Motivating others—and using his celebrity status to open doors—is at the heart of Gere's humanitarian efforts. This year, he traveled to India several times to oversee his charity's most ambitious project to date: mobilizing industry, media, and the government to fight HIV/AIDS in a country where the infection rate threatens to soar. "The Indian government has been slow to acknowledge the problem," Gere says. "And they have this window of opportunity of 5 to 10 years at the most, that if nothing is done, the numbers will be astronomical."
To that end, Gere marshaled his contacts in India and elsewhere to put together a series of safe-sex television ads featuring Indian cricket star Rahul Dravid. He persuaded Bill Gates to contribute $2.4 million to the cause. And he convinced James Murdoch, scion of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and head of satellite network Star India, to donate $14 million in airtime over three years. Gere's younger brother, David, an associate professor in UCLA's Department of World Arts and Cultures who has worked for years on AIDS-prevention programs in the United States, also spent several months in India in 2004 working on a similar project.
Gere's hands-on style of activism stems from his understanding that he is in a unique position to bring people together, to become what Buddhists call a bodhisattva, a person who, motivated by compassion, dedicates himself to ending the suffering of others.
Gere runs his charity work from a low-key suite of offices in downtown Manhattan, not far from where he lives with his wife, actress Carey Lowell, and their four-year-old son, Homer, named after his father. Gere's jam-packed schedule balancing charitable and filming obligations means that he spends less time than he would like at the family's upstate New York spread, where he rides horses and loves to throw a ball with Homer. He tells friends how much he misses his family when he is away, and hopes that one day his son will understand, as he ultimately came to understand his own father's absences. Recently Gere accepted an invitation from the Kaiser Family Foundation to travel to Russia to help create an AIDS-awareness program there.
His role model is the Dalai Lama, winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, who tirelessly travels the globe teaching interconnectedness and compassion for all beings. "Look, my basic thing is all-inclusiveness," says Gere. "Everyone gets on the bus with me: bad guys, good guys, the Christians, the Arabs, the Jews, the Buddhists, everybody. That's what I found so touching about the men and women who lost their lives in the twin towers. Those firefighters and cops and rescue workers, they didn't ask any of those people they saved, are you a good guy or a bad guy? They didn't ask, what's your religion? They didn't look at what color you are. They saved everybody. They were true bodhisattvas."
*The name of this award was originally the Impact Award. In 2008, the awards were renamed as the Inspire Awards.