Sonoma County Celebrities
Some were born right here in Sonoma County. Others were lucky enough to land here when their parents decided to relocate. And a few were smart enough to move here after they earned their fame and fortune.
Regardless of how they found it, though, each of these famous people can lay claim to a little piece of Sonoma County, and, likewise, Sonoma County can lay claim to a little piece of them.
Born Winona Horowitz in a farmhouse near Winona, Minn., she moved with her family to a commune near Elk, in Mendocino County, when she was 7. Three years later, they moved to Petaluma, and Winona attended Kenilworth Junior High and Petaluma High School, where she was a member of the Class of 1989. By graduation day she was already a star, with major roles in films such as “Beetlejuice” and “Heathers.”
A singer, songwriter, composer and actor with a unique voice and an off-beat world view, Waits and his family live in western Sonoma County. He has won two Grammy Awards, been named one of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At his induction to the Hall, he said, “They say I have no hits and that I'm difficult to work with... like it's a bad thing."
Not just Sonoma County’s first “celebrity,” but one of the first people ever to be famous primarily for being, well, famous. Born in Santa Rosa, he started drawing caricatures in class at Santa Rosa High School. By the 1920s, he was a man about town in New York and a world traveler. His “Believe It or Not!” cartoons took readers with him on exotic trips around the world, discovering oddball facts, freaks and curiosities. One of those — “The Church Built of One Tree” — welcomes visitors on the north side of Santa Rosa’s Juilliard Park. He is buried at Santa Rosa Memorial Park.
Better known as Shawn Hunter on the television sitcoms “Boy Meets World” and “Girl Meets World,” Strong was born in San Francisco and had multiple TV roles to his credit before he was chosen to star in “Boy” beginning in 1993. He graduated from Analy High School in Sebastopol in 1998. With his older brother, actor Shiloh Strong, he made “Irish Twins,” a critically acclaimed short film, in 2008. In 2014, he reprised his role as Shawn Hunter in “Girl Meets World.”
Best know for his portrayals of television trial lawyers “Perry Mason” and “Ironsides” in the 1950s and ‘60s, Burr was a Canadian native who grew up in the East Bay. He bought land in the Dry Creek Valley in the 1970s, and he and his partner grew orchids and later grapes on the property. It is still known as Raymond Burr Vineyards.
Born Natalie Zacharenko in San Francisco, she came to Sonoma County with her parents as a little girl, and at 5 years old was noticed in a crowd watching the filming of “Happyland” in Santa Rosa. Director Irving Pichel decided she could be a star, and he was right. Her credits include “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Splendor in the Grass” and “West Side Story.” She drowned under mysterious circumstances in 1981 while on a sailing trip to Catalina with her husband, Robert Wagner, and actor Christopher Walken.
Most people knew him as “Deep Throat,” the anonymous source who advised the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward to “follow the money” in the Watergate investigation. That trail eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Woodward kept “Deep Throat’s” identity a secret for decades. But after his retirement as Associate Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Felt moved to Santa Rosa to be with his daughter. In 2005, Felt revealed his secret in an article in Vanity Fair magazine. He died at his northwest Santa Rosa home in 2008. He was 95.
The actor (and father of actors Beau and Jeff Bridges) was born in San Leandro and graduated from Petaluma High School in 1930. He became famous for his role as a swashbuckling scuba diver in television’s “Sea Hunt” in the early 1960s, and later used his comedic skills in movies such as “Airplane” and “Hot Shots.”
Now starring as Jamal Lyon on Empire, Smollett was born in Santa Rosa in 1983. By the time he was 5 years old he was in New York City making national network commercials, and landed a role in Disney’s “The Mighty Ducks” before he was 10. He also is a singer-songwriter. His sister, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, stars in the TV series “Underground.”