Richard Gere: Finding his humanitarian path

by Carrie Rickey, Inquirer, Nov. 13, 2007

Los Angeles, USA -- Mention Richard Gere and romantics get starry-eyed about An Officer and a Gentleman, cynics relish his tap-dancing lawyer in Chicago and pretty much everyone remembers him fondly as Prince Charming to Julia Roberts' Cinderella in Pretty Woman.

In his professional career the actor famously played the American Gigolo. But in his humanitarian career Gere, 59, is the American bodhisattva, Sanskrit for the compassionate soul who helps others.

For his tireless efforts on behalf of human rights, prison reform, HIV/AIDS awareness and Tibetan refugees, Gere received the ninth annual Marian Anderson Award last night at the Kimmel Center, where he was saluted by friends and colleagues, including his frequent costar Diane Lane.

Named for the Philadelphia-born contralto who used her celebrity to effect social change, the award has previously been bestowed upon actor/activists including Elizabeth Taylor, Gregory Peck and Sidney Poitier.

Let the record show that the actor, a practicing Buddhist since the early '70s, cringes at hearing gigolo and bodhisattva in the same sentence. But he's nothing if not philosophical.

"As an actor, I'm playing at being characters; there's something childlike, not mature about it," he said over tea yesterday, hours before the awards ceremony. With his nimbus of platinum hair and rimless glasses, the dressed-down guy in jeans resembles a hippie with a halo.

"In this life, I am an actor," he says with a shrug. "I'm coming to a point of acceptance about that.

"I've been around long enough to know that I have the access to speak up and speak out because of my job, so it's important to have a strong career going."

When the American public discovered Gere in the role of the sexy hustler who terrorizes Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, it couldn't get enough of his moody, broody intensity.

Like many sensible actors, he feared being gobbled up by the hype machine. "Publicity is marketing and I'm not a tomato," he told interviewer Rex Reed in 1979. Gere's star-making turns in American Gigolo and Officer and a Gentleman - roles turned down by John Travolta - reflected his inner turmoil. The camera loved him, but the man with the sculpted cheekbones and deep-set eyes didn't always love it back.

As Gere tells it, it was in 1978 that he literally and figuratively found his humanitarian path. "After [the film festival at] Cannes I went to India and Nepal," he recalls. "It was outside of Pokhara, at the edge of the Himalayas, I took a walk through a village. There were no vehicles.

"I saw a hand-lettered sign that said, 'Tibetan refugees.' I walked up the path and it was otherworldly - it had a Brigadoon or Lost Horizons quality. Their minds and hearts were different from anything else I had previously encountered. They thought and spoke in terms of community, not of self," he remembers. "When they spoke of 'our minds,' they pointed to their hearts."

He doesn't describe the encounter as a kensho, or conversion experience, but as an affirmation that he was in the right place. "There are times when you come through a door or a mountain valley, or when you meet your wife, and you think, 'I'm home.' That's what it felt like."

The experience inspired Gere to advocate on behalf of the Tibetan refugees. Then in the '80s, he thought, "I've got to be systematic about this."

Which begot the founding of Tibet House in New York. Which begot human-rights advocacy in Central America and Kosovo. Which begot his creation of the Gere Foundation, his personal philanthropy, and Healing the Divide, a nonprofit dedicated to helping communities at home and abroad address social and cultural challenges such as HIV/AIDS awareness. He has given millions, raised millions more.

"The thing I most love about Richard is that he's a man of his word and he follows through," says Lane, in speaking before last night's ceremony. "So often, humanitarian causes benefit the celebrity. But with Richard, it's selfless."

Gere has been at this for 25 years. Where he was flinty with Rex Reed in 1979, a decade later he had struck a balance between the "surface life" of acting and the "inner life" of the spirit and philanthropy. In 1988 he told The Inquirer, "As soon as you commit yourself to film, you forfeit your life as a private person. But the upside is that being a public figure enables you to more powerfully express your personal interests in the kind of activities you pursue."

A Philadelphia native, Gere was born at Presbyterian Hospital when his father was studying business at the University of Pennsylvania. The family moved to Syracuse, N.Y., when he was a toddler.

Gere was an all-America kid, a guitar-playing, Boy Scout grandson of Pennsylvania dairy farmers. He got a gymnastics scholarship to Amherst but after two years left college to act. And live.

After a distinguished career on and off Broadway, Gere became an overnight sensation in movies, beloved by fans but not always of critics who chastised him for Brandoesque mumblings. "He may yet become a Somebody in movies," critic Frank Rich chided in Time, "but not until he stops acting like Everybody else."

"I screwed up my career," Gere admits of the mid-'80s between King David and Pretty Woman. "Young men are unsettled."

Since 1989, unlike many of his peers, who demand their parts get pumped up, Gere has actually grooved on sharing the screen. Which is why he enjoys most favored costar status with Diane Lane (Unfaithful, the upcoming Nights in Rodanthe), Laura Linney (Primal Fear, Mothman Prophecies) and Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride.)

He settled down on-screen at roughly the same time he settled down in life. After his first marriage, to model Cindy Crawford, ended in divorce, Gere married actress Carey Lowell (Law & Order), becoming a stepfather (of Hannah) at 50 and father (of Homer, named for his own dad) at 51.

Gere's beaming parents, Homer and Doris, and a traffic-stoppingly gorgeous Lowell accompanied him to the ceremony last night.

Recently Gere's father showed him an essay Gere wrote at 18. It was about nonviolence. He reckons that the seeds of his humanitarian work were planted well before he traveled to Nepal.