Mental Floss

7 Movie Stars Who Really Were Heroes

Mark Juddery
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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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3. Brigitte Helm

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4. Paul Robeson

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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 As the Cold War deepened, he was marked as a Communist, and his passport was revoked.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

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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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