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Gere, Richard (1949—)

Gere, Richard (1949—)

Actor Richard Gere has evolved from a typically brash young leading man, whose career was based primarily on his sexy good looks, into a devoted Buddhist and champion of oppressed people.

A deft musician, composer, and gymnast in high school, Gere attended college on a gymnastics scholarship, then dropped out to pursue a career in music. Acting and composing in summer stock led to a position as an understudy for the lead in the Broadway production of the rock musical Grease in 1972, then the opportunity to play the lead in the London production the following year. This was followed by the rare opportunity (for an American actor) to play a season with the Young Vic Company in such offerings as The Taming of the Shrew in 1974.

His film debut in 1974 was in a bit part as a pimp in Report to the Commissioner, which was followed by a more high-profile but similar role as a sexually charged street hustler involved with Diane Keaton in 1977's Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and his status as a sex symbol was confirmed by his starring role in the breakthrough hit American Gigolo in 1979. His career then suffered a marked decline due to inferior choices of roles; critics claimed that it was because his film work came second after his burgeoning interest in Buddhism. Having studied the religion, Gere made a visit to the Tibetan refugee camps in Nepal in 1978, and after meeting with the Dalai Lama, declared himself a disciple.

Following his embrace of Buddhism, Gere attempted to break free of his sex-symbol status and try more character-driven work. Returning to the stage in a highly praised performance as a gay concentration camp prisoner in the Broadway play Bent, he then accepted an equally challenging role as a desperate young man struggling to get through brutal military officer's training in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), which proved a box office hit and suggested Gere possessed untapped skills as an actor. However subsequent misfires such as the remake of Breathless (1983), Beyond the Limit (1983), King David (1985), and even Francis Ford Coppola's ill-fated The Cotton Club (1984) lowered his credibility until his unexpected breakthrough performance opposite Julia Roberts in 1990's megahit Pretty Woman, caused producers to take notice. Since that time Gere has re-established his leading-man status in respectable films such as 1993's Sommersby (the remake of the French film The Return of Martin Guerre), and thrillers such as Primal Fear (1996) and The Jackal (1997). But Gere's "heart project" was Red Corner (1997), which allowed him to bring his career and private concerns together in the story of an American businessman visiting China who is framed for a murder, wrongly imprisoned, and forced to struggle against China's rigidly oppressive legal system.

Devout in his religion, Gere maintained that he meditated daily and spent his time between projects in India with the exiled Tibetans. In fact his very public twenty-year devotion to the faith led the Dalai Llama to personally request Gere's high-profile assistance in the crusade to end China's tyrannous rule of Tibet—a cause which Gere championed to the extent of making a very public plea at the Academy Awards, which in turn led to his banishment from the event. He was also actively involved in campaigning to raise public awareness of the religious and cultural heritage of Tibet in an effort to push for an American boycott of China. Gere has also published a book of photographs he has taken of Tibetans, Pilgrim, the proceeds of which were donated to the cause of Tibetan autonomy.

Gere's sense of universal responsibility has also extended to his taking up the cause of oppressed Central American refugees by lobbying Congress on their behalf in 1986, and launching an AIDS awareness program in India, for which he received a Harvard Award in 1997.

—Rick Moody

Further Reading:

Gere, Richard, with foreword by the Dalai Lama. Pilgrim. Boston, Little, Brown, 1997.

Parker, John. Richard Gere: The Flesh and the Spirit. New York, Headline Book Publishing, 1997.

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