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 Walk 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 Fabergé, 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 Fabergé board was covered in a biography of Cary Grant, The Lonely Heart (see excerpt in accompanying sidebar).
2. Joan Crawford
Actress extraordinaire who began her career in the 1920s and continued acting into the 1970s. She died in 1977. She was a director of Pepsi-Cola Co. (see box).
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 below, 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 below).
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., USA Today reporting on the firing of Zimmer included the mention that “Beyond creating a successful men’s retail chain, Zimmer is known as something of a cowboy in the business world. He added spiritual leader Deepak Chopra as a board member in 2004….”
10. Pat Robertson
He was a fundamentalist preacher who built an evangelical empire of television broadcast properties and other investment interests. Familiar to a widespread audience as the host of the religious-political show, “The 700 Club,” he ran for U.S. President in 1988. He joined the board of Laura Ashley Holdings in 1999. The clothing retailer was in a troubled state at the time, which prompted this quip on his board appointment from Kurt Barnard of Barnard’s Retail Report, as reported in the New York Post: “It’s probably very appropriate, because Laura Ashley needs a lot of praying.”
11. Sidney Poitier
In a bit of wordplay on the film title “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” (starring Sidney Poitier), the Orlando Sentinel led off its story on Poitier joining the board of Walt Disney Co. by asking, “Guess who's coming to Disney?” The celebrated film actor was elected to the board in 1994 at the age of 70, filling in the unexpired term held by former Disney president Frank Wells, who died in a helicopter crash. “Poitier became the first black actor to play leading men in mainstream films and his work paved the way for other black artists to enter the field,” the Sentinel noted in its coverage of the board appointment, adding that Poitier starred in 40 films and two television miniseries and that in 1958 he was nominated for a best actor Oscar for “The Defiant Ones” and he won in that category for “Lilies of the Field” in 1963. Disney, in reconfiguring its corporate governance in 2003, trimmed its board from 17 members to 13, at which time Poitier left the board.
12. Ivanka Trump
Long before she was the daughter of a Presidential candidate (now President-elect), Ivanka Trump was a bold-faced name in celebrity columns — “perhaps best known as a jewelry and clothing designer, for appearing on ‘The Apprentice’ with her famous father, and for being married to developer Jared Kushner, who owns The New York Observer,” reported Crain’s New York in 2011 when Ms. Trump was named to the board of Signature Bank, a Nasdaq-traded “little-known but fast growing financial institution with $13 billion in assets,” according to Crain’s. Her official role was EVP of development and acquisitions at The Trump Organization. Signature Chairman Scott Shay told Crain’s the bank “was seeking board members from New York’s younger and more entrepreneurial types.” She did not stay long on the board, leaving two years later due to what she said were time demands from her other engagements.
13. Beverly Sills
She was called “America’s Queen of Opera” by Time magazine. After a renowned singing career — she was a member of the New York City Opera from 1955 to 1980 — she was appointed chairman of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and eventually held other leadership positions in the New York arts world. Her corporate board appointments included American Express Co., Human Genome Sciences Inc. (bought by GlaxoSmithKline in 2012), and Time Warner Inc., whose board she joined in 1989 and retired from in 2000. She died of cancer in 2007.
14. Francis Ford Coppola
The Oscar-winning director, writer and producer is well known for such iconic movies as “Apocalypse Now” and the “The Godfather” series. He was elected to the board of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. in 1998. Said MGM’s then chairman, Frank Mancuso, “His creativity and comprehensive understanding of all aspects of our industry will significantly benefit the company as we continue to chart an aggressive growth path.” That growth path led to its being bought in 2005 by a consortium that included Sony Corp. of America and Comcast Corp., a transaction that established MGM as one of the world's largest privately held, independent motion picture, television and home video companies.
15. John Forsythe
He is an actor perhaps best known for playing the ruthless Denver oil magnate Blake Carrington in the TV show “Dynasty.” His title role in the TV series “Bachelor Father,” which ran for six years starting in 1957, made him a star. His voice is instantly recognizable in another memorable TV series, “Charlie’s Angels.” He served as a board member of Hollywood Park Inc., a company that owned the famed Inglewood, Calif., racetrack. He was on the board when it was taken over by Pinnacle Entertainment Inc., an experience that he described to Directors & Boards in an interview as “not the happiest of occasions” for the company owner, Marje Everett, whom the Los Angeles Times described as “a legendary and controversial figure in the sport of horse racing.” Fellow Hollywood Park board members included Merv Griffin (see next) and Cary Grant.
