‘March Madness’ Contest Will Crown the Top Fictional Alum

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Hail, All Hail, Cornell!

Cornell history maven Corey Earle ’07 is running a Twitter poll with 64 contenders—and you can vote

By Beth Saulnier

Who’s the greatest fictional Cornellian in the history of TV and film? That burning question will be answered this month (March 2023), as Big Red history expert Corey Earle ’07 conducts a bespoke March Madness tournament.

Corey Earle

Run through Twitter polling, the contest pits 64 Cornell “alumni” against each other in four divisions: characters from comedy/romance and drama, each split into movies and television.

“I love seeing Cornell in pop culture,” says Earle, the longtime instructor of a wildly popular course on the University’s history, who has more than 5,000 Twitter followers. “I’ve trained several generations of students to, whenever they see a Cornell reference, email me or tweet at me. So I’ve become a collector of fictional Cornellians.”

I’ve trained several generations of students to, whenever they see a Cornell reference, email me or tweet at me.

And Earle’s contest is no slapdash effort: he has created a comprehensive bracket and meticulously seeded the 64 spots, using such metrics as how popular the show or film was (based on factors like number of episodes and IMDb rating) and how significantly the Big Red connection factors into the storyline.

In narrowing down the contenders, Earle focused on alumni characters—no faculty—and eschewed anyone based on a real person. (Meaning, for example, that Felicity Jones’s portrayal of Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 in On the Basis of Sex was out of bounds.)

“And if it’s a movie adaptation of a book, and it’s only mentioned in the book that they went to Cornell, I eliminated it,” he explains. “There’s a character from Twilight, for instance, who was referenced as attending Cornell in the books, but it’s not in the movie—though it would have been nice to have a Twilight character in the bracket.”

A screenshot of Corey Earle's tweet of his bracket

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The top seed in TV comedy? Unsurprisingly, it’s Andy Bernard—the amiable blowhard from “The Office,” who constantly touts his Cornell pedigree and penchant for a cappella singing. (And in fact, the actor who played him—Ed Helms—spoke at the real-life Convocation for the Class of 2014.)

Other familiar TV names include Sideshow Mel from “The Simpsons”; Tom Kirkman, the hero (played by Kiefer Sutherland) of the political thriller “Designated Survivor,” who’s the top seed for drama; characters from two current HBO shows, Tom Wambsgans (“Succession”) and Shane Patton (“The White Lotus”); and Ling Woo, Lucy Liu’s character on “Ally McBeal.”

Over on the film side are the title character in Citizen Kane; Natalie Keener, the corporate striver played by Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air; Hotelie Neil Kellerman, nephew of the resort owner in Dirty Dancing; and veterinary student Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) in Like Water for Elephants—which, Earle notes, takes place partly on campus.

Corey Earle and Ed Helms with a faux Cornell diploma
Earle (left) with Ed Helms during the actor’s Convocation visit. Earle is holding Andy Bernard’s faux diploma from the set of “The Office,” which he received as a birthday gift from his brother, University Archivist Evan Earle ’02, MS ’14.

Earle’s contest will progress through two initial rounds into a Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four, and so on; new ballot match-ups will be posted regularly, and each voting session lasts 24 hours. The championship—like the bracket’s real-world basketball inspiration—is set for April 3.

Is Earle pulling for anyone in particular? While he doesn’t want to skew the results, he admits a soft spot for Francis LaPierre of Love Story, an underdog in the film comedy/romance division.

“He’s the bottom seed, but he’s one of the few characters where Cornell is central to his personality; he’s captain of the Big Red ice hockey team,” Earle says. “He’s probably the one whom I want to see exceed expectations.”

All photos by Jason Koski / Cornell University.

Published March 1, 2023


  1. kenneth young, Class of 1975

    Ed Marinaro Hill street Blues
    Christopher Reeves- Superman

    • Melissa Yorks, Class of 1975

      I think the point here is not real people who went to Cornell and then were on TV or in a movie. It’s fictional characters whose character is portrayed as having gone to Cornell.

  2. Tara Benedict, Class of 2001

    Point of order about the article: Natalie Portman did not play RBG in “on the basis of sex”—that was Felicity Jones!

    • Beth Saulnier

      Tara, how right you are! Portman was originally cast in the role but was replaced by Jones. Mea culpa–the story has been corrected accordingly.

  3. Richard Renison

    Richard Kimble in the original “Fugitive”
    t v show

  4. Duane David Garrett, Class of 1996

    Robert Wagner in the 1950’s Titanic movie singing Above Cayugas Waters as the ship sank

    • Corey Ryan Earle, Class of 2007

      Wagner actually attended Purdue in the film, but he does sing the Cornell Alma Mater (which was pretty ubiquitous among college songs at the time).

  5. Mike Tannenbaum, Class of 1975

    should have included literature – then Gnossos Pappadapoulis could have been an entry!

    • Corey Ryan Earle, Class of 2007

      He actually attended the fictional Mentor University (although clearly based on Cornell).

  6. George+Weiner, Class of 1964

    For those of us who don’t Tweet, how do we vote?

  7. Paul DuBowy, Class of 1975

    Please, anybody but “Andy Bernard—the amiable blowhard from ‘The Office’.” I knew too many CU frat boys who were exactly like him…

  8. Alison Minton, Class of 1988

    Fun Fact: Lucy Liu’s real sister, Jenny, is a Cornell grad, class of ‘87! Interesting that was her alma mater on Ally McBeal.

  9. Amy Smith Linton, Class of 1985

    Oh, I’ve had a rough list of fictional Cornellians in film, only it’s always the nefarious scientists…Close Encounters, I think –– or was it ET? Contact, and Marvel’s Thor.

  10. Carol Selman, Class of 1968

    I just wrote my nephew Matt Selman a long time writer and producer on The Simpsons and on the movie, too. The question: Was Sideshow Mel a Cornell alum in reference to his Dad, Bob Selman Arts ’64 and his auntie (me) Carol Selman Arts ’68 We will see!

  11. Carol Sue Hai, Class of 1960

    The lead character in the movie “The Counterfeit Traitor” played by William Holden is a REAL Cornellian – Eric Erikson ’21 He saved the money to enrolled as a freshman at Cornell when he was 28 yrs.old, served briefly in WWI and returned to Cornell to earn his Engineering degree when he was 33 yrs. old.

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