Springside grad stars with Martin Sheen at JFK Center

by Len Lear
Posted 9/28/23

After watching certain TV shows, one might be excused for believing that some celebrities are rather shallow and self-centered, but Melissa Fitzgerald belies the stereotype.

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Springside grad stars with Martin Sheen at JFK Center


After watching certain TV “reality” shows and talk shows, one might be excused for believing that some celebrities are rather shallow and self-centered, but Melissa Fitzgerald belies the stereotype.

The Springside School graduate, whose family has lived on Rex Avenue in Chestnut Hill for 53 years, is best known for her starring role as White House aide Carol Fitzpatrick on the critically acclaimed TV drama series, “The West Wing” (1999-2006), 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.

This month, Fitzgerald and Sheen are reuniting to co-star in A.R. Gurney's “Love Letters” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., as part of a celebration of Recovery Month. Performances are Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 30 at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Oct. 1 at 1:30 p.m. in the Center’s Terrace Theater.

Recovery Month is observed every September to increase awareness and understanding of mental and substance use disorders and celebrate the people who recover.

Sheen reached out to his former “West Wing” colleague and friend in 2011, shortly after  Fitzgerald had lost someone close to her to a substance use disorder. He invited her to Washington, D.C., to attend RISE, the annual training conference for treatment justice system professionals. 

The experience of being around thousands of dedicated public health and public safety leaders on the front lines of justice reform was so transformative that one year later, Fitzgerald made the decision to leave Hollywood. She moved to Washington, D.C., to work for All Rise, a non-profit, where she has spent the last decade championing treatment courts and fighting for justice reform. 

"I was so honored when Martin asked me to perform 'Love Letters' with him back in 2020,” Fitzgerald said last week. “Then the pandemic happened, and we weren’t sure it would ever see the stage. Now, it’s the joy of a lifetime to be able to perform this play with Martin Sheen at the Kennedy Center. For years, Martin and I have collaborated to advocate for expanding treatment and recovery for people with substance use and mental health disorders in the justice system, and we continue to find resonance in the story of 'Love Letters' … during Recovery Month.” 

Fitzgerald, now in her mid-50s, graduated from Springside School in 1983 and served as president of the school’s Service Organization. In 1987, she earned a degree in drama and literature from the University of Pennsylvania. Fitzgerald, who refers to herself as an “actorist” because she is both an actor and an activist, has deep roots in Chestnut Hill. She is the daughter of James J. Fitzgerald III, who retired as a senior judge on the Pennsylvania Superior Court in 2017, and her mother, Carole, who has long been involved in local politics and volunteer work. She was the 2008 commencement speaker at Chestnut Hill College and received the “Chestnut Hill College Medal.” 

In 2007, Fitzgerald won a writing contest on the subject of Darfur (Sudan), which was sponsored by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. She has been a ranked tennis player and is highly skilled in badminton, horseback riding, scuba diving, whitewater rafting and fencing, and is also a talented singer who has performed cabaret at venues in Paris, Madrid, Los Angeles and New York, including stints at the legendary Village Gate.

“My early aspirations were to follow in my father’s footsteps,” Fitzgerald said, “but after I graduated from Penn, I moved to New York City and continued my training at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and I soon became an active member of the theater community as both an actor and producer.” 

But Fitzgerald said she always felt the need to “give back,” and in 1995 she founded Voices in Harmony, a nonprofit community outreach theater program that mentors at-risk youth from the Los Angeles area. The program provides teenagers with tutors and positive adult role models.

“They are encouraged to examine issues such as drug abuse, violence, racism and prejudice,” Fitzgerald explained. 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. 

Fitzgerald also volunteered with an AIDS organization in South Africa, but her most daunting project was “Staging Hope: Acts of Peace,” a documentary film she co-produced in Uganda, East Africa.

“Because of my work with teenagers in Los Angeles,” Fitzgerald 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.”

The multi-talented Springside graduate did go back to Uganda in 2007 to do her theater program and also to make the movie, “Staging Hope.” She recalled, “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.”

In 1998, Fitzgerald married actor Noah Emmerich, who appeared in such movies as “The Truman Show,” “Beautiful Girls” and “Miracle,” but they are now divorced.

For more information, visit Kennedy-center.org. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com