What is the real name of actor Thomas Haden Church?
Frankly, we aren’t sure.
We had just updated Church’s profile to include his role in the new movie Smart People when it occurred to us to double-check the alphabetization of his last name. We have him under ‘C’ for Church, but we had the sudden thought that it could be ‘H’ for Haden Church instead.
But. As we looked over various websites, we kept running into the same curious phrase: “Church, the third of six children, was born Thomas McMillen in El Paso, Texas.” Thomas McMillen?
Turns out all these sites got their info from Wikipedia’s entry on Church. The entry also says, “Church was raised under his stepfather’s surname, ‘Quesada,’ and later changed his surname to ‘Haden Church’ (both names are in his family tree).”
Wikipedia lists one source for this information: a 1992 article in The Austin American-Statesman. So we paid the $5.95 to the paper’s archives and called up the article, by Associated Press reporter Jerry Buck, which ran on 23 August 1992. (Page 45, if you’re keeping track.)
And indeed, it includes the following grafs:
Church was born in California, but grew up in various parts of Texas as his family moved. His birth name was McMillen, but he took his stepfather’s name of Quesada. He changed it to Thomas Haden Church “because nobody could spell Quesada or pronounce it.” He says Haden and Church are in the family tree.
“I dropped out of high school about 1977 and worked in the oil fields in Louisiana as a roughneck,” he says. He returned to get his high school diploma, then attended North Texas State. During that time he lived in Dallas, because it was easier to find work, and commuted to school in Denton.
Well! That seems clear, right down to a direct quote from Church about Quesada. But it’s just about the only reference we can find online to those names. (The New York Times, a bit cryptically, lists “Alternate names: Thomas Richard Quesada, Thomas McMillen.”)
Buck’s article is also one of the few to identify California as his place of birth. Most everyone else says Texas. (Wikipedia continues to list El Paso, apparently taking Buck’s word for the alternate names but not for the alternate birthplace.)
In fact, as we prowled the American-Statesman archives we found conflicting versions of the story. On December 4th of 1992, the paper ran an article about Church’s TV success under the headline Texas Native Flying High on ‘Wings’. That story (by Diane Holloway, page B4) includes this excerpt:
Church has two brothers in Dallas, two sisters in Austin and another sister in Houston. His father lives in Harlingen, and his mother, who is still married to his father, lives in Denton where she is attending graduate school at Church’s alma mater, the University of North Texas.
Born in Harlingen, Church, now 30, grew up in El Paso and Laredo. He had a lucrative career in advertising in Dallas, doing voice-overs for commercials, when he decided to try his hand at acting. At the suggestion of an agent, he moved to Los Angeles in 1988 and landed guest shots on Cheers and China Beach before winning his plum assignment on Wings.
But! The same writer, Diane Holloway, wrote an article in April of 1991 that has a still different take:
Born in a small town in Northern California, Church nonetheless considers himself a native Texan because he moved to the Lone Star State when he was a tadpole of 2. His father was in the military, and the Church family, which includes six children, lived in Fort Worth, El Paso, Laredo and Harlingen. Most of the family still lives in Harlingen; one sister, Nancy Moreno, lives in Austin.
On the other other hand, a December 1995 profile of Church by Jason Cohen in Texas Monthly magazine had this to say:
Church was born in El Paso, one of six children. His father, an officer in the Army who later worked for the Texas Department of Health, moved the family to Fort Worth and then to Laredo before settling in Harlingen by the time Tom was of high school age.
So there are lots of angles. The birthplace in particular has several possibilities, while the only detailed mention of the alternate names (and the stepfather) seems to come from the 1992 Jerry Buck story.
It’s entirely possible that Church is simply telling different things to different people depending on his mood. (Those actors!) Or perhaps he’d rather not discuss the father-stepfather part of the story.
We’re swayed by the stories of his California birth, in part because if Church really was born in Texas, then California is not something he would have been likely to make up. The opposite is more likely — that as an almost-native Texan, he would claim the shorthand of a native birth or just let people assume it. We also know from experience that it’s easy for biographers to confuse phrases like “home town” or “hails from” with an actual place of birth.
That’s far from conclusive. But for the moment, we’re changing our own record of his place of birth to read “California (?)”. And that’s about all we’ve got so far.
The good news is, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, we’re reaching out to several sources for clarification. Diane Holloway is still writing for the American-Statesman. And Jerry Buck is now a novelist with his own offical site. (“…He covered virtually every star, show, writer, director, and producer — as well as their feuds, scandals, and achievements.”)
We’re writing them both, and also the Texas Film Commission (a long shot) and his agent at Creative Artists Agency (another long shot), to see if we can gain more insights. We’ll keep you posted.