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Lawyer Could-Have-Beens

This column over the years has identified famous people who have law degrees but achieved fame in another field over the years.

The “Lawyer Could-Have-Beens” include comedians such as John Cleese and William Sanderson (Larry of “Larry, Darryl and Darryl”), entertainers such as Julio Iglesias and Ozzie Nelson, and sports figures such as Tony LaRussa and Steve Young.

How about a few more?

Rebel Wilson. The Australian actress made a name for herself in the “Pitch Perfect” trilogy and other comedies. But she hedged her bets when she was in college at the University of New South Wales. She got a dual degree: a B.A. in theatre and performance and a Bachelor of Laws.

Turns out getting the law degree was a matter of perseverance.

In an interview with James Corden on “The Late, Late Show” last year, Wilson said she already was a working actress when she was in school.

She explained, “A law degree is five years total and I was already on Australian television by, like, year two. I play a lot of dumb characters so people were very confused about what I was doing in the contract law exam. … But it took me so long to get into law school, you have to study really hard, so I thought I may as well finish it even though I was already kind of famous.”

Wilson’s story proves the old chestnut is true: You have to be plenty smart to play dumb well.

Washington Irving. The author of the classics “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” studied law under a judge who was a friend of his prominent family in New York. He barely passed the bar exam in 1806. But he was not interested in law practice; he enjoyed the social life in New York City and wanted to be a writer.

The publication in 1809 of his first book, a satire written under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, was a big success and he was on his way.

So, sadly, the world would never know what would have happened had he filed a lawsuit in the case of I. Crane v. H. Horseman.

And to close this list, here is a famous person who could have been a lawyer … if she had finished law school.

Harper Lee. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the most famous lawyer book ever, worthy of the many awards and accolades it has earned over the years, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961.

It will be no surprise that its author, Nelle Harper Lee, had some background in the law.

Lee grew up in Alabama and studied law at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. But she left school one semester early and never earned her degree.

She moved to New York, where she made the rounds with her manuscript telling the story of small-town lawyer-hero Atticus Finch (“Go Set a Watchman,” published a few years ago, was the first draft of her masterpiece). She went through a number of drafts, refining her story and characters, until “Mockingbird” was finished.

Side note: In New York, she lived near and hung out with a childhood friend from next door in Alabama – Truman Capote, who was the inspiration for Dill, the next-door friend in “Mockingbird.”