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From decadent depravity to saving the world

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

TORONTO — The old Ocean's 11 Rat Pack of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. were famous for their boozing, broads and all-night bashes. Rumours of orgies, girl- swapping and debauchery, both on-set and off swirled as they cut a swath through Hollywood.

Their idea of charity was to peel off the odd $100 note for a nearby adoring fan, as they were known to do. But when the Rat Pack highball was passed to George Clooney, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt in the 2001 remake of the classic caper flick, the well-scrubbed new gang had little interest in copying their predecessors' wicked ways.

Today's Ocean's Thirteen rat packers are fighting to save starving children in Africa, stop the war in Darfur and eradicate AIDS around the world.

So much for the stereotype of self-indulgent, pampered celebrities whose paramount concern is all about me-me-me (Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan aside).

There's been a sea change in the way Hollywood's top celebrities use their high-powered celebrity status and global clout. And it seems to be making a difference.

Despite the cynics who knock them for sticking their well-chiselled noses into deathly serious business, the experts on the ground floor say the impact of these elite A-listers and their global crusading - the likes of Mr. Clooney, Mr. Pitt, Mr. Damon, Bono, and Angelina Jolie (most here for the film festival) - is substantial.

"This group consider celebrity a bad word," said Jamie Drummond, executive director of DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa), Bono's Washington-based organization to fight poverty and AIDS in Africa. "But they're intelligent enough to know that their celebrity profile has given them a global fan base that they can easily tap into to make people aware - and make a difference."

And Mr. Drummond, a British-born career human-rights activist who has worked alongside many of these stars through DATA and an affiliated advocacy group, One, describes how before Bono and Bob Geldof came on board, he could not get anyone to listen.

"A few decades ago, I used to try to get issues such as Third World debt into the mainstream media," he said. "They would not answer calls. I remember Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of The [London] Sun saying, 'Who gives a fuck about the Third World?'

"I believed then - and still do now - that if we could popularize it, and boil it down to its essence, we'd have a great narrative and story. Bono and Geldof absolutely got it. And they used their fame to spread it. There's something wrong in that?"

At noon today, the Oscar-winning acting pals Mr. Damon and Ben Affleck will saunter down a red carpet in Toronto into the private screening for Running the Sahara, a $2-million-plus documentary that they co-produced and Mr. Damon narrated.

Not officially part of the Toronto International Film Festival, the doc chronicles the gruelling expedition of three extreme marathoners (one Canadian) who ran 170 marathons in 111 days.

Inspired by this incredible physical feat, the film was also made to raise awareness and drum up funds for clean water and wells through a charity led by Mr. Damon, H2O Africa. So far the group has raised more than $500,000 (U.S.) for 50 well projects in Africa.

The Bourne star is also one of the founders of Not On Our Watch, an organization that focuses global attention and resources to stop and prevent mass atrocities such as in Darfur, along with Mr. Clooney, Mr. Pitt, Don Cheadle, and Ocean's Thirteen producer Jerry Weintraub. Mr. Damon, again along with Mr. Clooney and Mr. Pitt, also supports ONE, a DATA-linked campaign fighting AIDS and poverty in Third World countries.

There's always been a political or activist side to Hollywood and show business. But what sets this group apart from past advocates - like Hanoi Jane Fonda on her anti-aircraft gun during Vietnam - is they're not about causing scandal or sensation. Equally as political as past generations, they care more about issues - and putting the focus on those things rather than causing a spectacle.

The leap in celebrity activism may be largely due to the dissatisfaction with the Bush administration in the United States and its politics, spurring a revival of liberalism and laying the recruiting ground for activists.

Larry Tanz, a 20-year friend of Mr. Damon's from their Harvard days who co-produced Running the Sahara, points out that "celebrities have gotten bigger and better platforms. They're known all around the world. But the way they're getting involved now is smart. They don't claim to be experts. "

On Sunday night, Mr. Damon will once again preside over the star-studded One X One charity event, which has raised almost $5-million for impoverished children at home and around the globe. Dr. Eric Hoskins, president of War Child Canada and a recipient of One X One's fundraising last year, says the celebrity contribution to his organization is crucial to its success, allowing him to expand its psycho-social and education programs in western Darfur that help children in displaced camps cope with the trauma of war.

"These committed individuals have raised literally millions of dollars for the charity," Dr. Hoskins said.

When Mr. Damon finishes his duties at One X One, he's hopping a plane back to Africa with Mr. Affleck where they will join Bono's DATA organization on another tour. Proving, he's more than window dressing.

The old rat pack: Dunhill lighters and charity work

Frank Sinatra

Aside from the many charities to which Mr. Sinatra donated - and one, the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center, that he founded in the 1960s with his wife - he also had many quirky ways of giving back. He once tipped a Chicago doorman $200, and was known for giving away gold Dunhill lighters. He was also soft at heart for the hard-up and once sent all the Christmas fixings (tree and all) to a family in Seattle when he heard they wouldn't have enough money for the holiday. Another time he donated $10,000 to a residence for unwed mothers and babies because he was moved by a newspaper column on Mother's Day.

Sammy Davis Jr.

The fast-living, high-rolling singer was also known throughout the years for giving back, especially later in life. In the 1980s, he lent his name to the Sammy Davis Jr. National Liver Institute in Newark, N.J., after being treated for liver disease, and worked on fundraisers for the institute with Mr. Sinatra. He also lent a hand to the NAACP and AIDS charities.

Dean Martin

In the 1960s, the dark-haired, handsome entertainer with an Italian background lent a hand by fundraising for muscular dystrophy. He also did work for the City of Hope, a southern California biomedical research facility, which also treats cancer patients and those living with life-threatening diseases.

Joey Bishop

The only member of the group still alive, Mr. Bishop held titles such as fundraising chairman for the National Cystic Fibrosis Research Foundation in the early 1960s and even received a citation for his work with Italian-American charity Boys Towns of Italy from Pope John XXIII.

The new rat pack: African poverty and global warming

George Clooney

Aside from becoming more gorgeous every year, Mr. Clooney also becomes more generous, with a long list of charities. Among other things, he's a board member for United Way and drafted his own artwork for 21st Century Leaders, a charity that raises money by auctioning off works by celebrities and donating the proceeds to the charity of their choice.

Matt Damon

Certainly a powerhouse in both the celebrity and charity worlds, Mr. Damon is known for hosting a gala for ONEXONE during the Toronto International Film Festival to help preserve the quality of life for children both locally and globally. He also started H2O Africa, which is attempting to raise awareness about the impact of water shortages, and supports DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa), which his pal Bono chairs.

Brad Pitt

He and celebrity wife Angelina Jolie do more than just attempt to adopt most of the world's children. Recently, the duo donated $1-million to Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and another $1-million to Global Action for Children. Mr. Pitt travelled to Africa to help the Make Poverty History campaign, and has joined the global-warming bandwagon by working with Global Green, a U.S. organization that has a tripartite mission to stem global warming, address water shortages and eliminate weapons of mass destruction.

Don Cheadle

With a focus on Africa, Mr. Cheadle helped found Not On Our Watch with other Ocean's Eleven (Twelve, Thirteen) cast members to keep international attention focused on Darfur. He organizes the celebrity poker event Ante Up for Africa, which also raises funds for the Darfur region, while the ENOUGH project on which he works aims to end genocide in African countries.

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