Category Archives: Celebrity Heroes

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: Heroic Dancing Virtuosos

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

One popular genre of hero stories focuses on the tale of the buddy heroes.  These are heroes who pair up, enjoy great chemistry, display friendly friction, and perform heroic acts together that they could not perform individually.  Buddy hero stories have long graced the silver screen, television, and novels.  Examples include Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thelma and Louise, Starsky and Hutch, Cagney and Lacey, The Hardy Boys, Tango and Cash, and The Blues Brothers.  Buddy hero stories differ from hero-sidekick stories in that buddy heroes are equals with complementary skill sets.  With buddy heroes, there is no dominant star; each is a force, and working together they can produce magic.

In the performing arts, perhaps no pair of heroes was more dominant and more revered than the dance team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  As with many buddy heroes, Astaire and Rogers were an unlikely pair.  Astaire was balding, less than handsome, and somewhat awkward as an actor.  His dancing, however, was poetry in motion, astonishing in its rhythm and technical virtuosity.

Ginger Rogers was beautiful, seductive, and comedic.  Her dancing was a notch below that of Astaire, but her playful coquettish style and natural charisma complemented him well.  Katherine Hepburn once observed, “He gives her class and she gives him sex.”  Together, Astaire and Rogers were greater than the sum of their parts.  No other dance team could compare.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers appeared in ten musical films together and revolutionized the musical film genre.  They dazzled audiences with their inventive flair.  Astaire was especially singled out for his skill and creativity on the dance floor.  Famed theater producer Jerome Robbins noted that “Astaire’s dancing looks so simple, so disarming, so easy, yet the understructure, the way he sets the steps on, over or against the music, is so surprising and inventive.” His perfectionism was legendary, yet he remained humble.  “I’ve never yet got anything 100% right,” he said. “Still it’s never as bad as I think it is.”

Alastair Macaulay from the New York Times once wrote, “Dancing together, Astaire and Rogers expressed many of love’s moods: courtship and seduction, repartee and responsiveness, teasing and challenge, the surprise of newfound harmony, the happy recapture of bygone romance, the giddy exhilaration of high spirits and intense mutual accord, the sense of a perfect balance of power, the tragedy of parting and, not least, the sense of love as role playing.”

Fred Astaire himself acknowledged that Ginger Rogers was by far his best dance partner.  “After a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong,” he said.  “Ginger was brilliantly effective. She made everything work for her. Actually she made things very fine for both of us and she deserves most of the credit for our success.”  Although Astaire was singled out more often for his dancing prowess, many people appreciated Rogers’ great talent and believed she was underrated.  Said one fan, “Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, backwards and on high heels.”

Below is a collage of dance routines performed by the great Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Emma Watson: Wizard and Hero

By Carolyn Flannery, Nora Tocheny, & Briana Robinson

British actress and model Emma Watson was born on April 15, 1990. She became a household name when, at the age of nine, she was cast as the strong, charismatic Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movie series. Watson auditioned for the part as Hermione because her friends did and because it would “be a laugh”. Although she didn’t take the audition seriously, her drama teacher and casting agents saw great potential in her.

She starred in eight Harry Potter movies, and has gone on to attract prominent roles in other movies and television shows. Her acting career has earned her many awards, such as the Young Artist Award, two Otto Awards, Child Performance of the Year Award, and many more.

Even though Emma Watson had many cinematic successes, becoming a world famous actress did not steer Emma Watson away from continuing her education. In 2009, Watson attended the prestigious Brown University while continuing her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter franchise. She took a year off from her education to act in several movies, but eventually received her bachelor’s degree in English Literature.

Not only is Emma Watson known as an accomplished actress, she was also named a Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women and has traveled to Bangladesh, Zambia, and Uruguay to advocate for human rights. In her September 20 speech for the United Nations, she launched the new HeforShe campaign that aims to bring men into the fight for gender equality. This speech earned her a standing ovation and began a national conversation about gender and feminism.

The HeforShe campaign advocates for gender equality as a human rights issue involving both sexes, a message Watson clearly expressed in her speech. Watson proclaims that feminism has become synonymous with “man-hating”, a negative stigma that has thwarted the advancement of gender equality. As a self-declared feminist, Watson explains how both women and men are targets of gender bias, and she urges both men and women to work together to modify today’s social norms. Emma Watson focuses her message to men and women of all ages.  She spoke out for human equality, motivating everyone to take a stand for what they believe in by saying, “If not you, who? If not now, when?”

