Just as their performances can be given a big thumbs up or (figuratively) pelted with rotten tomatoes, celebrities on boards are deserving of decidedly mixed reviews. The board chairs who embrace them are full of hearty recommendations. Typical is what Walt Disney's then CEO Michael Eisner had to say when actor Sidney Poitier joined his board: He "brings us not only his exhaustive knowledge of the entertainment industry but the judgment and wisdom of an exceptional man."
But critics of celebrity directors can be savage. When Sarah Teslik was head of the Council of Institutional Investors, she had this to say to Business Week magazine about opera singer Beverly Sills being on the Time Warner Co. board: "If Beverly Sills spoke up, who would listen? Who cares?"
Celebrity directors are a rare breed in the boardroom, even more so now than in times past when a director's CV was not under such investor and regulatory scrutiny. Nonetheless, board invitations do come their way. As a tie-in with the 40th anniversary of Directors & Boards, here are 40 celebrities of various stripes who have served on public company boards.
1 CARY GRANT
Actor extraordinaire from the 1930s to the 1960s. He served as a director of Faberge, the storied maker of custom jewelry, ornamental objects and cosmetics products, when it was an independent company (before being acquired in the 1980s by Meshulam Riklis and then by Unilever). His service on the Faberge board was covered in a biography of Cary Grant, The Lonely Heart (see sidebar on following page).
2 JOAN CRAWFORD
Actress extraordinaire who began her career in the 1920s and continued acting into the 1970s. She was a director of Pepsi-Cola Co. (see sidebar on page 83).
3 GRACE KELLY
She was an actress who appeared in such classic films as "High Noon," "Mogambo," "Dial M for Murder," "Rear Window" and "High Society." She retired from filmdom to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco, and in her capacity as Princess Grace she was named to the board of Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. in 1976. In his book about her, High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly, biographer Donald Spoto writes: "To their surprise, the Fox executives found that her questions at the [board] meetings raised significant issues, for Grace had developed a finely sharpened business sense; likewise, her creative ideas were never to be summarily dismissed."
4 BILLIE JEAN KING
While we could readily have grouped her with the coterie of sports figures listed later on, Billie Jean King occupies a place of distinction of her own in the crossover of sports and business. She was named to the board of Philip Morris Companies Inc. in 1999.The world's largest cigarette company at the time, with revenues of $74 billion, she and Philip Morris were both involved with the formation of the Virginia Slims Tennis Tour in 1970, which the company noted was "the birth of women's professional tennis." Philip Morris called her "one of the most celebrated tennis players in history" upon her election to its board. (And of course who among those of a certain age could forget the famous "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs played out on primetime television in the Houston Astrodome?)
5 PRISCILLA PRESLEY
The former wife of entertainer Elvis Presley (they divorced in 1973) is a film ("The Naked Gun" series) and television ("Dallas") actress and accomplished businesswoman. As her website (www.priscillapresley.com) notes, after she became co-executor of the Presley Estate in 1979 she brought it "from a burgeoning entity into a phenomenally successful organization consisting of the famous Graceland Mansion, a worldwide licensing program, merchandising, music publishing and television and video projects." She joined the board of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. in 2000, serving on the board at the same time as movie director Francis Ford Coppola (see facing page).
6 WALTER CRONKITE
He was the longtime anchorman (1962-1981) of "CBS Evening News." The recipient of every major award in broadcast journalism, Cronkite was, in the words of broadcaster Mike Wallace, "the most trusted man in America." But he was not so trusted in the CBS boardroom. He was named to the CBS Corp. board in 1981 but, after Lawrence Tisch became chairman in 1986, Cronkite found himself frustrated in having an impact as a director. As he writes in his 1996 autobiography, A Reporter's Life: "One of my major disappointments was that the CBS board, made up of some top-notch business, financial and industrial leaders, was concerned only with the company's finances and paid no attention to its programming." He recounts that Tisch changed the retirement ages for directors to 70, which caused him to be maneuvered off the board in 1986. He died in 2009 at the age of 92.
7 GLORIA STEINEM
The co-founder (in 1972) and editor for 15 years of Ms. magazine was elected to the board of Minnetonka Corp. in 1987. At the time the Nasdaq-traded company designed, manufactured and marketed fragrance, personal care and medical hygiene products. Its CEO, Robert R. Taylor, noting that Steinem was "a recognized leader of the feminist movement," explained that she "will assist us in planning future ventures and in setting guidelines for the long-term strategic direction." That strategic direction led it to being acquired by Unilever in 1989. Steinem (www.gloriasteinem.com) on feminism: "A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men."
8 LETITIA BALDRIDGE
She was a celebrity in service to celebrities. Best known as America's "etiquette czar" and "doyenne of decorum," she achieved international recognition as chief of staff for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and was social secretary to the Kennedy White House. She wrote 23 books on manners, entertaining and design, even appearing on the cover of Time magazine as America's "social arbiter." As president of Letitia Baldridge Enterprises, one of the boards she joined was menswear manufacturer Hartmarx Corp., in 1986. In her 2001 autobiography, A Lady, First, she wrote of her experience on boards: "Alongside my business, my number of directorships grew. I was the only woman director of all but one of them. They did not take on any other women directors, which I wanted to think of as a compliment, but perhaps the thought of another one just like me was too much for them." She died in 2012.
9 DEEPAK CHOPRA
The prominent "New Agey" author and public speaker on spirituality and alternative medicine was added to the board of Men's Wearhouse Inc. in 2004, back in sunnier days when CEO George Zimmer was running the clothing retailer. At the time Business Week reported that "eyebrows shot up all over the company" over Chopra's appointment but that Zimmer argued that Chopra "would contribute ideas on social responsibility and team-building." When Zimmer was ousted from the company in 2013, the press still remembered the Chopra board appointment --e.g., USH Today reporting on the firing of Zimmer included the mention that "Beyond creating a successful men's retail chain, Zimmer is...