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Fame as Currency: Celebrities and Moguls Trade Success for Global Change

By Tom Watson on April 24, 20072 Comments

The halls of the Beverly Hilton are draped with elegant black and white photographs of stars from Hollywood’s golden age. Among the 3,000 attendees of the 10th annual Milken Global Conference – the philanthropists, media titans, private equity chiefs, and economists – mingle the tastefully-framed images of Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, and Lauren Bacall. And there among them is Kirk Douglas – not a portrait at all, but a living man, smaller and frailer perhaps at 90, but as forthcoming and eloquent as any speaker at this 21st century confab of the monied and powerful.

The confluence of celebrity and philanthropy has very much been a central them at this year’s Milken conference, and no one personified that collision as much as Kirk Douglas. In a softer voice slightly slurred by a stroke, Douglas was open about his life as an actor, missed opportunities, and the challenges of fame and fortune and aging.

Kirk Douglas

"You know, a stroke is a very difficult thing. You get depressed. Do you know what my wife told me when I was laying there moaning about my condition? She said ‘get your ass our of bed and go see the speech therapist.’ And what I found was this: the cure for depression is to think of others, to do for others. You can always find something to be grateful for."

A much younger man but as visibly affected by a medical malady as Douglas, Michael J. Fox spoke bluntly to a crowded ballroom throng last night during a panel on celebrity and philanthropy.

"I always tell people," he said, "that I didn’t volunteer for this job, was recruited."

"This job," of course, is the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which is dedicated to ensuring the development of a cure for Parkinson’s disease within this decade. Fox’s Foundation has raised and distributed more than $100 million toward research into Parkinson’s and related conditions, and the still-youthful actor has become a vibrant spokesperson for increased Federal funding of medical research and for stem cell research.

"When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s back in 1991, I was 29 years old and it was like being hit by a train," he said. "But eventually I realized that I was part of a community and I felt a responsibility to use my energy, to use my profile to garner some attention, to draw some attention to this situation."

Celebrity helps, but it doesn’t make things happen – that’s been a central theme among the Hollywood types here at Milken.

"You can have a passion but things don’t just fall out of the sky. It really is a matter of making it happen," said Fox. That meant creating a "fast-track" foundation, staffing it up, working with scientists, and hitting the political trail to change minds and open budgets.

Eli Broad and Sherry Lansing

A couple of years ago, Sherry Lansing was the all-powerful CEO of Paramount Pictures, and the first woman to head a major movie studio. But as she approached 60, Lansing told her bosses she was opting out – changing her life.

"I think you have a genetic need to give back," she said during a panel discussion on second careers in philanthropy. "There are people who think you are mentally ill – they just cannot understand that you don’t want to get more, that you can walk away when you’re 60. But I must tell you, I’ve felt younger than I have ever felt – I feel like when I was 22 with the whole world before me. And in nonprofit community I’ve met the purest, most decent people I’ve ever met in my life. I get up every day with total joy. The expression I use is that I’m rewired and not retired."

Lansing’s new passion is philanthropy: the Sherry Lansing Foundation works to improve educatiom, fight cancer, and get older Americans more involved in voluntary projects and philanthropy. Lansing’s Older Adult Civic Engagement movement seeks
to rally Americans over 60 – a "demographic powerhouse that is larger,
healthier, more successful and better educated than any other in
history" – and empower them to contribute their strengths and expertise
to community improvement.

"You know, in my generation, we’re all supposed to retire. But believe this is the prime time of your life, and I want to build a movement to put these people back to work to make the world a better place. I want to change the world."

Two over-60s who have changed paths – Eli Broad and Ted Turner – talked about the amount of energy they now put into their second, post-billions careers.

"You know, this country has been very good to me, my children have more
than they’ll ever need, so I asked myself, what can I do now," said Broad, whose foundation works in secondary education, medical research, the arts, and redeveloping Los Angeles. "You know
what? I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked and I’m getting more
satisfaction than I did running a Fortune 500 company."

The always-iconoclastic Turner discussed his United Nations Foundation, where he has committed more than $1 billion toward international relations and arms control. And he wasn’t always optimistic during his talk here.

"You know, in order for humanity to make it through the next 50 years, we’re going to have to solve a whole lot of problems in a hurry," he said. "We’re going to need another renaissance."

He suggested that American philanthropy could have had more success in Iraq than American military might: "If we’d have sent a bunch of doctors and teachers to Iraq, we’d have changed things for the better and they’d still want to be our friends."

Actors Bradley Whitford and his wife Jane Kaczmarek founded Clothes Off Our Back as a reaction to the glitz of awards ceremonies in Hollywood. But Whitford said that part of his role in the charity has been discussing philanthropy with his fellow celebrities.

"You know, you sometimes feel like you’re on the receiving end of the suffering Olympics," he said. "You didn’t ask for this, you didn’t expect this when celebrity hit you. I try to help them get over their self-consciousness about it. It’s that bitch-slapping against activism that you hear in the media that sometimes makes people in Hollywood wary. We’ve got a bad reputation for activism."

But he suggested that more celebrities are looking for ways to "spend" their fame wisely. And they’re finding g their own, sometimes unexpected dividend. Said Kaczmarek:

"I started tithing, and when I did I started doing research on charities I was giving to, and I was inspired, as
an antidote to so much of the cynicism you see around us. I think maybe I like myself a lot more."

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  • Brian says:

    I sometimes feel that celebrities face a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum when it comes to supporting charitable causes. If they do nothing, then they can seem callous and uncaring; if they try to do something, they get labeled opportunistic and self-serving (which, let’s be honest, in some cases is probably true).
    I think there’s got to be a balance out there, so that passionate people who care deeply about certain issues – and who happen to be celebrities – can use their position of influence (whether this influence is undue is a separate issue) to help out society for the better. We can’t put the Pandora of our celebrity-obsessed culture back in its box, so those celebrities with the ability to draw attention to important causes should be encouraged to do so, so long as they are genuine and informed.

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