Category Archives: Celebrity Heroes

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

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

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

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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.

Oprah Winfrey: The Hero with Talent, Resilience, and Charisma

Oops!  We had to remove the hero profile you’re looking for because it will soon appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals, to be published by Routledge in 2013.

Our contract at Routledge required us to remove many of our profiles on our blog at this time.  But we do have other hero profiles and information about heroes on the menu bar located on the right side of this page.  Check it out!

In the mean time, please accept our apologies.  Here is more information about our new book.

You can click here to return to our HERO home page.  And thanks for visiting!

— Scott Allison and George Goethals

Myrna Loy: Hero On and Off Screen

By Rick Hutchins

Many actors are known for the heroic exploits of their fictional alter egos, but far fewer deserve to be called heroes in their own right. Myrna Loy is best remembered for her role as Nora Charles, the wry better half of William Powell’s Nick Charles, whom she portrayed in six Thin Man films from 1934 to 1947. In these films, Loy never failed to help bring the murderer to justice and prevent further loss of life. In real life, her acts of heroism were more subtle, yet more profound and lasting.

Born in 1905 in Montana, Myrna Loy came to southern California with her mother following the death of her father when she was 13. Here she studied dance, posed for photographers and sculptors, and was soon performing in local stage productions. A job as a dancer in Grauman’s Egyptian Theater led to her first roles as exotic femme fatales in several silent films throughout the 1920s. But it was in 1934, at the age of 29, that she landed the role of Nora Charles, making her one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and earning her the nickname “The Queen of Hollywood.”

Loy put her fame and wealth to good use. A strong opponent of racism, she lobbied against discrimination in Hollywood. “Why does every black person in the movies have to play a servant?” she asked studio executives when she was at MGM. “How about a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse carrying a briefcase?” This was in 1934, during the Great Depression and three decades before the Civil Rights Era. Later, she worked as co-chair of the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing.

When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, she went to work raising money for the Red Cross and War Relief. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, she went to work full time for the war effort, going on fund-raising tours (in full uniform) and working at a Naval Auxiliary Canteen run by Bundles for Bluejackets. As the war continued, she moved to New York and toured military hospitals throughout the east, visiting wounded and crippled soldiers and organizing shows to raise their spirits. Her outspoken statements against the Nazis earned her a spot on Hitler’s blacklist.

After the war, she faced the threat of another blacklist because of her progressive views — this time because of the rising tide of McCarthyism and the Communist Witch Hunt. As a response to the forming of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Loy helped create the Committee For The First Amendment. Also in the post-war years, she went to work for the American Association For The United Nations and as a delegate for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization).

In her roles as strong, intelligent and sexually liberated women in films such as The Thin Man, Topaze and The Barbarian, Myrna Loy epitomized the “New Woman” feminism that began in the 1920s. Her progressive views on racial and gender equality foreshadowed the dramatic social changes of the following generation. Her dedication and patriotism in the face of war, as well as her courage and moral fiber in the face of ominous developments on the home front, brought comfort and hope to many. In both fact and fiction, Myrna Loy was a heroic force to be reckoned with.

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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

Two Iron Ladies: Margaret Thatcher and Meryl Streep

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In the introductory chapter of our book Heroes, we discuss American actress Meryl Streep and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on consecutive pages.  We make the point that both women well illustrate the point that heroism is in the eye of the beholder.  Streep is not a hero to Americans as a whole, but she is to most people in the film business.  Hardly anyone would regard her as a villain.  On the other hand, most of the British public, and many Americans, have opinions about Thatcher, with different people regarding her as either a hero or a villain.

The two were recently paired in a movie that few will ever forget.  In the movie The Iron Lady, Streep portrays Thatcher in what we consider one of the best acting performances in years.   Streep has been nominated for almost two-dozen Oscars as either Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress.  Before this year, she had won twice, for Sophie’s Choice in 1983 and Kramer vs. Kramer in 1980.  And in The Iron Lady, Streep hoisted the hardware again in her role as Margaret Thatcher.   Streep’s performance is doubly impressive compared to the usual biopic.  She plays Thatcher both in her current semi-demented state, and in her prime as the longest serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century.

Thatcher herself was a highly divisive figure as Prime Minister.  The daughter of a grocer in Lincolnshire, England, she rose through the ranks of the Conservative Party by articulating and embodying middle class values and virtues that seem now almost anachronistic.  She stood more firmly on her fundamental principles than almost any other politician in a democratic state.  University of Richmond leadership scholar Gary McDowell wrote “principle, she never failed to believe, is everything, and leadership is, at least in part, a matter of great, principled truths being simply told.”  Among the principles that were central to Thatcher, McDowell added were, “individual liberty, small government and low taxes” as well as “a sense of personal responsibility.”

Thatcher was not loved by all.  Her most dramatic leadership came twenty years ago during the brief war over the Falklands Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean.  The islands are just off the coast of Argentina, and that country had long held that they, called Malvinas by the Argentines, rightfully belonged to Argentina and only British imperialism made them English.  In 1982 Argentina invaded and captured the lightly defended islands.  Under Thatcher’s leadership, Great Britain launched a major – and very expensive – military counterattack thousands of miles away from the home country.  British forces made short work of it, quickly regaining the Falklands.  In doing so, they sank an Argentine destroyer killing hundreds of sailors.

Many people, in and out of England, questioned the value of the Falklands and severely criticized Thatcher for spending so much money and wasting so many lives in order to recapture the sparsely populated islands.  For Thatcher, the principles of national sovereignty and self-defense unequivocally dictated the islands’ retaking.  She became both a hero and a villain, depending on whose eyes were beholding.

Meryl Streep acts wonderfully throughout The Iron Lady, and shows Thatcher’s steely determination best of all, perhaps, in the Falklands scenes.  The film is fascinating, and presents two possible heroes for our consideration.  It is well-worth watching.

Below Meryl Streep talks about her portrayal of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the film The Iron Lady.