Top 20 Celebrity Activists of All Time
An inside look at stars ranging from Harry Belafonte to Ronald Reagan
En español | For nearly 100 years, Hollywood stars and other celebrities have been taking on supporting — and sometimes starring — roles in politics. Some of them have left lasting marks on society, either through the causes they've advanced or the candidates they've supported. One even became president of the United States.
Here are the 20 most politically effective celebrities of all time, as selected by the editors of National Journal, a weekly magazine of politics and public affairs.
As power in the film industry shifted during the 1960s from the studios to the stars, Beatty helped to define the new opportunities available to Hollywood's brightest lights. Unsatisfied with appearing before the camera as a magnetic (if often veiled) leading man, he moved behind the scenes as a producer, director and writer.
Beatty engineered the same transition in politics. Although he campaigned some for causes and candidates through the early 1970s (especially for Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern in 1972), the cerebral, guarded and self-contained Beatty quickly came to pursue his political passions offstage. "I felt that the advertising aspect of the participation made me feel silly," he said later.
See also: Why celebrities take to the political stage.
Instead, Beatty perfected a new role: the star as strategist. In McGovern's 1972 run, and then in the 1984 presidential bid of Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado (whom he met while Hart served as McGovern's young campaign manager), Beatty exercised more influence at the upper reaches of a presidential campaign than any Hollywood figure before him.
For McGovern, Beatty did everything from organizing fundraising rock concerts to mounting a long-shot effort to persuade Hubert Humphrey to sign on as the nominee's running mate. With Hart, he was an all-purpose adviser who nudged the often wonky candidate (with mixed success) to shed the senatorial stiffness in his language and reveal more of his emotions to voters.
Hart's friendship with Beatty, then the most celebrated Hollywood Casanova of his age, stirred controversy, fairly or not, amid the questions about the state of Hart's marriage. Inside the campaign, however, even Hart's most hard-bitten advisers viewed the star as a positive, creative and oddly stabilizing influence on the tightly wound candidate.
Occasionally impractical (and sometimes inscrutable) in his advice, Beatty was never again as involved in a campaign and frequently felt alienated from a national Democratic Party that sought the center. But over his period of high-level engagement, he helped cement the idea that celebrities could do more in politics than adorn public rallies.
As a singer and an actor, Belafonte possessed the rarest of commodities for a black man in the 1950s: a public platform. For years, he deployed that asset with commitment and creativity to support the civil rights movement.
Belafonte used every tool at his disposal — his fame (he headlined rallies and fundraisers and once led a delegation of students to the Eisenhower White House to deliver a petition supporting school integration), his money (he bailed out Martin Luther King Jr. from the Birmingham, Ala., jail) and his political savvy (he served as an emissary to and bridge between not only King and Robert F. Kennedy but also King and more-impatient civil rights groups to his left). More than a public performer, Belafonte became a confidant of, and a strategist for, the civil rights leadership.
Belafonte has also demonstrated remarkable political stamina. Almost three decades after he met King, he helped organize the star-studded "We Are the World" recording in 1985 for Africa and served as a UNICEF special ambassador.
Belafonte's compass has wobbled in recent years; his comments on foreign policy veered toward the fringe, and during the George W. Bush presidency he offensively compared Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to house slaves. But no entertainer did more to help lift the stain of state-sponsored segregation from the United States.
Has a celebrity ever accumulated more political influence than Bono? No one has ever really come close. Born Paul Hewson, the lead singer for the Irish band U2 has made himself the fulcrum of an extraordinary global network of political leaders, philanthropists, development experts and celebrities dedicated to relieving poverty in the developing world, particularly Africa.
With his religious bent, Bono once sang about the day "when all the colors will bleed into one," and he sometimes seems to personally embody that convergence: He mingles as easily with heads of state onstage at Davos as he does with Bruce Springsteen at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he can sling M.B.A.-speak about reform and responsibility in poor countries as fluently as the language of Christian obligation to the needy.
Bono has demonstrated tenacity, persistence and extraordinary political dexterity in building alliances not only with left-of-center American political figures such as Bill Clinton and Bill Gates but with George W. Bush and Jesse Helms, the late archconservative senator from North Carolina, who Bono bonded with in discussion over Scripture and persuaded to attend a U2 concert.
