Sean Penn is a big target. But to dozens stranded in flooded New Orleans, he was said to be an even bigger help.
"I witnessed him rescuing up to 40 people," presidential historian and author Douglas Brinkley told the New York Daily News. "He was up to his waist in toxic muck...I'm not going to comment on Sean's trips to Iraq or Iran, but in this case, he was an American hero."
On CNN's Larry King Live, Penn, 45, said he was just another person watching Hurricane Katrina coverage on TV, except owing to the fruits of his Oscar-winning fame, "I could afford to get on an airplane and get down there."
"It became easy to get out, for me to get a boat, and get out on the water with some other people, and try to get people out of the water," Penn said.
Penn's CNN appearance was his first since Australia's Herald Sun ridiculed the actor's rescue work, claiming it "foundered badly" due to a leaky boat "loaded with members of [the star's] entourage, including a personal photographer."
Brinkley, a professor at New Orleans' own Tulane University who accompanied Penn on his voyage through the under-water city, was among the first to denounce the report. "There was never a leak," he said in the Daily News. On Larry King Live, Penn concurred: "The boat never sank."
According to Brinkley, the boat did take on water--because it was "overloaded" with storm survivors. According to Penn, his "entourage" consisted of "a couple of friends." (The actor's camp denied the existence of the "personal photographer.")
Penn said he spent about nine hours in the water. In that time, he told Larry King, he saw only three military-helmed boats.
"Most of the National Guard presence was in the air," Penn said. "They were doing a great job, those that were there. But there weren't enough there."
Celebrities, like Penn, who have been there--the Gulf Coast cities destroyed by Katrina--have come under the requisite fire. Conservative news site NewsMax.com accused "Hollywood's elite" of using Hurricane Katrina as an excuse to bash President Bush or "seek publicity for themselves."
Penn, who took heat in recent years for his tours of Iraq and Iran, said "it doesn't really matter" if people think he took to the flood waters for publicity. (His upcoming film, a remake of All the King's Men, was largely shot in New Orleans.)
"We got a lot of people out of the water," Penn said on CNN. "The rest is for people to talk about."
Other stars who have given people something to talk about by diving in with hands-on relief work include: Julia Roberts, hugging evacuees at a shelter in Alabama; Chris Rock, helping staff a food bank in Houston; John Travolta and wife Kelly Preston, flying in supplies to Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Matthew McConaughey, lending a hand in Waveland, Mississippi; Lisa Marie Presley, trucking in food and toiletries to Mississippi; Faith Hill, doing her own Mississippi run with three rented semis; Jamie Foxx, visiting Katrina survivors at the Houston Astrodome; and Macy Gray, volunteering at the Astrodome and offering to "adopt" 10 families made homeless by the disaster.
With the exceptions of Gray and Penn, all were pitching in for Oprah Winfrey's so-called Team Angel effort. Wrote columnist Maureen Ryan in the Chicago Tribune: "Can someone tell President Bush to call Oprah?"
Even more celebrities, Oprah-affiliated or no, were expected to participate in a trio of hurricane-relief telethons being mounted this weekend by the big six broadcast networks, BET and MTV.
Penn, meanwhile, has challenged the Herald Sun to get involved, too.
"If they'd like to stand up to the plate, and help some of the people," Penn said on CNN, "I would be right with them on it."