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Born, raised and the very definition of us: Sacramento’s most famous people

Some work friends were discussing the band Cake playing Golden 1 Center last week, a hometown gig for a Sacramento band, when a question was raised as to whether this particular band was Sacramento’s most famous. And then, in almost no time, the conversation shifted to a broader question: Who is the most famous Sacramentan?

Tom Hanks, someone said.

And then, as these things often go, the matter moved to social media where a well-known local voice who shall remain nameless – OK, it was Dan Walters, the Capitol’s iconic political columnist – repeated the Hanks falsehood in a wayward tweet.

Dammit, Walters!

It is so Sacramento to suggest such a thing. We are a beautiful, vibrant, complex, interesting city and yet we often look past the substance beneath our noses to focus instead on shiny people and objects beyond our borders.

Tom Hanks is one of the great American actors. By all accounts, he’s a wonderful guy. He passed through town in his transient youth and caught the theater bug over two years as an undergraduate at Sacramento State in the 1970s.

That’s a cool local factoid, and I would love to have a beer with Hanks. But two years in town does not make him a Sacramentan. Neither is legendary Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz, who trained as a kid at Arden Hills swim club and lived in Sacramento for a few preteen years before his family moved to Santa Clara, where he went to high school.

Neither is Charles Schwab, who was born here but left at a young age and long before his name became synonymous with banking and investing. Neither is the actor Sam Elliott, who was born here but moved with his family to Portland, Oregon, before he acquired that signature baritone. Neither is Pat Morita, the late actor and comedian of “Happy Days” and “Karate Kid” fame. He was born in Isleton and went to high school in Fairfield.

Neither is NFL champion and football analyst Tedy Bruschi, who is from Roseville in Placer County. Neither is World Series champion and former American League MVP Dustin Pedroia, who is from Woodland. That’s Yolo County.

If we were compiling a list of well-known “Sacramento area” people, Bruschi and Pedroia would qualify.

But if we’re focusing on famous people from Sacramento, city or county, we don’t need to bring in ringers.

There is already a hugely impressive list of writers, thinkers, doers, artists, jurists, lawmakers, risk-takers and, yes, movie stars, who were born here, raised here, spent their formative years here and graduated from high school here before going off to do great things. Sacramento shaped them, nurtured them and many of Sacramento’s most notable native sons and daughters have retained ties to their city and county.

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There is one notable exception to the born here, raised here, went to high school here rule: Venerated artist Wayne Thiebaud, who grew up elsewhere but went to college at Sacramento State and stayed here for a lifetime of distinguished works, not the least of which were his spectacular landscapes of the Delta.

Thiebaud doesn’t make my Dusty Baker’s dozen of Sacramento’s most notable native sons and daughters, but he could be on yours and he definitely should be in the conversation.

For me, that conversation starts with the great Joan Didion — essayist, novelist, Hollywood screenwriter, and towering figure in American letters over the last half-century.

Save for a stint during World War II when her father’s work in the Army Air Corps took Didion’s family to other states, Joan Didion grew up in Sacramento. She graduated from C.K. McClatchy High School. As a young person, she wrote down her observations of the world in her room at the Didion family home, a spectacular four-story Poverty Ridge residence on the southeast corner of 22nd and T streets. To this day it’s known as the Didion House.

Didion is one of the great American non-fiction writers, a National Book Award winner. She was presented the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. She was a contemporary of Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer. These were venerated American writers credited in the 1960s with founding “New Journalism,” which pushed the boundaries of non-fiction writing with literary flourishes and dynamic story telling. Didion was the woman in that male-dominated group of artists and, at 84, she has outlived just about all of them.

“She is a brilliant writer — sentence for sentence, among the best this country’s ever produced,” wrote Lili Anolik in a 2016 Vanity Fair profile titled, “How Joan Didion the Writer became Joan Didion the Legend.”

Of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion’s 1968 collection of essays about California, The New York Times described her writing as “a rich display of some of the best prose written today in this country.” If you to go on Netflix, you’ll find “The Center Will Not Hold,” a harrowing, beautiful, touching, heartbreaking documentary about Didion’s life and work.