Such shrewd political maneuvering helps explain why Bono has not only been able to raise consciousness about his issues — poverty and health needs in Africa — but also has changed the way that celebrities interact with politicians and issues. More than any single figure, he's responsible for the tilt of celebrity activism toward poverty in the developing world, the increased emphasis on direct action as a complement to government lobbying, and attention to building institutions (such as the ONE campaign he cofounded to mobilize public support for African aid in the United States).
What's more, Bono has done all this while usually maintaining a wry sense of irony about his own privileged life, only occasionally straining his audience's tolerance for sermons and emphasizing outreach over confrontation with virtually everyone he interacts with.
"He calls on everyone to be their best," actor George Clooney once told The New York Times. "If you fall short, you feel embarrassed. That's the unique thing. And we all want to be that person."
On screen, Clooney represents a throwback to a bygone age of Hollywood elegance — the closest thing to another Cary Grant that the film community has produced. In his political life, Clooney is helping to forge the emerging model of 21st-century celebrity activism.
Following a mold cut primarily by Bono (whom he freely acknowledges as an inspiration), Clooney is global in his orientation (his principal political cause has been the violence in Darfur); disciplined in his commitments (the relief telethon he organized after the Haitian earthquake was a rare break from his focus on Africa); interested more in direct action than in electoral politics (although he supports President Obama, he wasn't a visible figure in his campaign); willing to work with political leaders from both parties; measured in his public comments; and creative in his use of modern communications tools to advance his causes.
Clooney became perhaps the first celebrity with his own satellite when he partnered with Google, Harvard University and the United Nations to fund one to monitor potential violence during the voting on independence for south Sudan this year. Clooney has also been an institution builder, joining with actors Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and others to found Not on Our Watch, a group that aims to mobilize global attention in the wake of humanitarian disasters and atrocities.
Political insiders surveyed by National Journal praised his "sincerity," "hard work" and "strictly humanitarian [effort] with no taint of self-promotion." Witty, self-deprecating and dogged, Clooney is acquiring a reputation in the political world that parallels his on-camera persona — something like a car that attracts with its style but ultimately impresses for its reliability.
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.
Michael J. Fox
Since revealing in 1998 that he has Parkinson's disease, Fox has been a powerful and poignant voice for expanding federal efforts to find a cure — particularly by funding stem-cell research.
In 2006, Fox effectively campaigned for several Democratic candidates who supported stem-cell research, most memorably appearing in an ad that helped Claire McCaskill win a Senate seat in Missouri. The ad, which dramatically featured Fox shaking uncontrollably, was instantly attacked by Rush Limbaugh, but the criticism backfired and compounded the ad's impact.
Fox's influence as an advocate is rooted both in his personal connection to his cause and the persistence of his work for it. "Few celebrities have ever been associated more closely with a cause for as long as Michael J. Fox, and his selfless efforts have inspired many others to follow suit," a Democratic insider said in National Journal's survey. A Republican said: "Michael J. Fox is unequivocally No. 1, because unlike the others, he is advocating for an issue that affects him personally and profoundly. It is moving."
Even as Fox has lobbied for greater government support, his foundation has funded more than $200 million in Parkinson's research, magnifying his impact.
Next: Bob Geldof >>
The popularity of the Boomtown Rats, punk-rock pioneers, was already in decline when frontman Geldof recruited an all-star team of British rockers in 1984 under the name Band-Aid to perform a benefit single for famine-stricken African nations called "Do They Know It's Christmas?"
After that song broke sales records and raised millions of dollars, the next year, he organized Live Aid, mammoth famine-relief concerts held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia. (Geldof was knighted for his efforts.) Twenty years later, he returned with "Live 8" — 10 concerts around the globe crowded with musicians and movie stars that were timed to pressure the Group of Eight industrial nations then meeting to increase aid to Africa.
Geldof imagined celebrity activism at a previously unseen, global scale: He went further than any activist before him to convert the worldwide fame of the most iconic popular entertainers into a political force.
Next: Lee Greenwood >>
Few artifacts of pop culture have had a more lasting political impact than Greenwood's emotional 1984 ballad "God Bless the USA."
Almost immediately after its release, the song became the Republican Party's unofficial campaign anthem. It provided the soundtrack for a Ronald Reagan tribute video at the 1984 GOP convention and has been part of the campaign repertoire for every GOP presidential candidate since, not to mention a staple of country radio after the 9/11 attacks and during the first and second Persian Gulf wars.
