by Len Lear
After watching characters like the Kardashians, Jessica Simpson, the Jersey Shore crowd, etc., you could be excused for concluding that all TV celebrities are brainless, shallow, hedonistic lowlifes who are polluting the world by their very presence. It might be surprising to some, therefore, to learn that there are actually TV celebrities who are thoughtful, highly intelligent, caring individuals dedicated to using their fame to make the world a better place for everyone, particularly the victims of oppression.
A perfect example is Melissa Fitzgerald, 45, who graduated from Springside School in 1983, where she was president of the Service Organization, and the University of Pennsylvania in 1987 with a degree in drama and literature. Melissa had great role models growing up in Chestnut Hill since she is the daughter of prominent judge James Fitzgerald, and her mother, Carole, has long been involved in politics and volunteer work in our community.
Melissa, who refers to herself as an “actorist” because she is both an actor and an activist, has deep roots in Chestnut Hill; she was the 2008 commencement speaker at Chestnut Hill College and also has appeared on campus for other speaking engagements. On May 17, 2008, Melissa received the “Chestnut Hill College Medal,” and in 2007 she won a writing contest on the subject of Darfur (Sudan) which was sponsored by Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times. Melissa has also been a ranked tennis player and is highly skilled in badminton, horseback riding, scuba diving, whitewater rafting and fencing.
But Melissa is undoubtedly best known to the general public for her role as Carol Fitzpatrick in the critically acclaimed TV drama series, “The West Wing,” in which Martin Sheen played a fictional president of the U.S. Fitzgerald has also appeared on “Grey’s Anatomy,” in many movies such as “The Truman Show” and “Boxing Helena,” and in numerous stage plays in New York and Los Angeles.
“My early aspirations were to follow in my father’s footsteps,” said Melissa, “but after I graduated from Penn, I moved to New York City and continued my training at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where I studied with Sanford Meisner, and I soon became an active member of the theater community as both an actor and a producer.” Melissa is also a talented singer who has performed cabaret at venues in Paris, Madrid, Los Angeles and New York, including stints at the Village Gate and Don’t Tell Mama’s.
But Melissa always felt the need to “give back.” In 1995 she founded Voices in Harmony, a non-profit community outreach theater program that mentors at-risk youth from the Los Angeles area. The program provides inner-city teenagers with positive adult role models and tutors to help them achieve in school and succeed in life.
“They are encouraged to examine issues such as drug abuse, violence, racism and prejudice,” explained Melissa. Paired with a mentor, they create an original short play or film based on how these issues affect their lives. Professional writers and directors then offer their expertise, helping the team bring their vision to the stage or screen. The result is an opportunity for the team to share their stories in order to make a positive impact on the community.
Melissa also volunteered with an AIDS organization in South Africa, but her most daunting project has undoubtedly been “Staging Hope: Acts of Peace,” a documentary film she co-produced in Uganda, East Africa, that will be shown to the public for the first time at the 20th annual Philadelphia Film Festival on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m. (tickets sold out), and Wednesday, Nov. 2, 7:35 p.m., at the Ritz East, 125 S. 2nd St., and also at the Ritz 5 on Nov. 1.
“Because of my work with teenagers in Los Angeles,” Melissa explained, “I was drawn to go to northern Uganda, where so many children and teenagers were abducted by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army and forced to become soldiers and sex slaves. In 2006, within weeks of the West Wing ending, I was on a plane to Uganda to volunteer in a health center in northern Uganda with the excellent field team of an organization called the International Medical Corps. They were working with malnourished children and their mothers.
“I was so moved by that experience that I knew I had to go back. I was also struck by how desperate the situation was for the people there and how very few of us, including myself, had any idea what was happening there. As we were leaving one of the camps, a man came up to us and said, ‘Please don’t let us die in this horrible place. Please tell the people in America what is happening to us here.’ I promised myself I would, and I have spent the past five years trying to make good on that promise.”
The multi-talented Springside graduate did go back to Uganda in 2007 for six weeks to do her theater program and also to make the movie, “Staging Hope.” “It was a life-changing experience,” she insisted, “so much so that I stopped acting and have dedicated myself to the cause of lasting peace in northern Uganda. I found the people there so inspiring. I was captivated. These people who had been through more than I will ever be able to imagine were so kind to me and so quick to share the very little they had with me.
“I have never experienced anything like the displaced persons’ camps in northern Uganda. No human being should ever have to live in such desperate conditions. The camps were overcrowded and unsanitary — there was a cholera outbreak while I was there in 2006 — and there was very little food. And yet in the face of this and a brutal rebel war where almost everyone I met had lost at least one immediate family member to the war, the people still had hope. Hope for themselves, hope for their families, hope for their country. I could not just walk away.”
Melissa’s hope is that after the showings of “Staging Hope” at the Philadelphia Film Festival, she will get a distribution deal so that the film can be seen by millions of people. She hopes viewers will be so moved by what they see that they will take action to support ending the Lord’s Resistance Army’s reign of terror over northern Uganda and now central Africa and to support the people there as they begin to rebuild their lives after more than 25 years of a brutal rebel war. “I also hope,” she said, “that those who see it will be inspired to use their talents to be of service in whatever way moves them.”
Melissa’s producing partner on “Staging Hope,” Katy Fox, is also a producer on a film that their writer/editor, Paul Freedman, is the director/writer/editor of called “Halfway Home,” a documentary that deals with the issue of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among our returning soldiers. Melissa is the co-executive producer on the film, narrated by Martin Sheen and intimately told by a handful of American veterans (including a great American hero and Melissa’s dear friend, Max Cleland), their families and those charged with their care.
In 1998 Melissa was married to actor Noah Emmerich, who appeared in such movies as “The Truman Show,” “Beautiful Girls” and “Miracle,” but they are now divorced.