Some have said that Didion’s prose exhibited scorn for her hometown but that’s thin-skinned boosterism. Didion was and is a writer of unflinching honesty. She’s complex, just like her hometown.

“As large as she looms now, she’ll loom larger as time passes,” wrote Anolik in Vanity Fair. “I’d bet money on it.”

Equally complex, if not more so, is Anthony Kennedy, the recently retired Supreme Court justice who was born and raised in Sacramento and who also graduated from McClatchy High.

Kennedy, of course, was one of the most consequential Supreme Court justices of the last half-century. In 2015, Kennedy wrote the majority decision in the ruling that allowed same-sex marriage. His words were majestic.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”

But no matter how much local pride Kennedy inspires in Sacramento, his legacy is marred by decisions that are already debated.

His majority decision in the 2010 Citizens United case unleashed corporations and unions to pump huge money – known as “independent expenditures” – into political campaigns.

Progressives have mocked key Kennedy language in this decision, such as this gem,“We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

The Intercept described it this way: “Kennedy’s ruling contains some of the silliest, wackiest, most preposterous pronouncements in the tens of millions of words extruded by the Supreme Court in its 229-year history.”

Kennedy saved the worst for last. His retirement paved the way for President Donald Trump to nominate Brett Kavanaugh to replace him. Soon, sexual assault and harassment allegations surfaced against Kavanaugh. His eventual confirmation set new standards for ugly in the Senate. This week, new revelations in the Kavanaugh case point toward a dubious investigation of allegations against Kavanaugh by the FBI.

But on the day that Kavanaugh was sworn in, there was Kennedy – smiling broadly and proudly.

Less controversial, but relevant and ascending, is Greta Gerwig – who grew up in Sacramento as a drama prodigy and went to St. Francis High School. She had established herself as one of the finest actresses of her generation before landing an Oscar nomination for best director.

We all know the name of that 2017 movie: “Lady Bird.” It was shot in Sacramento and was described by Gerwig as “a love letter” to her hometown. But it was more than that. “Lady Bird” was a coming-of-age movie about a young girl who did not require a handsome prince in order to believe in herself.

By the end of “Lady Bird,” many of us were wiping tears from our eyes at the sight of a young woman who had freshly realized her power and worth, and was grateful for the true loves of her life: Her mother and her hometown.

Dusty Baker is one of the greatest prep athletes Sacramento has produced. He lived the post-World War II narrative of Sacramento where the old town was infused with African American residents who often integrated their neighborhoods. The Bakers did that in Carmichael. Baker was one of the few African Americans at Del Campo High School in his day, yet attained big man on campus status via star turns in multiple sports.

Baker is baseball royalty from Sacramento. He was an excellent big league player and an even better manager, one of the very few African Americans to run big league clubs. To see him around town today is to be in the company of a joyous spirit. He’s a national figure and a beloved individual in his hometown, a rare achievement.

On June 18, 2015, Lester Holt became the first African American broadcaster to be named a solo anchor of a weekday nightly newscast. Holt had been a star at NBC for many years before he made history and he started his broadcast career as a student at Sacramento State. Holt grew up in Rancho Cordova, graduated from Cordova High. Like so many others, the Holts came to Sacramento when it was a military town. Holt’s dad was stationed at Mather Air Force Base. Holt dropped out of Sac State to take a job in radio. Who could have imagined his ascension to the highest ranks of his profession?

“People liked Walter Cronkite because they trusted what he had to say, and Lester is from that same mold,” astronaut Scott Kelly wrote in an appreciation of Holt.

The late Russ Solomon grew up in Sacramento and founded Tower Records here. Tower Records became a global sensation and was synonymous with American cool the world over. And Solomon? He became Sacramento’s best-known international businessman and one of its most unforgettable characters. This despite dropping out of McClatchy High School. Solomon was sipping whiskey and watching the Academy Awards when he passed away at 92 in his glorious 4,000-square-foot Sierra Oaks Vista home. What a spirit.

