The Disturbing Reason Benedict Cumberbatch Almost Didn’t Go By His Real Name

Benedict Cumberbatch has one of the most recognizable — and meme-worthy — names in the entertainment industry. The actor’s distinctive moniker has become omnipresent as he rose to fame. Going from Sherlock Holmes to Doctor Strange took him from relative popularity to international superstardom. 

But the Oscar-winning performer almost went by a different name. What was behind the decision? And why did he ultimately decide to keep the distinctive name? It’s a unique story, to say the least. 

Benedict Cumberbatch was born in London to actor parents

benedict cumberbatch real name
Actor Benedict Cumberbatch arrives at the Los Angeles Special Screening of ‘The Imitation Game’ Hosted By Chanel at DGA Theater on November 10, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

Born Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch in London in 1976, Cumberbatch came from a family of actors. According to IMDb, his mother (Wanda Ventham) and father (Timothy Carlton) both practice the craft. 

Carlton’s filmography consists of over 100 credits stretching back to 1962. His most notable works include Cold Comfort Farm (1968) and Parting Shots (1998). He also appeared in Sherlock as the titular character’s father, giving him the chance to act beside his real-life son. 

Ventham, meanwhile, boasts more than 130 credits. Her roles began in 1956 and stretched to 2020 when she had a recurring role on the TV series Penance. She is best known for UFO (a 1970s TV series) and Doctor Who. She also appeared alongside her son and husband in Sherlock, playing — you guessed it — her son’s mother. 

Benedict Cumberbatch’s parents advised him against using his real name

You may have noticed that neither Ventham nor Carlton uses the surname Cumberbatch. The stars chose stage names to identify themselves professionally. They advised their now-famous son to do the same. The reason? They knew the name’s tainted past. 

As Jezebel reports, Cumberbatch’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Abraham Cumberbatch owned Cleland Plantation, “a prosperous sugar cane farm known for being a place of cruelty and brutality, where slaves were literally worked to death.” As a historian speaking with the Daily Mail put it, the family members “were not just the wealthiest one per cent, but the one per cent of the one per cent. They also tended to be rough, uncouth and vulgar.” 

The connection to this history doesn’t disappear behind a stage name. But Cumberbatch’s parents added a bit of padding between the legacy of terror and their public personas. Their son, notably, did not follow suit. 

Cumberbatch’s parents worried he could be targeted for reparations

A recent episode of Donald Glover’s Atlanta showed a world in which reparations could be levied on average white citizens whose ancestors could be proven to have been enslavers. The show ended with a flipped script on reality as white men and women worked second jobs as servers at upscale restaurants filled with Black patrons enjoying their newfound wealth. Apparently, Cumberbatch’s parents envisioned something similar playing out in reality. 

According to The New York Times, Cumberbatch “said his mother had urged him not to use his real name professionally, fearing he could become a target for reparations suits by descendants of slaves.” Indeed, a woman named Stacey Cumberbatch was appointed to the role of New York’s commissioner of citywide administrative services. She pointed to a shared legacy between herself and Benedict Cumberbatch. 

The two are “related, if not by blood, then by geography and the complicated history of the slave trade.” She is the granddaughter of Caribbean immigrants who were themselves descendants of some of the enslaved people from Cleland Plantation. 

While Stacey Cumberbatch has not suggested that Benedict Cumberbatch owes her reparations, Jezebel explains that people like the actor are “afforded privileges due, in part, to generations of his family reaping rewards from free labor, from the slave trade, from using and abusing, black people.” 

The name serves as a reminder of that shared heritage and how each of their ancestors stood on different sides of the same coin. 

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