16. Merv Griffin [print photo]
His New York Times obituary when he died in 2007 captured the life of Merv Griffin well: He was a “big-band singer who became one of television’s longest running talk show hosts and formidable innovators, creating some of the medium’s most popular game shows before becoming a major figure in the hotel and gambling businesses.” He is credited with coming up with the concepts for “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy,” the latter first airing in 1964 and is now regarded as the most popular game show in television syndication history. He was a board member of racetrack company Hollywood Park Inc. (see John Forsythe entry above) and Players Club International, a riverboat and gaming business that was acquired by Harrah’s Entertainment in 1999.
17. John Gavin
The actor appeared in numerous TV shows and movies, with perhaps one of his most famous roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal film, Psycho. Born of Mexican descent and fluent in Spanish, after he left Hollywood he was appointed by President Reagan as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, a post he held from 1981 to 1986. He then became chairman of a consulting company called Gamma Services International and joined several boards. He was elected to the board of Atlantic Richfield Co. in 1989. (Arco was acquired by BP Amoco in 1999 for $25 billion.)
18. Quincy Jones [print photo]
Winner of 28 Grammys, he is a multitalented entertainment industry impresario — a composer, record producer, TV and film producer, arranger, conductor, instrumentalist, record company executive, and magazine founder. In 1993 he was elected to the board of then-public Marvel Entertainment Group. Walt Disney Co. acquired Marvel in 2009.
19. Lorne Michaels
Well known as the producer — and bit performer on occasional skits when he gets in front of the camera — of “Saturday Night Live,” now in its 42nd season, he was a director of Golden Books Family Entertainment Inc., a once-public company that is a leading publisher of children’s books. The company is perhaps best known for its Little Golden Books line, which it began publishing in 1942.
20. O.J. Simpson
He had a robust career going as an NFL football player, a spokesman for the Hertz car rental company, an actor (in such films as the “Naked Gun” series), a sports commentator, and as president and CEO of O.J. Enterprises. Then his world came crashing down when his former wife was brutally murdered in 1994. Add corporate director to his list of engagements. While his directorship at Infinity Broadcasting Corp. — and his membership on its audit committee — is the one most often singled out for ridicule in articles critiquing celebrities on boards, it was his board seat at Forschner Group that is in many ways most ironic. Forschner was the importer and distributor of the Swiss Army brand knives: his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman were stabbed to death. He was acquitted of their murders in a highly charged jury trial, but the scandal resulted in “Infinity and three other public companies [having] to make a mad dash to extricate Simpson from the boardroom,” as the New York Post reported.
21. Wayne Rogers
He starred in the first several seasons of the wildly popular 1970s TV show “M*A*S*H” as the character Trapper John. In addition to star turns in theater, television, and film roles, he was an entrepreneur, businessman, and corporate director. He chaired Wayne M. Rogers & Co., an investment management firm. Among his numerous real estate and business ventures, he served as chairman of Kleinfeld, the wedding dress emporium in New York, and chairman of Stop-N-Save LLC, owner and operator of convenience stores. His membership on the board of semiconductor manufacturer Vishay Intertechnology Inc. was the focus of a Directors & Boards article in 2011. He died in 2015 at the age of 82.
22. Chazz Palminteri
In 1999 BeautyBuys.com, a unit of publicly traded Synergy Brands Inc., added the Hollywood actor to its board. BeautyBuys.com billed itself as “an online store featuring the largest selection of beauty and health products at the best prices on the Internet.” It noted that Palminteri “as media and celebrity advisor to the company, will consult on various public relations efforts and will advise the company with regard to celebrity spokespersons and endorsers.” Among his many roles, Palminteri had won acclaim for his performance on screen and a one-man stage show of “A Bronx Tale” and won an academy award nomination for his performance in Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway.”