Emma Watson embodies the qualities of a hero through her strong dedication to achieving her goals and advocating for worthy causes. She is an incredibly successful actress, and has many more achievements that are central in her everyday life. Her acting has brought her worldwide fame, and she uses her fame in a positive way to actively support humanitarian efforts. For example, she supports UNICEF on her official fan page and asks her fans to donate.

Watson also is involved with smaller charities, such as Blue Peter’s Mission Nutrition, and Wild Trout Trust. She has collaborated with Peopletree, a fair trade ecologically friendly fashion company that establishes production facilities in developing countries to provide community members with economic support through employment opportunities. Emma Watson has had a positive and enduring influence on society and has advanced numerous humanitarian causes, making her a role model and modern day hero.

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Carolyn Flannery, Nora Tocheny, & Briana Robinson are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class.

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Sidney Poitier: Quiet Revolutionary

© 2013 Rick Hutchins

The word revolution suggests noise. People will do a lot to draw attention to their cause; yelling and shouting is usually the least of it. But some revolutions happen quietly, peacefully, inevitably. All Sidney Poitier had to do to change the world was to be Sidney Poitier.

His humble beginnings did not in any way suggest greatness. A premature baby born to a poor farming family from the Bahamas, he survived infancy against the odds. His early life in the islands, in Miami and in New York was an anonymous one of farming and odd jobs, primarily washing dishes. He did not learn to read until his late teens. After a stint in the army, he simply went back to washing dishes. While he was able to gain a spot in the American Negro Theater, his early appearances were not applauded.

Then things changed. One successful role on Broadway led to another, which led to a notable role in the film No Way Out, which led to more Hollywood successes. Suddenly this quiet, perseverant man was a star — the first Black actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award, then the first Black actor win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

But he was more than that. In the tempestuous 1960s, in the midst of the Civil Rights Era, a time of race riots and student protests and a counter-cultural overturning of tradition, a time of clashes between generations and ideologies and bewildered bystanders, a time in which the pent-up anger of centuries came to a head, Sidney Poitier found himself to be a role model. Without any ambition to do so, he touched the lives of millions.

You could hear a pin drop.

This is not to say there was no controversy; nothing and no one is immune to that. There were accusations of tokenism, of appeasement. With his serene manner, his gentle voice — even after all these years still informed by a gentle island lilt — and his general thoughtfulness, this gentleman was deemed by many to be inadequate to the revolution. As the only major Black actor of his time, he was encouraged to take stronger, grittier, more controversial roles — in the parlance of the age, Blacker roles.

Poitier was conflicted. He did not disagree, since, as does any artist, he thrived on challenge. But, in his thoughtful way, he determined that living up to his own expectations as a role model was more important. He did indeed tackle the great racial issues of his time– a man of his character could do no less– but he did it his own way.

In the classic film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, a movie whose theme of the marriage between a Black man and a White woman (miscegenation!) was still unspeakably scandalous to much of the nation, his character quietly said to his father, “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”

And that was it. While others accused and attacked, he led by example. While others incited passion, he incited peace. While others were fighting battles, he won the war by teaching us that the entire conflict was based on a lie.

Of course it’s not over, even after all these decades; the troubled times are not behind us. There is still racism and chauvinism, still confusion and chaos, still antisocial throwbacks and self-serving crusaders. Even so, standing serenely above them all is a giant named Sidney Poitier– actor, director, author, diplomat– a role model for those with sincerity in their hearts, a leader for those who will listen.

Sidney Poitier, you see, is not too quiet — the world is simply too loud.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and is a regular contributor to this blog.  In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

Two of Hutchins’ previous essays on heroes appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

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Josephine Baker: Bronze Venus

By Rick Hutchins

Pulp Fiction abounds with larger-than-life heroes who seemingly achieve more than any mere mortal could hope to accomplish in one lifetime. Mainstream society rejects such notions as mere Romanticism and advises us to set our sights lower — however, such people do exist.

This is the story of one such person.

The woman who would become known as the Bronze Venus was born into a life of poverty in the Negro slums of St. Louis in 1906, the daughter of Vaudeville performers. She did not intend to follow in her parents’ footsteps. However, abandoned by her father and abused as the domestic servant of a wealthy family, she found herself homeless and starving on the city streets; so, when dancing for pennies on the corner led to an invitation to perform in a local chorus line, she was not slow to accept.

