wrestling’s Brodie Lee. Huber played lacrosse for four years at McQuaid Jesuit High School (class of 1998) and skated in youth hockey leagues. He started as a backyard wrestler, and his professional career began with independent outfits Roc City Wrestling, Rochester Championship Wrestling, NWA Upstate, NWA New York and Upstate Prof Wrestling. He signed a deal and moved to Florida to work his way his way up through the WWE’s developmental ranks and earned a spot on the main roster in 2013, rising to prominence as part of the Wyatt Family. He subsequently moved back to Rochester and made his AEW debut in March 2020 as Brodie Lee, capturing the TNT Championship that August. He died in December 2020 at the age of 41 of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, his wife, Amanda, revealed in an interview the following month.
Born in 1868, Rochester native Maud Humphrey, whose childhood home still stands at 5 Greenwood St. in Corn Hill, began taking art lessons at the age of 12. Six years later, she went to New York City to study at the Art Students League. After that, she studied in Paris before coming back to New York to launch a fabulously successful career as an illustrator for magazines and children’s books. She married Dr. Belmont DeForest Bogart in 1898. Their son Humphrey Bogart would grow up to be a movie star. In 1899, when Maud was pregnant with Humphrey, her husband bought an estate on Canandaigua Lake. The family spent summers there through Humphrey Bogart’s teenage years. Maud Humphrey died in 1940.
The author of the bestselling “Moosewood Cookbook,” a 1977 volume inspired by the Moosewood Restaurant she co-founded in Ithaca, Mollie Katzen introduced vegetarian recipes to millions of cooks. Born in Rochester in 1950, she took lessons at the Eastman School of Music, graduated from Monroe High School in 1968, went on to study at Cornell University and graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute with a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting. She wrote several more bestselling cookbooks (including 1982’s “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest”) and has hosted cooking programs on public television. After living in the San Francisco Bay area for decades, last year Katzen relocated to New York to be closer to her grown children. She was named by Health Magazine as “one of the five women who have changed the way we eat.”
Born in Rochester in 1969, Joanie Laurer went on to become boundary-breaking World Wrestling Federation star Chyna, aka The Ninth Wonder of the World. That success led to numerous TV and film roles and two appearances in Playboy magazine. Laurer spoke openly about her difficult childhood, bouncing between schools in Penfield, Pittsford and Rochester after her parents divorced. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish literature from the University of Tampa and while cycling through a series of jobs, she entered fitness contests and enrolled in a wrestling school run by the legendary Killer Kowalski, eventually leading to her WWF casting. In 2016 at age 46, she died in her Redondo Beach, California, home from an accidental drug overdose. She was posthumously entered into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame as a member of D-Generation X, the first woman to be inducted as a part of a group or team.
The winner of six gold medals in swimming and 12 medals overall in four Olympics (2004-2016), Ryan Lochte was born in Rochester in 1984, lived in Bristol, Ontario County, and attended Bloomfield schools until he was 12 and moved to Florida. He won national titles while attending the University of Florida and won several gold medals at World Championships. He is the second-most decorated swimmer in Olympic history, behind Michael Phelps. He also has been a figure of controversy, especially during the summer of 2016, when he and three teammates were accused of falsely reporting they were robbed at gunpoint during the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He lives in Gainesville, Florida.
A Brighton native born in 1855, inventor, educator and philanthropist Edmund Lyon graduated from the University of Rochester and Columbia Law School before returning to Rochester, where he practiced law for a time before turning his attention to business. Lyon went on to invent a locomotive turntable and an electric starter for automobiles. A volunteer at a school for the deaf, he created the Lyon Phonetic Manual, a guide for teaching speech to the deaf that was used around the world. A friend of Alexander Graham Bell and Helen Keller, he helped create the design for what is now East Rochester, where a park is named in his honor. Lyon died in 1920.
Born in Rochester in 1940, flugelhorn player and composer Chuck Mangione began taking music lessons at the age of 8 and played in a jazz combo with his pianist brother, Gap, while he was a student at Franklin High School (class of 1958). After graduating from the Eastman School of Music, he went on to a successful music career, selling millions of records and receiving numerous awards, including two Grammys. His 1977 single “Feels So Good,” from the album of the same name, reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The album peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart in 1978, behind the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack. The song was frequently referenced on Mike Judge’s animated TV series “King of the Hill,” where Mangione had a recurring voice-acting role as himself.