23. Dina Merrill [Photo Credit: John Engstead/Helen Ferguson]
She was a popular actress in films, TV and stage shows primarily in the 1950s through the 1980s. Notable film appearances include the movies “The Desk Set,” “Operation Petticoat,” “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” and “Butterfield 8.” Dina Merrill had an interesting heritage: she was the daughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post, who was one of the earliest women board members (she joined the board of Post Cereals, a company started by her father, in 1914); and her father was Wall Streeter Edward Francis Hutton. Merrill was a director of E.F. Hutton Group Inc. and became a director of Shearson Holdings after it acquired E.F. Hutton. She was also a board member of Contel Corp., whose chairman and co-founder, Charles Wohlstetter, proudly said of his board in a 1991 interview with Directors & Boards: “I have a board you will find in very few corporations.” With Dina Merrill, then described as an actress and private investor, as a member that was certainly true.
24. Mary Hart
She was the long-running anchor (1982-2011) of “Entertainment Tonight,” the longest-running news and gossip TV show (“E.T.” launched in 1981). A former Miss South Dakota, she was named co-host of “E.T.” less than two months after joining the show, and her face and personality became famous to millions of viewers. She was named to the board of Rally’s Inc., a Nasdaq-traded operator and franchisor of quick-service hamburger restaurants, in 1990. The company’s CEO cited her “marketing and media experience” as being “valuable in the board’s guidance and counsel to the company as we continue to expand in the 1990s.” Rally’s ended up merging with Checkers Drive-In Restaurants Inc. in 1999.
25. Martin Landau
He received an Academy Award for his 1994 portrayal of Bela Lugosi in the Tim Burton film, “Ed Wood.” This longtime actor was also one of the main stars of the “Mission: Impossible” TV series. In 2002 he joined the board of Calypte Biomedical Corp., developer of an FDA-approved HIV-1 screening test. Said Calypte’s executive chairman, Anthony Cataldo, at the time: “Our number one objective is to increase the public’s awareness of Calypte’s proprietary HIV-1 urine screening tests, and we expect Martin Landau to play an active role in this process.”
26. Polly Bergen
When she died in 2014 the New York Times described Polly Bergen as “an actress, singer and businesswoman who won an Emmy Award in 1958 for her portrayal of the alcoholic torch singer Helen Morgan and was nominated for another 50 years later for her role on ‘Desperate Housewives.’ ” Directors & Boards readers of a certain age will remember her as a panelist on the TV show “What’s My Line?” She indeed was a successful businesswoman — she had a cosmetics line that she sold to Fabergé and then formed a jewelry and shoes business, ventures that made her a millionaire, according to the NYT — and that experience is what likely attracted the attention of Chantal Pharmaceutical Corp., a Nasdaq-traded dermatology and skin care products company, to add her to its board in 1997.
27-33. Sports Figures
We could easily have filled a list of 40 celebrity directors just from the world of sports. Many companies are eager to add the auras of great game-day players to their boards. It is easy to see why if you are in the business of media and entertainment, fashion and apparel wear, food and drink, or other corners of the leisure industry — or if board members just like hanging around with jocks and drawing inspiration from their victorious track records. Some leading sports figures who have taken their game to the corporate boardroom include:
• Arthur Ashe, twice ranked as the world’s top tennis player, joined the board of Aetna Life & Casualty Co. (as it was then known) in 1982 after retiring from the world of tennis. He had served as a consultant to Aetna for five years, working in the areas of minority recruiting, retention, and career development, before joining the board.
• Tom Landry, legendary coach of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys (who could forget the sight of him pacing the sidelines in his fedora and suit and tie), became a director of Tyler Corp. in the 1970s when it was a Dallas-based Fortune 500 industrial concern that had businesses in explosives, trucking, a pipe foundry and electronics distribution. (It renamed itself Tyler Technologies Inc. in 1999.)
• Roger Staubach, who was Landry’s quarterback on the Cowboys, has had a booming career in business and the boardroom after his gridiron days. In addition to his mainstay real estate business, The Staubach Company, he has been a director of airline company AMR Corp., restaurant operator Brinker International Inc., and movie theater chain Cinemark Holdings Inc.
• Evander Holyfield, a heavyweight boxing champion — “best known for having part of his ear bitten off in a bout by a fellow boxer, Mike Tyson,” as The Economist remembers — was elected to the board of Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated in 1998. Then the second-largest bottler of Coca-Cola, within a few years the company would become the largest independent bottler of Coca-Cola.
• Chris Evert, winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles before retiring from tennis in 1989, joined the board of Florida Panther Holdings Inc. (whose NYSE ticker symbol was PAW) in 1997. The luxury hotel company and hockey club owner changed its name to Boca Resorts Inc. in 1999 and then was acquired by The Blackstone Group in 2004. The former world’s No. 1 tennis player had a second career as a sports commentator and launched a line of tennis and apparel wear.
