Under the Influence

The real reason Hollywood uses "555" phone numbers

While watching movies or television shows, you’ve no doubt noticed that whenever a phone number is used, it begins with 555. There is a reason for that.
The "555" phone number is used in countless Hollywood productions. (NabuPhotoBank/Shutterstock) (NabuPhotoBank/Shutterstock)

While watching movies or television shows, you've no doubt noticed that whenever a phone number is used, it begins with 555.

There is a reason for that.

Decades ago, phone numbers were very different. In those days, you needed an operator to complete the call. Phone numbers began with an easily recognized word, followed by numbers. For example, you could ask the operator for Pennsylvania 6-500.

Then, over time, the words were replaced with digits that corresponded to the first two letters of the word.

So the PE of Pennsylvania 6-500 became 73-6-500, as the letter P was found on the "7" key and the letter E was found on the "3" key.

That worked fine until it came to the "5" key - which corresponded to the letters J, K & L. Not many major cities began with those combination of letters. So the phone companies kept 555 numbers for internal use only. 555-1212 became the number for directory assistance.

When movies and TV shows began using phone numbers more frequently in their plot lines, people who actually owned those numbers started to complain that they were getting too many prank phone calls. So the phone companies reserved 555-0100 through to 555-0199 for fictional use. Some films as far back as the early '60s used the 555 prefix.

In the mid-'70s, the running joke on The Rockford Files was that every episode began with private eye Jim Rockford getting a message on his answering service from someone chasing him for money. A close-up of his phone revealed his number: 555-2368.

Another famous use of the 555 prefix was on Ghostbusters.

While almost all films and TV shows chose fake 555 numbers, one film didn't.

It was called Bruce Almighty, starring Jim Carey as Bruce. In that film, God contacts Bruce via his pager. The number that showed up was 776-2323. No area code was given, but people started calling the number all over North America to see if God would answer.

That led to a lot of angry people with the number 776-2323 having to deal with those calls. One of them was a pastor in Wisconsin who would respond to the question "Are you God?" by saying, "No, but I can take a message."

Soon, that heavenly number was creating a problem, so for the DVD release of Bruce Almighty, the movie studio changed the pager number to read 555-0123.

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