Her natural talents quickly became apparent. Before she was out of her teens, she had moved to New York and had become the highest paid chorus girl in Vaudeville. By her early 20s, she was charming audiences in at the Folies Bergère in Paris with her uninhibited eroticism and comedic antics.

Josephine Baker quickly became one of the most famous women in the world. Her success allowed her to be financially independent, quite rare for a woman of that era and unheard of for a Black woman. As an artist, she was an innovator. In addition to pushing the boundaries of eroticism and nudity, even by the standards of the Roaring 20s, she was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture and is credited with introducing the Jazz Age to Europe.

After more than a decade of increasing success as an exotic performer (complete with pet cheetah), mitigated only somewhat by experiences with racism in the United States, Baker had become a French citizen and did not hesitate to answer the call when World War II broke out. She was recruited by French Military Intelligence and, later, the French Resistance to obtain and conduct information vital to the war effort.

Her celebrity status allowed her to rub shoulders with movers and shakers at embassies throughout Europe and her charm allowed her to gather data about enemy airfields, harbors, and troop movements, which she would then convey written in invisible ink on her sheet music and in notes pinned in her underwear. She was, in short, a spy. In addition, her home in the south of France became an unofficial headquarters for the Free French movement, where operatives could obtain visas.

Throughout the war, Baker also performed freely for the troops and worked as a nurse for the Red Cross. Many Allied soldiers remembered her generosity and healing ministrations throughout the remainder of their lives.

For her efforts, she was awarded the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.

After the war ended, Baker’s celebrity status was heightened by her wartime heroism, and she was not afraid to use her newfound clout. Returning to the United States after many years, she refused to perform for segregated audiences– most venues, most notably in Miami and Las Vegas, gave in to her demands, resulting in a sold-out national tour. She was named the NAACP Woman of the Year in 1951 and May 20th was declared Josephine Baker Day. A parade was held in her honor.

All was not wine and roses, however. She was turned away by dozens of hotels for being Black and received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. A confrontation at the New York Stork Club (in which she was befriended by Grace Kelly, a hero in her own right), resulted in the revocation of her visa for several years.

Nevertheless, Baker continued to work with the Civil Rights Movement, and was an ally of the NAACP and Martin Luther King. She spoke at the historic March on Washington in 1963 (the only woman to do so) and was heartened by the sight of so many Blacks and Whites standing shoulder to shoulder. “Salt and pepper,” she said. “Just what it should be.” When Doctor King was killed, she was offered the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement by his widow, but she declined. By then, she had a family to think about.

Her family at that time consisted of her husband, Jo Bouillon, a French conductor, and a dozen adopted children who she called her Rainbow Tribe (as well as a menagerie of exotic pets). The children were of a variety of backgrounds– European, Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern– and were a testament to Baker’s belief that “Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”

Josephine Baker died in 1975 from a cerebral hemorrhage, following a retrospective performance in Paris that was attended by celebrities, royalty, and dignitaries from all over the world. She received full French military honors and a public funeral attended by tens of thousands.

Today there are parks and streets that bear her name, she is the subject of multiple books, movies and plays, and there are museums and memorials from Missouri to Monte Carlo that pay tribute to this underprivileged Black woman from the streets of St. Louis who championed sexual freedom, provided a role model for independent women, fought the Axis, stared down the Klan, and set an example of human fellowship that is still needed today.

Mere Romanticism indeed. Such people do exist.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and is a regular contributor to this blog.  In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

Two of Hutchins’ previous essays on heroes appear in our book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

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Grace Kelly: A Friend Indeed

By Rick Hutchins

Movie stars and royalty are often considered heroes by those who find inspiration in their talent, perseverance, generosity and leadership. In those terms, Grace Patricia Kelly, who won an Academy Award at age twenty-four and became Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco at age twenty-six is twice a hero. However, the true heroism of this remarkable woman is both more personal and more profound.

In 1951, the Stork Club in New York City was a popular haunt of celebrities from both Hollywood and Washington. Grace Kelly, at that time, was a young actress of stage and television about to begin a career in film. As she dined with some friends and colleagues one night, she was witness to what was an all-too-common event in those days — a woman being refused service because of the color of her skin. That woman turned out to be Josephine Baker, an internationally famous singer and exotic dancer (herself a hero of WWII and the Civil Rights Movement), who, at that time, was a far bigger celebrity than Grace Kelly.

