Go West: Famous Western Icelanders of Our Time - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Go West: Famous Western Icelanders of Our Time

Go West: Famous Western Icelanders of Our Time

Published October 6, 2015

RX Beckett

The Icelandic diaspora stretches far and wide but the countries with the most people of Icelandic descent are Canada, the United States and Norway. Not surprisingly, many of them have gone onto great ventures and wild success. Here are a few folks that are making us proud.

siggis-skyrSigurður Hilmarsson
Well-stocked on the shelf of every respectable Whole Foods store is a straight-out-of-Iceland-made-in-America brand of skyr. Spearheaded by its founder, Sigurður Hilmarsson, Siggi’s skyr has grown to national prominence in the US for the unique texture, delicious flavours and all the gastrointestinal benefits. It’s also helped popularise Iceland with international foodies, increasing gastronomic travel to our shores.

Bjarni_TryggvasonBjarni Tryggvason
Iceland’s terrain is often described as lunar, and was in fact the site of geological field trips by NASA before the actual moon landing—Stanley Kubrick’s widow still contends that the whole thing was a hoax filmed near Askja! Of course, it was only a matter of time before one of our own became a spaceman. Icelandic-Canadian Bjarni is our Major Tom, having clocked in over 4,000 hours of flight time and spent 12 days in outer space in 1997 on the STS-85 mission.

p00vwrg6Magnus Magnusson
The exception to prove the rule, this is our token Eastern-Icelander on the list, but definitely one of the most prominent. Although he never took on British citizenship, this Iceland-born BBC icon lived in Scotland for nearly his entire life and became a household UK name by hosting the quiz-show ‘Mastermind’ for 25 years. He was also an accomplished translator of the Icelandic Sagas and an author of Viking history.

gunner“Leatherface”
The masked killer in the ground-breaking and hyper-controversial movie ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ was in fact an Icelandic-American! Or at least the actor playing him was. Gunnar Hansen was born in Reykjavík, moved to Maine at age five and from eleven onwards grew up in—you guessed it—Texas! He’s appeared in over twenty horror movies since the 1974 slasher classic, including the first local slasher film, ‘Reykjavík Whale Watching Massacre’.

steele_01Peter Steele
The summer after Type O Negative’s lead singer passed away, the Iceland Tattoo Convention saw many metal fans getting devotional ink to the semi-local icon. Born in Red Hook, Pete was part Icelandic on his mother’s side and was said to hold a particular fondness for this country during his touring years. His dark, self-deprecating lyrics were possibly a trait of his Nordic heritage.

guy-maddin1Guy Maddin
This art-house filmmaker is the only person on our list who originates from the very heart of Western-Iceland: Manitoba, Canada. Although he was born in Winnipeg, south of the Icelandic settlement town Gimli, his ancestry and many of his films are rooted in the small town. In fact, his production company was named Extra Large Productions thanks to the Gimli pizzeria and he is still widely known for his first feature film, ‘Tales From The Gimli Hospital’.

KD LANG 4767 retouched.tif k.d. lang
A singer-songwriting legend, lesbian icon and true Canadian treasure, k.d. lang possibly has the most diverse cultural heritage of any famous Western-Icelander on our list. Her background is a melting pot of English, Irish, Scottish, German, Russian, Jewish and Sioux, with a dash of Iceland in the mix. Given our country’s fame for its musical talents, it’d be nice to think we contributed a bit to her wonderful voice of gold.

BillHolm Bill HolmBill Holm
The grandson of Icelandic immigrants, this Minnesotan poet and professor published prolifically until his passing in 2009. Until then, he also spent part of each year at his second home in Hofsós, North Iceland, where he held the annual White Night Writer’s Week for 11 years. His legacy of poetry follows a long tradition of Icelanders using language for expression, play and self-definition.

Kitty-Forman-DrinkingScreen Shot 2015-09-24 at 15.16.02Carl Carlsson & Kitty Forman
Although they are both fictional, Icelandic heritage has seeped into not one, but two wildly popular Twentieth Century FOX shows: Carl Carlsson on ‘The Simpsons’ and Kitty Forman (née Sigurdsson) on ‘That 70s Show’. The former, Homer’s co-worker and drinking buddy, made a pilgrimage back to the motherland on a recent episode, while the latter’s descent was always more of a wink and a nod. ‘That 70s Show’ was set in Wisconsin, the state with the highest population of Icelandic settlers in the US. The TV mom’s maiden name gave away her heritage in a few different episodes, but only Icelandophile nerds caught it, probably.

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