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Rourke, Penn, and Coyote: Who are the heavyweights?

Mickey Rourke busted by the New York Times? Yikes.

How about Bay Area actors Sean Penn and Peter Coyote on advance guard missions to hostile countries, visiting the same leaders Barack Obama says he'll meet as president "without preconditions"?

 

What exactly is going on!? While there aren't many surprises on Barbara Walters' "10 Most Fascinating People" list this year (Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Miley Cyrus), other celebrity traditions seem to be going a little sideways in the new world order.

First of all, I whacked the Times awhile ago for an infatuated piece on Angelina Jolie. So props to the paper's Sunday magazine last weekend for a pretty searing glimpse at Mr. Rourke. I guess I'm a fan on some level; I've seen "Angel Heart" - which has lots of fans and blues great Brownie McGhee in it - about 30 times. But the whole thing of Mickey having Hells Angels as bodyguards, becoming a middle-aged (unsuccessful boxer), excessive plastic surgeries horror stories, visiting the John Gotti, Sr. trial like he really was the Pope of Greenwich Village hugging the Don. That all seemed a little goofy and as self-destructive as a suicide bomber vest.

Now here he comes with a movie, "The Wrestler," where he's getting big praise. Comeback. Artistry. Delivering on his original promise. All that. So of course he wants to spin his personal narrative along with selling the film. Writer Pat Jordan lets him weave the mythology, then catches him about having a Golden Gloves career (he didn't), getting abused by his step dad when he was a scrappy kid (the step dad says neither is true) and weeping "at the same moment in the same story in every interview". Ooops.

"You can't help liking him," Mr. Jordan says about the actor. But this is a good, layered job and tells a truer story than you often get in celebrity profiles. Message to Mickey: Keep your fiction in your movies, and best wishes for more success there.

In the real world, Sean Penn, as noted here yesterday, writing on the Huffington Post and for The Nation, bagged the first published foreigner's interview with Raul Castro. Whether or not I would have asked different questions, that's still a pretty good get. I was smacked with mountains of crap for running Sean's pieces in the Chronicle from Iran and Iraq but I still think they were interesting and provided unique perspective from the eye of a great artist.

Sean and I barely spoke after our bruising editing experience with that series. But we've very recently reconciled. It's not hard to riff on Sean, or any big celebrity, but he was in Cuba because he's curious about things, which doesn't give him a job at the New York Times but is a fundamental requirement of reporting.

Another Bay Area actor friend, Peter Coyote - who I've never had a fight with - is off to Syria next month on an artist-to-artist mission and hopes to meet with President Bashar al-Assad and others.

Normally I get the creeps when I see celebrities pretending to be diplomatic emissaries or enrollees in the latest overseas cause.

But I know these two guys. They're not doing dilettantish stunts here, like some celebs who show up in the Baghdad Green Zone in flack jackets, "fact-finding" and spending hundreds of thousands in US taxpayer-funded security for the photo op. There were no grip-and-grin shots of Sean with Castro and no one knew about it until he published his interview.

Peter, a long-time political junkie, says he was "listening to C-Span and heard a bunch of foreign service professionals talking about the need for more person-to-person contact" in various countries hostile to the US. So he arranged to meet with Syrian TV stars and other artists. Then he went after appointments with politicians. "I'm a little old for a stunt," he says. "What am I going to do, get a romantic lead role out of this written for a 30-year-old because someone saw me in Syria?"

Neither of these trips to current axis of evil countries are official door-openers for Mr. Obama. But neither are they Jane Fonda on North Vietnamese artillery gun. Let's remember that Nixon's opening to China started with ping pong, right?

I'm not big on throwing the diplomatic doors open to anyone with greasepaint. Other than Bono, whose frequent flyer miles I want. I mean what if Mickey Rourke shows up in North Korea with an albino alligator and a bottle of steroids for Kim il Jung? (They could compare dads.) But there are some actors, like Penn and Coyote, who can operate outside the envelope of their craft in a pretty interesting way, so why not?