Greenwood's ode grates on some ears as syrupy and simplistic, but in its unabashed celebration of faith, family and flag, the song both reflects and assists the GOP's transformation into an increasingly blue-collar, churchgoing, heartland party. Probably not since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal Democrats adopted Milton Ager's "Happy Days Are Here Again" has a single song been so closely identified with a political party — or so succinctly encapsulated its cultural identity.
Next: Charlton Heston >>
The solemn presence, the sculpted physique, the shoulders that could bear the weight of portraying Michelangelo and Moses: these were among the assets that Heston brought to his big-screen roles in his heyday. But an underrated strength was Heston's growl, as when his previously mute astronaut shocks his simian tormentors in the first Planet of the Apes movie with his guttural demand: "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!"
Three decades later, as president of the National Rifle Association, Heston used that same growl to help immortalize his cri de coeur: Gun-control advocates, he insisted, would pry his rifle only "from my cold, dead hands."
Heston actually showed more flexibility in his political persuasions. He began as a New Deal liberal, and he helped to organize Hollywood's participation in Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington. But Heston found Barry Goldwater's message in 1964 attractive and soon crossed over to become Hollywood's most engaged conservative — the one most likely to duel with liberals.
During the 1980s, Heston served as President Reagan's most energetic defender in the film community; he slugged through a bitter long-term public battle with Ed Asner, who was using his platform as Screen Actors Guild president to assail Reagan, his distant predecessor in the job.
From the nuclear freeze (about which he once debated Paul Newman on ABC) to gun control, Heston was a theatrical and effective, if occasionally ponderous, advocate for conservative causes.
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt
Stars are often most effective in the public arena when their political identity is an extension of their image as an entertainer. John Wayne symbolized bravery and courage so often that people invested him with those qualities when he joined debates off screen; George Clooney today similarly benefits from the Bogart-like image of rueful realism that he projects in his films.
Think of Jolie as the exception to this pattern. On screen, she often plays icy action heroes who are alluring but amoral, desirable but duplicitous. Yet over the past decade, Jolie has steadily earned respect in the international development community as a nurturing source of compassion in some of the world's most troubled places. As a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations since 2001, she has used her celebrity to shine attention on the struggles of refugees everywhere, from Cambodia and Thailand to Sierra Leone and Darfur.
"She appears to be living her commitment," a Republican said, "and it's not an easy commitment to live."
Pitt, her partner, hasn't been as publicly engaged in causes, but he has participated in Bono's ONE campaign and joined with Clooney to found the Not on Our Watch project. Pitt has made his biggest mark by raising tens of millions of dollars, and by donating millions of his own, toward the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Next: Willie Nelson >>
As a political activist, Nelson calls to mind another Texan who made a mark in Washington: "Good Time" Charlie Wilson, the late Democratic member of Congress who was known for his hard partying, his rebellious streak and his undeniable effectiveness.
Nelson isn't the typical celebrity who trades (expensive) jeans and sneakers for a briefcase and a button-down when he comes to Washington; he claims to have once smoked marijuana on the White House roof during the Carter presidency. But along with fellow singers Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Nelson played a critical role in building one of the sturdiest vehicles ever constructed for celebrity political engagement: the annual Farm Aid concerts that have raised tens of millions of dollars to support family farmers since the first show in 1985.
Nelson has had less success with his other causes: legalizing marijuana, mobilizing opposition to the Iraq war before the 2003 invasion and touting Dennis Kucinich for the Democratic presidential nomination. But the durability of the commitment to Farm Aid from Nelson and the other founders (each of whom still sits on its board) sets them apart in a field where commitment often burns as brightly, and as briefly, as fame itself.
Next: Paul Newman >>
No prominent elected officials stood with Sen. Eugene McCarthy when he launched his 1968 Democratic primary challenge to President Johnson. Fortunately for McCarthy, his few assets included one of the world's most recognized movie stars.
Newman proved a relaxed and compelling campaigner, drawing huge crowds in frozen New Hampshire. At Polish pool halls in Milwaukee during the Wisconsin primary, he also demonstrated his form from his gripping role in The Hustler, bringing cool to a candidate often considered cold.
