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Actors Making Statements

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These stars risked their careers to take a stand for what they considered the right thing.

Celebrity is a powerful thing in our world. Many actors and actresses use their fame to advance the causes and political positions they care about. It's not unusual to hear a movie star voice an opinion on current events or to see one prominently featured on a charitable organization's advertising. A celebrity endorsement can do a lot for a cause, and it's usually easy for a star to pitch in by loaning their face and words to the fight

Some actors, though, have gone beyond a simple endorsement … even beyond the hands-on work that today's stars like Angelina Jolie, Mark Ruffalo and Matt Damon do for the causes they care about. Some stars risked their careers to take a stand for what they considered the right thing.

Werner Klemperer, who died Dec. 6, 2000, 15 years ago, was one of those stars who used his career to make a statement. Klemperer was born in Cologne, Germany in 1920, the son of a Jewish father. As the Nazi party's power rose in Europe, it became more and more apparent that it would be prudent to leave, so in Klemperer's 15th year, the family immigrated to the United States. When the U.S. entered World War II, Klemperer served his new country by joining the U.S. Army. It would be decades before his acting career began and even longer until he took the role most indelibly associated with him, but when he was offered that role, he remembered his roots.

When Hogan's Heroes debuted in 1965, World War II was not the distant memory it is today, and the horrors of the Holocaust were still fresh in many minds. Some bristled at the idea of a sitcom centered on a German prisoner of war camp, wondering whether it was an appropriate source of humor. But when Klemperer was offered the part of Colonel Klink, a member of the Nazi party, he insisted that he could only take it if his character would never be anything more than a buffoon. "If they ever wrote a segment whereby Colonel Klink would come out the hero, I would leave the show," he later remembered, and he never had to follow through with that threat, because his Klink was simply ridiculous.

Without taking the Hogan's Heroes role, Klemperer's career might never have risen above a blip on the entertainment world's radar, but he was willing to risk it on principle. By doing so, he affected the show's characterization of its Nazis and helped reduce their power over our memory by showing us how to laugh at them.

Klemperer wasn't the only actor in days past to make a statement via his career. Here are a few other actors who maintained their principles no matter what.

Josephine Baker was just as anti-Nazi as Klemperer was, and she too took the opportunity to fight for freedom during World War II. When World War II began, Baker was already famous, a celebrated dancer who became the first African-American woman to star in a major motion picture, 1934's Zouzou. A well-known actress in the U.S., she was a superstar in France, where she made her home after her earliest days of success. When that home was under threat, she risked not just her career but her life by joining the legendary French Resistance.

After France was occupied by Germany in 1940, a committed underground of freedom fighters worked to liberate their country from Nazi power. They sabotaged German operations, spread anti-Nazi and pro-France propaganda, and created a network of spies to carry vital information about the war. Baker became one of those spies, using her irresistible charm to gain crucial secrets and information. While traveling from one performing engagement to another, she smuggled that information past enemy officials to those who needed it by writing it in invisible ink on her sheet music, knowing that those pages should seem completely innocent in the hands of a beloved entertainer.

Baker's activities were of crucial importance to the French resistance, and she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and was made a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. Her commitment to justice didn't end with the liberation of France: Back in America, she became a major figure in the civil rights movement, so important to the cause that upon the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his widow asked Baker to lead the movement.

Frank Sinatra was another of many entertainers who loaned his powerful stardom to the civil rights cause, and he did it in the most natural of ways. He simply refused to let the prejudices of others stop him from working with the best of the best and entertaining all people, regardless of the color of their skin.

Sinatra respected greatness, always admiring his fellow artists and making no distinction between a Bing Crosby and a Nat King Cole, a Sarah Vaughan and a Dinah Shore. And when it came to the artists with whom he worked, he wanted top quality. He was one of the early performers to insist that his backing orchestras be fully integrated, giving opportunities to performers of all races to excel.