Cornel West grew up in Sacramento, went to John F. Kennedy High School and has been for decades one of America’s most prominent intellectuals and African American voices. His 1993 book “Race Matters” was a national best-seller. But like other great minds such as Didion and Kennedy, nothing about West is easy or warm and fuzzy. He broke with many African Americans when he became a vocal critic of Barack Obama, America’s first black president.

Xavier Becerra is the son of Mexican immigrants whose father remembers seeing ”No dogs or Mexicans allowed” signs hanging in Los Angeles storefronts when the elder Becerra was a boy. The Becerra family raised a house full of doers in Sacramento, including Xavier, who also went to McClatchy High. He played in local bands as a teenager to earn money and worked construction. But when Stanford called, Becerra left. He became a member of Congress in Los Angeles and is now a chief antagonist of Donald Trump as Attorney General of California.

Channing Dungey is one of the most powerful women in television. She famously fired Roseanne Barr in 2018 after Barr tweeted racist comments about Valerie Jarrett, a former Obama advisor. Dungey was already a historical figure when the Barr controversy went global. The daughter of a former SMUD executive and schoolteacher, Dungey grew up in Citrus Heights and graduated from Rio Americano High School. Dungey was the first African American to be president of the entertainment division of a network, ABC. She is now the vice president of original content at Netflix.

Jessica Chastain is one of the most interesting actresses starring in movies today. Her Sacramento life undoubtedly informs her work. Chastain grew up in a working-class family. She attended but dropped out of El Camino Fundamental High School.

She lost a sister to suicide. She later got her diploma and attended the Julliard School. Chastain is a two-time Academy Award nominee and a Golden Globe winner. Her range has been exceptional in a career of playing smart, tough and hauntingly wounded characters. Her Oscar nominations came for “The Help” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” But if you’ve never seen “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” you’ve missed a transcendent performance by an actress at the height of her powers. Chastain plays a woman coping in the aftermath of her young son’s death. Days after seeing that film, I couldn’t stop thinking about her performance.

LeVar Burton grew up in Meadowview and graduated from Christian Brothers High School. In the late 1970s, he became a sensation as Kunta Kinte in “Roots,” the landmark television mini-series that told the story of an African American family saga that began when Burton’s character was brought to the United States from Africa and sold into slavery.

From “Reading Rainbow” to “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Burton has had a distinguished career in film and television and, earlier this year, had a city park named in his honor.

Chino Moreno was born in Sacramento and grew up in Oak Park. And yes, he went to McClatchy High. The son of parents who are of Mexican and Chinese descent, Moreno is known to the world as the frontman of the Deftones. I’ll never forget standing in the Tower Records on Times Square in the summer of 2000, after the album “White Pony” had been released.

Music from the album was blaring from the store speakers and up on a wall was a massive poster of a Sacramento band in a global record store founded by Solomon. It was a proud moment, and the Deftones soon won a Grammy. Chino was at the beginning of a stellar career.

And forgive the conceit of a newspaper man, but I will end with a newspaper man: The late Herb Caen grew up in Sacramento. He went to Sacramento High School, where he began writing his first gossip column. He moved to San Francisco and continued writing a column for almost 60 years at the San Francisco Chronicle. He won a Pulitzer Prize and was so popular, 75,000 people turned out to toast him on “Herb Caen Day.” When Caen died in 1997, I covered his funeral for The Bee. Caen was eulogized by the late Robin Williams and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Thousands lined up outside Grace Cathedral to pay their respects. At night, the city staged a magnificent fireworks show on the waterfront in his honor. It was quite a tribute to the self-described, “Sacamenna kid.”

There are many other names, of course. Tani Cantil-Sakauye is the daughter of Filipino parents who grew up in a humble apartment in Sacramento. She is now Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. Lisa Ling has her own show on CNN. Joan Lunden was a star of network television for many years. Richard Rodriguez is one of the great Mexican American writers of his time. John Moss was a giant in Congress.

And there are even more names of people who were shaped here and who have lived lives of fame and distinction. Their achievements say a great deal about them and the city and county that produced them.

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.
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