Until his death in 2008, Newman remained a mainstay in liberal politics, part of the "Malibu Mafia" of Los Angeles donors who helped launch George McGovern's insurgency in 1972, a prominent advocate of a nuclear freeze in the 1980s and part owner of the Nation magazine in the 1990s. He used the proceeds from his eponymous Newman's Own food line to fund wide-ranging philanthropies.
For all his achievements, Newman once said that his greatest accomplishment was appearing on Richard Nixon's enemies' list.
Next: Sean Penn >>
A powerful actor known equally for his off-screen volatility and his on-camera intensity, Penn has staked out a position along, and sometimes over, the left flank of the political debate.
Abroad, he has visited Iran and Cuba and befriended Venezuela's Hugo Chavez; at home, he has been more likely to show up with Ralph Nader than with mainstream Democrats. Penn's causes have ranged from opposition to the 2003 Iraq invasion to support for gay rights.
Penn's influence, though, has come less from his vanguard political pronouncements than from the example he has set through his personal engagement with gritty challenges. He joined reconstruction efforts after Hurricane Katrina and established a relief organization in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, eventually enlisting as the manager of a refugee camp serving thousands of displaced people.
Through such efforts, Penn has helped to set a modern model for Hollywood activism that prizes direct action over lobbying Congress or embellishing campaign rallies. He has demonstrated that the best way to get in the door on Capitol Hill is to arrive with mud on your shoes.
Next: Ronald Reagan >>
Long before he was a politician, Reagan was a political force. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, and as a founding California member of Americans for Democratic Action, Reagan after World War II was a pillar of Hollywood's anti-communist left — the embattled New Deal liberals who sought a political home between the communist-influenced Popular Front organizations and the archconservative Red hunters who persecuted them.
But that was just a way station for Reagan on a journey that carried him rightward for the remainder of his life. After endorsing Democrat Harry Truman in 1948, Reagan jumped the divide to support Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and never really looked back.
From the moment Reagan made another leap from celebrity activist to California gubernatorial candidate in the 1966 race, his opponents tried to use his Hollywood background to discredit him. In a 1966 radio ad, for example, Gene Kelly declared, "I know I could play the role of a governor but that I could never really sit in his chair."
In fact, millions of voters, first in California, then nationwide, had no trouble envisioning Reagan in the big chair, partly because of the skills before the camera that he honed in Hollywood, but more important because he projected a sense of conviction and optimism that reflected some of the nation's deepest beliefs and most-cherished myths.
Reagan's rise to the presidency offered the kind of irony that somehow seems more appropriate to a foreign film: Hollywood has leaned left since FDR, but its most important political export proved to be a heartland Republican who redefined and reinvigorated modern conservatism.
Next: Robert Redford >>
Compared with most celebrity activists, Redford took a measured path into politics. He didn't become engaged until after he became a breakout star as Paul Newman's sidekick in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and even then he first undertook a local issue (blocking the building of a highway through a canyon near his Utah home).
From that initial seed blossomed decades of involvement in environmental causes; no film star has been more closely identified with the green movement.
Like Warren Beatty, Redford has always seemed keenly aware of the public's limited tolerance for instruction from entertainers. At times, that's led him, again like Beatty, to prefer an off-screen role in his activism — as he did during the Reagan presidency in organizing quiet conferences that convened environmentalists and industry leaders, with mixed success, to bridge their differences.
But in recent years, Redford has again played a more visible and, at times, confrontational part: After the BP oil spill last spring, he recorded a bristling five-minute video for the Natural Resources Defense Council in which he declared, "When I hear some of the energy companies advertising themselves as conservationists ... I want to throw up."
Next: Frank Sinatra >>
Politics was always very personal for "the Chairman of the Board," who started his career as an FDR liberal and ended it as a Ronald Reagan conservative.
Reared in a tough, racially mixed New Jersey neighborhood (by a mother active in the local Democratic Party), Sinatra brought to his political engagement a straightforward New Deal populism that viewed Democrats as the party of "the little man." He fell hard for FDR in 1944 and campaigned for every Democratic presidential candidate over the next quarter-century.
Although often crude and even brutal in his personal relationships, Sinatra also showed an early sensitivity to civil rights issues. Still wiry and imperially slim in 1945, he starred that year in a short film (and sang the title song for) The House I Live In — a plea for racial and ethnic tolerance that won a special Academy Award. In 1961, he gathered his glittering Rat Pack for a Carnegie Hall fundraiser for Martin Luther King Jr.
