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7 Movie Stars Who Really Were Heroes

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For over a century, movie stars have brought countless screen heroes to life "“ but of course, there has usually been a slight gap between the actors and the heroes they played. Yes, we know that a third of Angelina Jolie's income goes to charity, that Sean Penn took a canoe to help Hurricane Katrina victims, and that Tom Cruise once stopped to help a hit-and-run victim and paid her hospital bills. Nonetheless, most famous actors have been normal people like everyone else. But just so you don't lose your faith in movie stars, here are some who actually were heroic.

1. Marion Davies

Much as we admire the charitable acts of Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and others, Marion Davies was the pioneer. Best remembered as the lover of media baron William Randolph Hearst, this silent movie comedienne was also described by one Hearst biographer as "one of the most generous and warm-hearted women alive," known in Hollywood for her personal kindness and her work with several charities. In the 1920s and 1930s she treated underprivileged children in Los Angeles to a Christmas circus on the MGM studio lot (providing them with gifts, and food baskets to their families, at her own expense). During World War II she emptied her living room, had sewing machines installed and arranged teams of Hollywood wives to sew bandages. She also paid the hospital bills of sick children, and even today many people owe their lives to her. Admirably, most of her good deeds were not well-known at the time; they were acts of kindness, not publicity stunts.

2. Florence Lawrence

The world's first movie star (or at least, the first one whose name had marquee value), Florence Lawrence also appears in our list of actors who made a difference for her prowess as a part-time inventor. Her film career, however, ended after a studio fire in 1915, while trying to rescue someone from the flames. Her courageous act caused her to fall and suffer a back injury. This kept her out of the movies for a year, but she returned to make her first feature film. Sadly, the strain of her injury took its toll and she was paralyzed for four months. By the time she attempted a return to the screen in 1921, at the age of 35, she had already been forgotten by the public. Losing her fortune after the 1929 stock-market crash, and in chronic pain, she committed suicide in 1938.

3. Brigitte Helm

helmAnother silent movie star "“ but one who is still familiar to many young film buffs, thanks to one role: Maria, the world's sexiest robot woman, in Fritz Lang's 1926 German masterpiece Metropolis. This role made her a star at 19, and though you probably can't name a single one of her later films, she became the great statuesque beauty of Germany's silent cinema "“ and Hitler's ideal Aryan woman. However, she refused to make any more movies when the Nazis took over the film industry. Unlike many other German filmmakers, fleeing Nazi Germany, she didn't move to Hollywood in the 1930s. Instead, to really get up the Fuhrer's nose, she briefly married a Jew "“ and was found guilty of "race defilement," which ended her short-but-dazzling film career overnight. She defiantly stayed in Germany until 1935, then moved to neutral Switzerland. (She was tough, not suicidal.)

4. Paul Robeson

robesonThis important actor "“ famous for his powerful bass singing voice (his version of "Old Man River" in the 1936 movie version of Show Boat, is still considered the best) "“ must rank as one of the most amazing people to ever work in Hollywood. Valedictorian at Rutgers University, politician, elite player of at least four sports, the first African-American to be named a college football All-American, the first black actor to play Othello on-stage (in London, 1930), fluent in over 20 languages"¦ but most importantly, a voice against discrimination. As one of most respected African-Americans of the 1930s and 1940s, he had great box-office appeal. Nonetheless, he publicly quit movies in 1942, unhappy with Hollywood's portrayals of African-Americans. (Though he lived another 34 years, he never made another movie.)

Robeson continued to speak out for racial equality, alienating himself from some white Americans. He also visited the Soviet Union, believing that their socialist ideology might be a solution (though he slowly became disillusioned with this idea). As the Cold War deepened, he was marked as a Communist, and his passport was revoked. Although this embittered him, he did not renounce his American citizenship, and remained a symbol of pride for many African-Americans. Years before Martin Luther King revealed his dream, Robeson's speeches had their own rousing sentiments: "My weapons are peaceful, for it is only by peace that peace can be attained. The song of freedom must prevail."

5. Jimmy Stewart

jimmy_LIFEWhen John Wayne and Errol Flynn tried to enlist in World War II, they were deemed unfit for combat. Instead, they played several military heroes, inspiring the audiences at home. Jimmy Stewart, meanwhile, is perhaps best known for two roles: the hero of It's a Wonderful Life (who, due to partial deafness, is also unfit for combat) and the lead character of Vertigo (who suffers from a fear of heights).

The real-life Stewart had no such issues. He was the first Hollywood star to sign up for the war, the highest-ranked (Colonel), and the most decorated (including the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre and seven battle stars). He did this to serve his country; he found no joy in killing, or in watching his friends die. Disturbed by the memories, he rarely mentioned the war. When he returned, he made fewer of the wholesome, light-hearted roles that had won him his reputation, in favor of darker fare.

6. Audrey Hepburn

Apart from being the epitome of Hollywood style, Audrey Hepburn is also admired by her many fans because of her childhood struggles in Nazi-occupied Holland, where she ate tulip bulbs to survive, and witnessed Nazi soldiers executing people on the streets and herding Jews into railway cars. Despite suffering from malnutrition and depression, she became a volunteer nurse and eventually worked for the Dutch Underground. She was an inspiring and powerful lady, even decades before her tireless work as a UNICEF ambassador.

7. Christopher Reeve

Reeve was best-known for playing Superman, the most robust superhero of the movies. This led to super-typecasting. How can any role surpass the so-called "greatest of all heroes"? Sadly, Reeve himself did not share Superman's invincibility. In a 1995 horse-riding accident, he was paralyzed from the neck down. Though he was not expected to survive, he became a powerful advocate for people with spinal injuries. With his courage and determination, he easily outclassed his greatest movie role, even appearing on the cover of Time magazine, which dubbed him "Super Man." It's fine being a tough guy if you're bulletproof and super-strong, but if you can fight for a cause as a quadriplegic"¦ now that's heroism.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
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Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
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"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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