Famous Folks Who Did Forensics


Ranker: Before They Were Famous: List of Famous People Who Were on the Debate Team, loosely ranked by fame and popularity

  • John Laroquette (star of Night Court and the now defunct John Laroquette Show) went to college in the south on a forensics scholarship.
  • Terry Nedry (stand up comic and star of the 80’s comedy movie "Young Doctors in Love") did high school forensics and even includes it in his stand- up routine.
  • Comedian and late night talk show host Arsenio Hall competed for Ohio University.
  • Nancy Cartwright (the voice of cartoon character Bart Simpson) competed for Ohio University.
  • Shelley Long (Cheers) did Original Oratory at Ft. Wayne Southside High School in Indiana. She had an in-state rivalry with Dateline NBC anchor Jane Pauley who attended Chesterton High School. Long is rumored to have beaten Pauley in the state finals and went on to win the NFL national tournament in 1967 with a persuasive speech entitled "The Sex Perversion Weed" which advocated sex education in public schools.
  • Brent Mintz won Dramatic Interp with a selection from Elia Kazan's AMERICA, AMERICA competing for Bellaire High School in Houston, TX, in 1967. He went on to fame as Brent Spiner, a.k.a. "Data" on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and numerous other TV and movie roles.
  • Kelsey Grammer, star of Cheers and Frasier, was coached in drama at Marquette High School by Ron Krikac.
  • Film star Jim Belushi and his brother, the late John Belushi, competed at Wheaton Central High School and at the College of DuPage in Chicago.
  • Comedian Adam Sadler competed in forensics prior to earning fame on Saturday Night Live and in subsequent comedies on film.
  • Linda Larkin, who did the voice of the Princess in the Disney animated film Aladdin, competed for several years for Hofstra University (under her real name, Linda Kuehnow),
  • CC Pounder (E.R. and Working) competed briefly for Ithaca College.
  • Michael Stipe, song writer and lead singer of the group R.E.M., is rumored to have written the hit “It's the End of the World As We Know It” after watching a friend compete in an NDT debate round. Folks at Georgia have said that they could never find any proof that Stipe actually competed while he was a student there, but the song is supposed to have been written after Stipe watched a friend compete in NDT at the Wake Forest tournament. REM contributed to the restoration fund of Demosthenian Hall on the University of George campus, the home of one of the two non-competitive debate/speech societies and the oldest student organization at UGA, founded in 1803.*
  • Joyce Dewitt (Janet on the 70’s television comedy Three's Company) did forensics in Indiana.
  • Critically acclaimed actor James Earl Jones competed in forensics and credits his training in speech with helping overcome stagefright and a stutter. In addition to his on screen roles, he is the voice behind the CNN slogan “This is CNN” and he has also given life to the sinister character Darth Vader in the Star Wars series.
  • Recording star Bruce Springsteen was the New Jersey High School Extemporaneous Speaking champion.
  • James Dean competed in interpretation in high school.
  • Steve Buscemi (actor who starred in Fargo, Reservoir Dogs, Armageddon, etc.) competed for Valley Stream Central High School in Brooklyn, NY.
  • William H. Macy (Fargo, ER, etc.) was the captain of the Allegany High School Drama Club in Cumberland, Florida, which also involved competition in what we would think of as one act. From there he then went on to understudy under David Mammet.
  • Kevin Murphy, voice of Tom Servo from television’s Mystery Science Theater 3000.


  • James Copeland, the Executive Director of the NFL (National Forensic League), said that several years ago a survey of U.S. Senators and Representatives revealed that over 60 percent had participated in high school or college forensics. A study reported on IE-L, the Internet List-Serve for Individual Events and Lincoln Douglas Debate, claimed that half of the current U.S. Senators competed in high school or college forensics, including Humphrey, Hefling, Boren, and now-deposed Packwood.
  • UN Secretary General Kofi Annan competed in the early 60’s for Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.
  • South African President Nelson Mandela debated in college.
  • Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher competed in debate.
  • Former British Prime Minister John Major competed in debate.
  • Former President Lyndon Baines Johnson taught high school debate in Texas and went on to put several of his debaters in high ranking positions in his administration.
  • George McGovern taught debate and speech at Dakota Wesleyan University and met his wife when she beat him in a round of debate as a high school competitor.
  • Edmund Muskie was a forensics competitor.
  • Attorney General Janet Reno competed.
  • Former President Richard Nixon was a debater in California.
  • Marcia Clark (lead prosecutor on the OJ Simpson case) was a debater, competing in mock trial competitions. The same is true of OJ Simpson’s defense attorneys Robert Shapiro and Johnny Cochran.
  • Floyd Abrams (a famous first amendment attorney) debated for Cornell University.
  • Former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan competed at the Interstate Oratory Association’s national tournament.
  • William Jennings Bryant also competed at the Interstate Oratory Association’s national tournament.
  • Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge competed in debate for Cathedral Prep High School in Erie, PA.
  • Diana DeGette, who replaced Pat Schroeder in Congress from the Denver district, debated four years for Colorado College.
  • John Kennedy's speech writer and executive assistant Ted Sorenson, not only debated in high school and college, but is rumored to have been able to construct antitheses like the ones that made JFK's speeches so memorable in the middle of his debate rounds.
  • Antonin Scalia is a Georgetown alum. Apparently several years ago when the debate program was under threat of de-funding, Scalia faxed a letter a support and the program was saved.