Born in 1987, Mendon native Andrew Rea is the creator and host of YouTube cooking channel Babish Culinary Universe, formerly Binging With Babish, where he replicates dishes from pop culture with a keen eye for detail. The first episode, filmed in the kitchen of Rea’s New York City apartment, debuted on Feb. 1, 2016. The show has a fast pace, and Rea’s distinctive voice and deadpan humor contribute to its appeal. The high production values reflect his film degree from Hofstra University (where enrolled after graduating in 2005 from The Harley School) and time spent working in the film industry. His YouTube channel has more than 10 million subscribers, and his cookbook, “Basics With Babish,” comes out on Oct. 24. Rea also has started selling a line of cookware.
A few weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in an inspired gesture of kindness, two Monroe County sheriff’s deputies showed up unannounced at Ladder Company 20 in lower Manhattan — which lost seven members in the collapse of the World Trade Center’s North Tower — with the gift of a Dalmatian puppy from a Rochester-area breeder. Named Twenty in honor of her new home, she became a fixture in the firehouse, raising morale during a terrible time. “She went on all the runs, she’d jump in the truck, stick her head out the window and bark,” one firefighter said. “She became a local celebrity.” Twenty also was a source of support at firefighter funerals. When she died in 2016, Corey Kilgannon of The New York Times described the dog’s impact in a beautiful tribute headlined, “Firehouse Loses a Spotted Symbol of Healing.”
A real-estate developer who created Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, and became a billionaire in the process, David Walentas was born in Rochester in 1938 and grew up poor on Herald Street in the city’s northeast quadrant. When he was a kid, his father suffered a devastating stroke. Faced with the monumental task of caring for her severely disabled husband while working two jobs to survive, his mother sent Walentas and his older brother to live, temporarily, on farms in the Southern Tier, where they worked. After returning to Rochester, Walentas graduated from Franklin High School in 1956. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from the University of Virginia. And after brief stints at Xerox Corp. and Singer Sewing Company, he settled in New York City to pursue his real estate dream. This year, Forbes estimates his fortune at $2.3 billion.
Born in 1980, Pittsford native Abby Wambach was a soccer star at Our Lady of Mercy High School (class of 1998) and the University of Florida (attending on a full athletic scholarship). A longtime player for the United States Women’s Team and regarded as one of the greatest soccer players of all time, she was on two gold medal Olympic teams (2004 and 2012) and scored 184 international goals, a record. She was named player of the year in international soccer in 2012. A onetime member of the Western New York Flash, she retired in 2015. In 2016, she released her unflinching memoir, “Forward,” which became a New York Times bestseller. She lives in Hermosa Beach, California.
Comic actress Kristen Wiig was born in 1973 in Canandaigua and graduated from Brighton High School in 1991 before moving to California to start her acting career. She returned to New York, making her “Saturday Night Live” debut in 2005. She stayed on the sketch-comedy show until 2012, developing such memorable characters as Gilly and the Target Lady. Wiig co-wrote and starred in the 2011 movie “Bridesmaids,” which grossed more than $300 million worldwide. In a 2011 interview with The New York Times, “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels called her one of the “top three or four” performers ever to star on the show.
The illustrator of 47 Little Golden Books and many other children’s books, as well as the creator of the Baby Dear line of dolls, Eloise Burns Wilkin was born in 1904 in Rochester and spent much of her childhood in New York City before returning here with family. A 1923 graduate of the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute (now RIT), she had a studio in Rochester with her friend Joan Esley before they both moved to New York City to further their careers. Wilkin returned here in 1930 to marry and after taking time out to raise four children, she began illustrating Golden Books in 1944 from her home in Canandaigua. She died in 1987.
Born in 1975, Roland Williams grew up in Rochester’s 19th Ward. After graduating from East High School in 1993, he went to Syracuse University, where he starred at tight end. In 1998, after earning his bachelor’s degree in speech communications, he played eight seasons in the National Football League, first with the Saint Louis Rams and then with the Oakland Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 2015, he started the Champion Academy Extreme Mentoring & Empowerment Initiative, a program in Rochester that works with at-risk middle and high school students. He has been a sports analyst for several TV networks and is a partner in JP Medical Supply, Inc. He lives in Los Angeles.
Reporter Marcia Greenwood covers general assignments. Send story tips to mgreenwo@rocheste.gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaGreenwood.

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