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

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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

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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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August 19, 2009 - 8:26am
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