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Top 20 Celebrity Activists of All Time

An inside look at stars ranging from Harry Belafonte to Ronald Reagan

Melvyn Douglas stars with Greta Garbo in Ninotchka

Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in the 1939 film Ninotchka, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. — Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Melvyn Douglas and Helen Gahagan Douglas


Glamorous and urbane, earnest and committed, they were the first couple of New Deal liberalism during the formative years of Hollywood's political development.

Initially Melvyn was the driving force — a mainstay of sophisticated MGM comedies (renowned as "the man who made Garbo laugh" in the 1939 classic Ninotchka). Douglas also proved a born political organizer. He played a central role in building the lustrous Hollywood Popular Front groups that sought to mobilize opposition to Hitler and support for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War; in 1938, he took the lead in creating the Motion Picture Democratic Committee, Hollywood's first organization focused on electoral politics.

A popular and energetic campaigner, Douglas was rewarded for his activism in 1940 by becoming the first celebrity elected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. That convention, ironically, marked the turning point at which his wife, a singer and actress with a deep commitment to the poor, assumed the family's leading political role: During the 1940 campaign, she appeared tirelessly for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, even accepting an appointment as the California Democratic Party's vice chairwoman.

In 1944, Helen was elected to Congress (FDR promoted her as the Democratic alternative to the arch and elegant Republican Rep. Clare Boothe Luce). She served three terms before losing the 1950 California Senate race to Richard Nixon, who famously branded her "the pink lady" and unfairly accused her of being a communist sympathizer. (In fact, both Helen and Melvyn had frequently sparred with communists in the Popular Front groups.)

Neither Douglas engaged much in politics thereafter; Melvyn was "gray-listed" as a "premature anti-Fascist," and he did not work regularly again until the 1960s. But more than any others in Hollywood's founding generation of activists, they demonstrated how many doors in Washington would open to politically engaged stars.

Next: Michael J. Fox >>

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