And the Greatest Fictional Cornellian in TV and Movie History Is … ?

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After Twi-hards and ‘Succession’ fans take over the March Madness poll by Corey Earle ’07, the question may still not be settled

By Beth Saulnier

It’s (more or less) official: Jacob Jankowski is the greatest fictional Cornell alum. Jankowski—the almost-veterinarian who’s the protagonist of the 2011 film Water for Elephants—won a March Madness-style Twitter poll conducted by Big Red history expert Corey Earle ’07.

In the final matchup in early April, Jankowski beat Tom Wambsgans—one of the leads on the HBO series “Succession”—to top the bracket of 64 characters, which Earle had organized into four divisions (drama and comedy/romance, each in film or TV), complete with seeding.

A tweet from Corey Earle describing the results of his Twitter poll
Earle announced the winner with a good-natured swat at the movie’s ersatz campus.

It was a razor-thin victory, though: of the nearly 500 votes cast, Jankowski tallied 50.8%.

While Jankowski and Wambsgans had each been the number-two seed in his bracket, their Big Red bona fides pale in comparison to that of the character assumed to be a shoe-in: Andy Bernard of “The Office,” the number-one seed in TV comedy/romance.

Not only did Bernard routinely tout his Big Red pedigree on the hit sitcom—including his glory days with the fictitious singing group Here Comes Treble—but Ed Helms, the comedian who portrayed him, even spoke at Convocation in 2014.

“I think I probably would have gone with Andy,” Earle admits. “I know he’s not everyone’s favorite portrayal of a Cornellian, but Cornell was so central to his character. There’s no doubt that of all the contenders, he mentioned Cornell more than any other.”

Tom Wambgans with wife Shiv Roy on "Succession."
The runner up: Tom Wambsgans with Shiv Roy, his wife and sometime business rival. (Peter Kramer / HBO)

So why did Bernard advance no farther than the Final Four, where he was defeated by Wambsgans (played by British actor Matthew Macfadyen of Pride & Prejudice fame)?

And how did the championship title go to the main character of a 12-year-old movie that, though based on a bestselling novel, was hardly a blockbuster and has a critical ranking on Rotten Tomatoes of a mere 60%?

Here’s a clue: in the Depression-era drama, Jankowski is played by Robert Pattinson. And he, of course, also appeared in a little movie series called Twilight, whose fan base is notoriously ardent.

“I don’t think anyone expected the outcome we got, or that the poll would pick up some non-Cornell lobbying,” Earle muses. “But it was fun to see that play out.”

In the book and film (which both include scenes set on the Hill), Pattinson’s character drops out of CVM just before completing a degree, goes to work in a circus, and falls in love with the lonely wife of a brutish elephant trainer.

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As the stalwart, animal-loving Jankowski advanced in Earle’s poll, Pattinson’s fans caught wind of it, and began urging each other to vote for him.

I don’t think anyone expected the outcome we got, or that the poll would pick up some non-Cornell lobbying.

Similarly, aficionados of “Succession”—a critically acclaimed hit drama about an ultra-rich, back-stabbing family jockeying for control of a media empire, whose fourth season is currently airing on HBO—rallied for Wambsgans, the ambitious son-in-law of the clan’s patriarch.

“All four of the number-one seeds were still alive in the final eight,” Earle observes. “It wasn’t until that round that we began to see campaigning by non-Cornell communities.”

The other contenders had included the title character of Citizen Kane; Sideshow Mel from “The Simpsons”; Natalie Keener, the corporate striver in Up in the Air; Tom Kirkman, hero of the series “Designated Survivor”; and Hotelie Neil Kellerman, nephew of the resort owner in Dirty Dancing.

Corey Earle and Ed Helms with a faux Cornell diploma
Sorry, Andy: Earle (at left, holding Bernard’s faux Cornell diploma from the set of “The Office”) met Ed Helms during the actor’s 2014 visit to campus. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

What might Earle have in store for next year’s March Madness poll? He’s contemplating film and TV portrayals of real-life Cornellians.

He has already compiled dozens of names, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 (Felicity Jones) in On the Basis of Sex; corporate whistleblower Mark Whitacre, PhD ’83 (Matt Damon), in The Informant!; fabulist Clifford Irving ’51 (Richard Gere) in The Hoax; attorney Jan Schlichtmann, JD ’77 (John Travolta), in A Civil Action; and even Brad Pitt impersonating Anthony Fauci, MD ’66, on “Saturday Night Live.”

That contest, however, will probably unfold on a different platform, since Twitter voting may soon be limited to paying subscribers. The upside: the results are less likely to be skewed by any one actor’s (or show’s) rabid fan base.

“I think the lesson here,” Earle observes wryly, “is that you can’t depend on Twitter polls for any meaningful decision-making.”

Published April 5, 2023


  1. Sean, Class of 1984

    Alice Harmon, PhD in mathematics and mother of chess prodigy Beth Harmon in The Queens Gambit

  2. Misha Gonzales-Cirkl, Class of 1988

    I enjoyed reading this and live that Earle has this poll!!
    As an actor/writer myself- I always get a kick/thrill when I see that a character in a show is written as being an alum from my alma mater. Go Big Red… is what I scream at the screen. Joking, or am I…?Was Kiefer Sutherland even in the running as Tom Kirkman in Deisgnated Survivor? I can’t wait until next March!
    Carry on…🐻🟥

  3. Andrew Walsh, Class of 1983

    Love this. Thanks for the effort on all our behalves.

  4. Alan Haeberle, Class of 1972

    I am too late to vote in the poll but I have to speak up for Gnossos Pappadopolous, protagonist of “Been down so long looks likes up to me” by Richard Farina. I especially love this book since I recognized so many scenes and localities described by Farina and I relized that for a few years I lived in the house along the creek on Freese Road in Varna that is described in the book.

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