  • Oprah Winfrey was on the debate team in high school and she competed at National Forensics League nationals.
  • Dateline NBC anchor and news correspondent Jane Pauley competed in Original Oratory and earned the state championship in Girls Extemp. She had a high school rivalry in Original Oratory with Shelley Long from Cheers. Long is rumored to have beat Pauley in the state finals and went on to win the NFL national tournament in 1967 with a persuasive speech advocating sex education in public schools.
  • Tom Brokaw is rumored to have debated at South Dakota State.
  • Movie critic Roger Ebert was the State Champion in Radio Speaking in Illinois.
  • Allan Lichtman (debated for Brandeis, coached Harvard) is a regular guest commentator on public policy and political issues for CNN, MSNBC, FOX, etc.
  • Robert Shrum (debated for Georgetown, coached Boston College, Georgetown) is a political consultant and featured guest on Crossfire, C-SPAN, the Capitol Gang, etc.
  • David Bloom (#1 bid to NDT for Claremont) is an NBC correspondent, reporting on most national stories for the network (Unabomber, Starr investigation, etc.).
  • Erwin Chemerinsky (debated for Northwestern) is a law professor at USC and legal affairs commentator on CNN, MSNBC, etc.
  • Eliott Minceberg (debated for Northwestern) heads People for the American Way and is a frequent guest and commentator on news and talk programs.
  • Laurence Tribe did NDT at Harvard and won the National Championship. He has argued before the Supreme Court 30 times, most recently representing Al Gore and the Democratic position in the post-election fall out in the fall of 2000.
  • In his book, "The Uncertain Trumpet," General Maxwell Taylor, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (under John F. Kennedy) not only mentions that he was a former high school debater, but attributes his success in politics and the military high command to his involvement in debate.
  • Larry Summers (former MIT debater, Harvard econ prof) was economic advisor for the World Bank and was Clinton's chief economic advisor.
  • Philip Zelikow (former Houston and Redlands debater, govt prof at JFK School at Harvard) is the author of the recent book, "The Kennedy Tapes," revealing the taped Oval Office sessions on the Cuban Missle Crisis and other events.
  • John Graham, former Wake Forest debater, directs the risk analysis office at Harvard and was principally responsible for the research support for the inclusion of air bags as passive restraint (interesting debate case, turned case law, turned public policy). He was a prominent interviewee on the issue on a recent prime time news show.
  • Col. William Taylor, the former debate coach at West Point, serves as analyst on most national news broadcasts re: military crises. He was on several recent news programs on the potential military conflict with Iraq.
  • Danny Povinelli, former debater for U Mass, was a featured guest on a prime time news program for his work investigating language use with primates.


  • Lee Iacocca (Chrysler Corporation) also competed in Extemporaneous Speaking.
  • Dr. Henry Heimlich, inventor of the Heimlich Maneuver, did forensics at Cornell University.
  • In his book "Confessions," St. Augustine writes "from age 18 to 35, I was a teacher of public speaking....oh how wicked are the sins of men."
  • In addition to the many debates of his public career, Malcolm X debated teams from Harvard, Yale, and other New England colleges as part of the Norfolk Prison (Massachusetts) debating program. Read more about it in "'I Was Gone on Debating': Malcolm X's Prison Debates and Public Confrontations", by Robert Branham, debate coach at Bates College, published in Argumentation and Advocacy, v. 31, Winter, 1995.
  • Some famous Greek debaters include Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle.


  • Vojdik, the lawyer representing the first female to attend the Citadel.
  • Charlie Chafer - owns a company that launches human remains into space.
  • elin o'hara slavick, an artist and art professor who successfully sued on First Amendment grounds to prevent her gallery exhibition from being censored.

(Compiled by Shawnalee Whitney as of 2/22/01)

Shawnalee Whitney
Co-Director of Forensics
Associate Professor of Communication
University of Alaska Anchorage

*Interesting list but the REM claim is untrue. The song was written about a dream Michael had in which he attended a birthday party where all of the guests names shared the initials LB. Sorry. Got it from the horse's mouth.

Joe Carver
CEU Debate