Sinatra was also one of several performers in the 1940s and '50s who refused to work at segregated clubs. And this was at a time when segregation was still widespread and accepted under the law. It could be a genuine hindrance to a touring schedule to insist upon only performing in venues that accepted audiences and performers of all colors, but for ahead-of-their-time entertainers like Sinatra, it was the only choice. This insistence worked magic upon the entertainment industry: Instead of turning down a chance at a Sinatra appearance, many club owners agreed to allow integrated audiences. These venues were in the vanguard of U.S. integration, modeling for the rest of the U.S. what things would look like a few decades down the road.

Lucille Ball brought a different kind of integration to the U.S. public: She made sure they saw a positive portrayal of an interethnic marriage. She did it with the powerful platform of her wildly popular sitcom I Love Lucy.

Ball was already a successful actress in the movies and on the radio in the late 1940s, when she took a starring role in the radio show that would become the prototype for I Love Lucy – My Favorite Husband. She was also, by then, married to the talented Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz. TV execs wanted Ball to star in a TV version of My Favorite Husband, and she was game for the idea, but on one condition: She would only star opposite her real-life husband.

The network balked, concerned about the message an interethnic relationship would send to viewers. Not only was it unprecedented on the big or small screen, but miscegenation was still illegal in several states. Execs begged Ball to let them cast a white actor to play her husband, but she insisted that the show was off the table if it didn't co-star Arnaz. Her star power eventually won the battle, and Ball and Arnaz were able to showcase diversity while becoming two of the most massive TV stars of all time.

Paul Robeson stood up to a force every bit as powerful as the executives of a major TV network: the House Un-American Activities Committee. This committee was the driving force behind the anti-communist frenzy of the 1950s, and they were responsible for the blacklisting of hundreds of entertainers who dared to defy the committee.

By the early 1940s, Robeson was a major star, playing Othello on Broadway to great critical acclaim as well as starring in movies and showcasing his rich singing voice on the radio. At the same time, he was experiencing a political awakening, becoming one of the leading voices speaking out for the civil rights movement and discovering an attractive tendency toward racial equality in the beliefs of the Communist Party. He aligned himself with that party, a potentially fatal move in the climate of the early Cold War.

As he spoke out against segregation and Jim Crow laws and in favor of communism, he inevitably caught the attention of HUAC, which questioned him on his involvement with the party. Refusing to deny his alignment with communist principles – and calling America a fascist state for its unequal treatment of African-Americans – he repeatedly thumbed his nose at the powerful committee's demands. The result was complete and total blacklisting in Hollywood, the end of his career coming along with denial of his passport by the U.S. Some of the blacklisted were able to come back and revive their careers after the communist scare died down, but Robeson wasn't among them. His loyalty to his beliefs had cost him his livelihood.

Marlon Brando made a bold statement against injustice when he turned his back on one of the most respected institutions in Hollywood: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His 1973 rejection of his Oscar for his performance in The Godfather became one of the best-known, but least-understood stands for justice in Hollywood history

Brando had long been a champion of equality, participating in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington and supporting groups including the Black Panthers. With the early 1970s came a new focus on the rights of Native Americans, and Brando threw his heart into this cause as well. Of particular concern to Brando was the skewed portrayal of their culture popularized in Hollywood, from Westerns that envisioned Native Americans as murderous villains to the tendency of movie execs to cast white actors in prominent Native American roles rather than considering native actors for those roles.

As Native Americans carried out protests on Alcatraz and at Wounded Knee, Brando brought his to TV screens across America when he opted out of the Oscars ceremony and asked a Native American actress, Sacheen Littlefeather, to represent him onstage and read a long and passionate speech he had prepared. Time constraints prevented Littlefeather from reading the bulk of the speech, and Brando's protest didn't feel clear to the viewers who watched the shortened speech. Both Brando and Littlefeather faced ridicule in the wake of the event. The full speech helps to clarify Brando's intent.