• Image about Joely Fisher

What TV stars are up to when they're not on TV.

By Ken Parish Perkins

Celebrity duty used to come with a fairly specific job description like doughnut maker or meat cutter. Way back when, we saw our TV heroes on the tube or gliding along the red carpet at Emmy time, but not in many other places. These days, we're liable to see them behind a podium as they expose the merits of global warming, discuss AIDS in Africa, or peddle ecofriendly cleaning products - all on E! Entertainment Television.

Saving the world has become the latest celebrity accessory. You can't talk with Ted Danson and not hear about Oceana, his nonprofit that protects the world's oceans, nor can you chat up Courteney Cox and hubby David Arquette without learning the latest on Camp Laurel, which provides support for children living with HIV/AIDS.

Film stars leveraging fame to change the world is hardly new: Jane Fonda did it (and still feels the effects of it), as did Harry Belafonte, who certainly slowed his career by exposing the inner workings of racism in Hollywood casting and hiring. But television stars are relatively new to this block, though certainly no less forceful in trying to wield power to create change, even at a time when performers, in general, seem like they're more desperate than ever to draw attention to themselves.

Peruse anyone's bio, and you're bound to find that they're doing something, or a number of somethings, to effect change - as if they're high school seniors angling to impress a Stanford admissions director.

Dana Davis, the young actress who played a teenager on the ABC series The Nine, volunteers for the Kids' Church and Adopt-a-Block, a ministry sponsored by the Los Angeles Dream Center that helps families make ends meet. When not doing that, she's with Empowering Lives International, whose weighty mission is to end the cycle of poverty in places like Sudan and parts of the Congo.

Most celebrity causes, though, center around the more "popular" subjects of AIDS, breast cancer, and, lately, the environment, with exceptions including those of actors like Michael J. Fox, who's been working on getting stem-cell research on the political playing field.

Joely Fisher of Fox's 'Til Death considers herself "very, very, very passionate" about "making the world a better place." And so, she's the celebrity ambassador for the Dream Foundation, a national group that grants wishes to adults battling terminal illnesses. The daughter of actress Connie Stevens and singer Eddie Fisher, Joely Fisher grew up on the road, sleeping in orchestra pits during rehearsals.

"I'd already been around the world by the time I was, oh, 13," Fisher says. "When you travel, you see the world as a smaller place. Whatever troubles you see in other countries just seem so much closer."

Hayden Panettiere, the indestructible cheerleader on NBC's Heroes and the face of Neutrogena, may still live at home, but she's often off saving whales with Pierce Brosnan through the Whaleman Foundation. When not doing that, she's an ambassador, along with Nelson Mandela, for a wildlife foundation helping to raise funds to support and save endangered species.

It seems that Evangeline Lilly has been trying to save our world long before Lost. Now the crafty Kate in the ABC series, she was a volunteer for children's projects even at the young age of 14, while growing up in Canada. By college, she'd established a world development and human rights committee. "Believe it or not, I spent a few years living in a grass hut in the Philippine jungles," Lilly says proudly.

Some celebs' causes are a little more, shall we say, creative. Greg Grunberg, the cop who reads minds on Heroes, auctions pieces of artwork that are finger-painted by celebrities in order to benefit the Pediatric Epilepsy Project at UCLA. He's also in the Michael J. Fox category, connected personally to his cause - the eldest of his three sons was diagnosed with epilepsy. Also in this category is veteran Holly Robinson Peete, whose foundation HollyRod (founded with former pro quarterback and husband Rodney Peete), which assists those living with Parkinson's disease, was formed after her father died of the disease in 2002.

Friends star Matthew Perry, seen this year on NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, supports the Lili Claire Foundation, which raises funds for those born with Williams syndrome and other neurogenetic disorders. Gary Sinise of CSI: New York, on CBS, is the national spokesman for the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, a tribute to soldiers suffering from wounds sustained while fighting wars.

Grunberg, who considers himself "philanthropic by nature," thinks actors are unfairly judged by critics who believe they're promoting a cause while promoting themselves and their projects.

John Amos agrees.

"Look, I've been there, done that. I don't need a cause to get my name out there," says Amos, whose Kidsail for Success charity takes inner-city youth out on his yacht to teach them about sailing and life.

Amos, who played the stern dad on Good Times and the straight-shooting military general on The West Wing and who is currently the cantankerous pilot on Men in Trees, dresses in a pirate getup complete with a parrot sitting atop his shoulder to greet campers.

"I do this because these kids need it," he says. "If there's any selfishness involved, it's the sheer joy I get out of seeing their faces."