• Michael Jordan, basketball superstar, joined the board of sunglasses maker Oakley Inc. in 1995. “He has a great outlook on sports marketing,” said the company’s director of sports marketing at the time. Jordan quit the board in 2002, pleading demands on his time. Oakley was acquired by Luxottica Group in 2007.
• Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, another champion basketball player, is a more recent celebrity director sighting. He joined the board of Square Inc., the electronic payments processor, in 2015, and saw the company through its November 2015 IPO before resigning from the board in May 2016 to devote more time to a billion-dollar infrastructure fund he launched, according to the Wall Street Journal.
34-36. First Ladies
Both before they joined the Oval Office and afterward, First Ladies are a special breed of celebrity. We have three notables for this list of celebrity directors:
• Hillary Clinton was a young lawyer married to the governor of Arkansas when she was appointed to the board of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which is headquartered in Arkansas. In a 2007 article about her six years on the Wal-Mart board (1986-1992), the New York Times reported that fellow board members and company executives said she “used her position to champion personal causes, like the need for more women in management and a comprehensive environmental program.” The NYT also noted that her Wal-Mart directorship “remains a little known chapter is her closely scrutinized career. And it is little known for a reason. Mrs. Clinton rarely, if ever, discusses it, leaving her board membership out of her speeches and off her campaign Web site.” (Daughter Chelsea Clinton was named to the board of IAC/Interactive Corp., Barry Diller’s media holding company, in 2011.)
• Rosalynn Carter joined the board of media firm Gannett Co. Inc. in 1983, serving until 1997 when she reached the Gannett board’s retirement age limit of 70. See the Directors & Boards article, “How I Recruited Rosalynn Carter to the Gannett Board” by Al Neuharth in the Third Quarter 2013 edition.
• And Nancy Reagan joined the board of Revlon Group Inc. in 1989. Reported the Wall Street Journal: “[Chairman and CEO Ronald] Perelman apparently hopes Mrs. Reagan can do for Revlon what she did for the businesses of fashion designers Adolfo Sardina and James Galanos.”
37-39. U.S. Presidents
Most Presidents eschew the role of corporate director following their White House tenure. Not Gerald Ford — he was “a particularly enthusiastic collector of boardroom seats,” as The Economist has noted. In a 1997 article on politicians joining boards, Barron’s observed: “Former President Gerald Ford may hold the indoor record for political directorships. He has been on more than a dozen boards and still, at the age of 82, listed three board seats and an advisory directorship in the Who’s Who of 1996.” (He died in 2006.) His directorships included Alexander & Alexander Services Inc., American Express Co., Pullman Co., Tesoro Petroleum, and Tiger International. His directorship at Nova Pharmaceutical Corp. was discussed in a Directors & Boards article in 1992 (see box).
Other Presidential connections to the boardroom include:
• Little known in the well-documented history of Richard Nixon is his service as a corporate director. Following his failed run for governor of California, he became a senior partner in the New York law firm of Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander. He joined the board of Harsco Corp., a metals refiner based in Harrisburg, Pa. He served on the Harsco board from 1965 to 1968, when he resigned to seek the Republican nomination for the Presidency. The New York Times reported on the Harsco board appointment that “Mr. Nixon is believed to be the first Vice President to become a director of an industrial concern after leaving office.”
• And George W. Bush in the 1970s and ’80s was the founder and CEO of an oil and gas exploration company in Texas and in the late ’80s became general managing partner of the Texas Rangers pro baseball team. His board memberships, as identified by the Center for Public Integrity, included Tom Brown Inc., Caterair International Inc., Harken Energy Inc., Silver Screen Partners, and Lucky Chance Mining Co.
40. Oprah Winfrey
The media mogul joined the board of Weight Watchers International Inc. in October 2015. Her board seat came with the purchase of about $43 million in stock for a 10% stake in the weight management company. The company’s stock price doubled on the news but subsequently backed off this initial surge. Reported the New York Times on her involvement with Weight Watchers: “For years, Ms. Winfrey has helped make countless little-known brands wildly successful by endorsing them through one of the media ventures that made her a billionaire. But this is the first time she has made such an investment in a public company. Ms. Winfrey also plans to give Weight Watchers unfettered access to her name and face for marketing purposes.”
2016 Fourth Quarter