On a bright fall afternoon in Manhattan, Richard Gere takes a break from promoting his latest film, Shall We Dance?—in which he plays a man who finds new passion and purpose in life when he learns to waltz (from Jennifer Lopez no less)—to ponder the deeper meaning of his own life. At 55, the actor, who became an icon playing irresistible seducers in American Gigolo and Pretty Woman and won a Golden Globe in 2003 for his role as the tap-dancing con artist Billy Flynn in the hit movie musical Chicago, doesn't have to do anything to preserve his place in history. But he feels a greater calling, a universal responsibility to end suffering in the world.
"A few years ago I said, 'Look, I have so many years left, maybe, to accomplish something of value,' " says Gere, moving lithely across the room to pour himself a cup of tea. With his plush gray hair, wire-rim glasses, and beatific smile, Gere has matured into a silver fox, with none of the sullenness that defined him as a young star. "I thought to my- self, 'Let me focus on a few big things and see if we can do something there.' "
That revelation led to the creation in 2002 of Gere's public charity, Healing the Divide, an organization dedicated to helping communities in Asia, the Middle East, and the United States tackle some of their most pressing social and cultural challenges. Among the charity's early initiatives: an HIV/AIDS-awareness project aimed at stopping the spread of AIDS in India, a health-care plan for destitute Tibetan monks and nuns, and the development of a culturally sensitive curriculum for high school students in India. Next year, Gere also hopes to bring together leaders in the criminal-justice field to talk about prison reform in the United States.
The respect that Gere is now getting as an effective international force for change has been surprisingly slow in coming. Despite his long-standing devotion to Buddhism and his 25-year friendship with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, Gere has only recently been able to shake his image as a narcissistic pretty boy.
"In the early days, there was a fair amount of skepticism that someone in Hollywood could actually be a serious activist," says musician Philip Glass, who cofounded, with Gere, New York's Tibet House, dedicated to preserving Tibetan art, culture, and philosophy. "But from the beginning he brought his energy, his heart and mind, his intelligence—he brought everything to it. And he was capable of inspiring other people."
Gere credits his father, Homer, with instilling in him the desire to make the world a little bit better for the next guy. "My father was, and is, this extraordinary, very gregarious man, an insurance agent in a small town in upstate New York," Gere recalls. "But to him, it was much more than a job. I think he genuinely felt that he was insuring the well-being of his neighbors. He'd get calls in the middle of the night and he'd go off…. As a kid, I didn't understand it. I just knew that my father was gone a lot. And I was kind of jealous of the fact that he was on call to the rest of the world. But as I grow older, I see that that laid seeds in me that express themselves now."
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.