With no thought to the possible consequences to her own career, Kelly left her dinner, took Baker by the arm and departed for more welcoming pastures (to their credit, her companions followed suit). She vowed never to return to the Stork Club and she kept that promise. From that night onward, Grace Kelly and Josephine Baker were lifelong friends.

The next several years brought amazing changes for Kelly. She quickly became one of America’s most beloved actresses. In 1955, she headed the U.S. delegation to the Cannes Film Festival and there met Prince Rainier of Monaco. The prince knew a princess when he saw one and a few months later he made a reciprocal trip to the United States where he proposed marriage.

Josephine Baker’s fortunes, unfortunately, did not fare as well. Branded a communist by the HUAC, likely as a consequence of her charges of racism against the Stork Club, whose owner was a friend of J. Edgar Hoover, she was banned from the U.S.  Her luck went downhill from there, but her friend did not forget her. When her difficulties ultimately resulted in bankruptcy, Princess Grace gave her a villa for herself and the twelve multiethnic orphans she had adopted in better times, and offered financial support as well. In fact, Baker’s final show, a glowingly reviewed retrospective performance in Paris, given only days before her death, was financed (and attended by) the princess and her prince.

In 1982, Princess Grace suffered a stroke behind the wheel of her car; she died as a result of injuries suffered in the crash. Throughout her short life, she proved herself a true philanthropist, always using her fame and wealth and status to promote the betterment of mankind, work that still continues today through the Princess Grace Foundation. However, nothing exemplifies her heroic character more than that one selfless act of friendship to a stranger, in the days when that was all she had to offer.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and has been an avid admirer of heroism since the groovy 60s. In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

This is Hutchins’ sixth guest blog post here.  His first two, on astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, will appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

Michael J. Fox’s Heroic Battle With Parkinson’s Disease

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In a previous blog post, we discussed the courageous story of actor Christopher Reeve, who suffered a paralyzing accident in the prime of his life.  With the help and support of his remarkable wife Dana, Christopher emerged as a gutsy champion of philanthropic causes and an inspiring hero to millions of people.  A similar story describes the life of actor Michael J. Fox.  An ultra-successful artist and comedic talent, Fox contracted Parkinson’s disease as a young man and has waged a courageous and inspiring battle ever since.

Fox first made his mark in Hollywood in his portrayal as teenager Alex Keaton in the popular television series Family Ties during the 1980s.  He then made the successful transition to feature films, his breakthrough performance coming in the blockbuster film trilogy Back to the Future.  Fox was on top of the world.  He was rich, handsome, talented, and wildly successful at his craft.  He even married the woman of his dreams, Tracy Pollan, in 1988.

Fox’s life then took a tragic, unexpected turn.  In 1991, he received the devastating diagnosis from doctors:  He had Parkinson’s disease, an incurable degenerative illness that attacks the central nervous system.  Fox continued his acting career while taking medications and undergoing numerous medical procedures.  But while starring in the hit television series Spin City ten years ago, he went public with his disease, acknowledging his steady decline and his need to curtail his acting.

His goals during his semi-retirement have been twofold:  Spend more time with his wife Tracy and their four children, and devote his remaining energies toward finding a cure for Parkinson’s.  Fox has been a workhorse in that regard.  His foundation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, was created to help promote and support research aimed at curing Parkinson’s disease, primarily through embryonic stem cell studies.

Fox has testified a number of times before Congress to increase federal funding to defeat Parkinson’s.  He’s also rallied support from both Democrats and Republicans, using his fame and inspirational story to garner funding for his cause.  Said Fox: “Medical science has proven time and again that when the resources are provided, great progress in the treatment, cure, and prevention of disease can occur.”

The life we plan to lead is rarely the life we actually lead.  Twenty years ago, Michael J. Fox probably thought that he’d only make his mark in the world as an entertainer.  Life threw him a cruel curve, however.  Like many heroes, Fox has risen to the challenge with great aplomb and grace.  Rather than moving people with his acting, he is moving people in a far more significant and life-affirming way:  As a tireless advocate of funding and research aimed at defeating his crippling disease.  Fox’s steadfast commitment to triumphing over adversity is truly heroic.

Fox’s work has earned him some well-deserved recognition:  In 2007, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 people “whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world.”  We wish him well on his remarkable journey.

Below is a clip from Katie Couric’s interview with Michael J. Fox in 2006.