Sinatra's closest political connection was with John F. Kennedy, who brought to politics the same wry and icy cool that Sinatra embodied in entertainment. Sinatra's services for Kennedy ranged from campaign appearances to recording his campaign anthem (Sammy Cahn's politically tweaked version of his "High Hopes") to he organized Reagan's inaugural gala two decades, and a long political journey, after he had done the same to christen Camelot.
Next: Barbra Streisand >>
Few stars have shown more longevity in their political commitments than the flamboyant and impassioned Streisand, who has lent her soaring soprano to Democratic presidential candidates from Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The list of causes she has embraced spans decades — from Daniel Ellsberg's defense fund to post-Chernobyl opposition to nuclear power to her early involvement in the debate over global climate change.
But Streisand's greatest political impact came when she emerged from a self-imposed exile from politics and public performing in 1986 to sing at a fundraising gala she held at her Malibu home for Democratic Senate candidates. The event pulled in $1.5 million — a huge sum at the time — and helped Democrats recapture the Senate that fall. It also signaled Hollywood's revival as a fundraising powerhouse for left-leaning causes after the decline of its '60s-era liberal establishment.
With her star power, Streisand widened the path from Washington to Hollywood — deepening the conviction in the capital that an unparalleled pot of gold awaited along the Pacific.
Next: Elizabeth Taylor >>
Taylor's career arc took her from child star to global sex symbol to tabloid magnet, and she was better known to many for her multiple marriages than her compelling acting. But in the 1980s, Taylor unexpectedly emerged as a powerful voice for tolerance and compassion in the frightening first years of the AIDS epidemic.
Taylor testified in Congress for more AIDS funding and founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research with Mathilde Krim, a researcher at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the wife of Hollywood titan Arthur Krim (himself a major power in Democratic politics).
Taylor's greatest impact, however, may have come through the simple decency of being seen hugging and kissing Rock Hudson, her co-star in the classic 1956 film Giant, while he lay in the hospital after an AIDS diagnosis — at a time when many people still feared that casual contact could spread the disease. (His illness helped spur her activism.) Later, she quietly paid bills for friends and even strangers suffering from the disease, and visited them in hospitals. Few celebrities ever risked their fame on a cause shrouded in such a social stigma.
Next: John Wayne >>
As a political activist, Wayne was less important for what he did than for what he symbolized. He was relatively reticent as an advocate.
Although he served as the president of a conservative Hollywood group that supported the purge of communists (and liberals linked to them) from the entertainment industry during the blacklist era and later campaigned for Richard Nixon (including an appearance at the 1968 GOP convention), Wayne wasn't a regular on the campaign trail. Nor was he as aggressive as later generations of stars in using his celebrity to deliver political pronouncements.
Mostly he influenced politics as a symbol of patriotism and strength; he lent to conservative causes and politicians an aura of rectitude and resolve that by the 1960s struck more-cosmopolitan ears as simplistic if not jingoistic but that still resonated powerfully with the cultural traditionalists who became known as "the silent majority."
It was no coincidence that Reagan, in the election-eve broadcast of his 1980 campaign, cited not another political leader but the recently deceased Wayne as the antithesis of President Carter's fear of American "malaise" and decline. "Duke Wayne did not believe our country was ready for the dustbin of history," Reagan declared, genuflecting at one of the few celebrity images constructed from even more primal American iconography than his own.
Next: Orson Welles >>
Those who remember Welles, if at all, only as the bloated pitchman for middle-brow winemaker Paul Masson, probably can't imagine what a meteor he was when he emerged as a triple-threat writer-director-actor on Broadway and then in Hollywood in the late 1930s. The auteur of Citizen Kane blazed as brightly across the political world, campaigning tirelessly for Franklin Roosevelt (even standing in against GOP presidential nominee Thomas Dewey at one 1944 event), enlisting in causes from civil rights to global peace, and penning a column for the New York Post, then a pillar of liberal thought.
In 1946, Welles even seriously considered seeking a U.S. Senate seat from California until he was dissuaded partly by a young Democratic activist named Alan Cranston, a future senator himself. On screen and off, Welles' youthful brilliance soon burned out. But over an incandescent decade, he set a standard for substantive engagement with politics that very few of his celebrity successors would match.
Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal and the author of The Power and the Glitter: The Hollywood-Washington Connection. Some of the material in this article was adapted from that book.
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