Born: 31 August 1949
Where: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Awards: Won 1 Golden Globe
Few actors have had such a topsy-turvy ride as Richard Gere. Not many have suffered such depressing doldrums, and almost none have achieved such giddying heights. Somehow — by his looks, his grace, his charisma, his roles? — Gere became that most rare of commodities, a bona fide Hollywood sex symbol. Not simply a flavour of the month phenomenon like DiCaprio, or a stunner like Depp, but a character — like Louise Brooks or Rudolph Valentino — whose reputation was inextricably tied up with sex. It made him world famous, yet this was a reputation that this highly intelligent actor actively and publicly despised, and he spent years struggling against it, trying to be taken seriously as a rounded thespian. Hence the doldrums. And he came through, finally being seen as not simply a classy performer capable of carrying both thrillers and rom-coms, but also, due to his ongoing pursuit of freedom for Tibet, as a genuine humanitarian.
He was born Richard Tiffany Gere on the 31st of August, 1949, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the second of five, having three sisters and a younger brother, all looked after by his housewife mother, Doris. His father, Homer, worked in insurance and, while Richard was still young, moved the family to a farmhouse outside Syracuse, New York. In North Syracuse, Homer would run his own agency.
Attending North Syracuse High School, Richard quickly proved to be multi-talented. Though not a jock, he was active in the gym, lacrosse and ski teams. He served on the school council, and also excelled on the piano, guitar, bass and trumpet. Clearly gifted musically, he even wrote music for High School productions.
Old school-friends have recalled that Richard was never on a mission to be popular, but was anyway. He hung around in jeans and Army surplus jackets, and dated only the brightest girls (even then he valued brains over looks — how that sex symbol business must have outraged him!). One girlfriend, Diane Fredricks, has said that Richard used to take her to the movies a lot, usually to see either monster movies or old films. Already his interest in cinema had taken hold. And he had begun to act, having been approached to play the lead in a production of The King And I — primarily because "he looked good with his shirt off".
Graduating from High School in 1967, he won a gymnastics scholarship and enrolled at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, majoring in philosophy. After only two years though, he won a place with the prestigious Provincetown Players, and spent the summer of ’69 with them. Provincetown, then as now, was a racy artistic community on the end of Cape Cod, with a large gay population. And Richard was wanted by pretty much everyone. Luckily, he had the personality and a budding talent to match his looks, and performed well when handed the top roles.
With the summer season finished, Richard knew he’d make acting his career. When one of the Players’ artistic directors offered him a place with the Seattle Repertory Company, he ditched college and travelled to the Pacific North-West where, for a while, he became the company’s "house hippie", being used to represent "the kids" in their productions. But he soon became bored of this and, in late 1970, took off to try his luck in New York.
Here he resided in a cockroach-infested dive on the Lower East Side, living with a lover he’d met in Seattle (actually the Repertory company’s stage manager), who was the first "real" woman in his life. Sadly, the relationship didn’t last. Winning a part in a folk musical, Richard took up with his co-star, Penelope Milford, and the couple moved into a place — formerly a plumbing store — between two gay bars up near the Hudson River piers.
It was a crazy time. His relationship with Milford was gleefully open, and there was a lot of drinking, as well as all the other pleasures associated with youngsters in the early Seventies. His stage career went well, too. He took the title role in Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone, and would later appear in two Sam Shepard productions, Back Bog Beast Bait and, with an outstanding performance, in Killer’s Head. Before this, his Broadway breakthrough came with the rock opera Soon, and then the New York production of the British farce Habeas Corpus.
Britain would, in fact, have a major part in Gere’s early success. On Broadway, he worked as the understudy to Barry Bostwick’s Danny Zuko in Grease (the part John Travolta played in the movie). But when the production moved to London in 1973, it was Richard who went as Zuko. Here he really shone and was invited to join the Young Vic Company for a season — very rare for an American — and played in the likes of The Taming Of The Shrew. Gere had a great time, buying a motorbike and storming round London in black leather. He’d bring the bike and the gear back to New York for another round of storming and wild partying.
But at some point the wildness had to stop. And this point came when Gere was thrown off his first movie, The Lords Of Flatbush, his place being taken by a young Sylvester Stallone. Massively disappointed and badly shaken, Richard went to bed for three days. When he reappeared, he was changed — still wild, but now more focused. He took up transcendental meditation and aimed at spiritual and professional advancement.
Film roles quickly came his way. He played a pimp in Report To The Commissioner, a gritty, Serpico-style drama where an undercover policewoman was killed by a fellow officer (co-stars would include Hector Elizondo and William Devane, both of whom would appear with Gere again). Then there was Strike Force where Gere was state trooper Walter Spenser, teaming up with a New York detective and an FBI agent to bust a drug ring. Then he was Raider in Baby Blue Marine, starring Jan-Michael Vincent and Katherine Helmond (later Jessica Tate in the wonderful Soap).
And now came the breakthrough, with Looking For Mr Goodbar. Here Diane Keaton played a teacher of deaf kids who at night trawls the bars of New York, seeking sex with strangers. Throughout, you have the doomed sense that she’ll find trouble — and, in a horrifying climax, she does — but you can’t tell which of her men will provide it. They all might — the hypocritical copper, the sicko furniture salesman, the suspect social worker and, of course, Richard. As a psycho swinger, he’s beautiful, predatory, slick and hugely dangerous.
Next came Robert Mulligan’s Bloodbrothers, about a blue collar Bronx family, where Richard played the sensitive son who wants to work with children rather than follow his folks into the construction industry. And then there was Days Of Heaven, directed by the legendary Terrence Malick. Here Gere and Brooke Adams played a couple who flee poverty in Chicago and take off for the Texas panhandle where, pretending to be brother and sister, they work for rich farmer Sam Shepard. He’s dying, but falls for Adams, and she and Gere decide that she should marry him for the inheritance. And then he doesn’t die! It was a brilliant movie, a match for Malick’s earlier Badlands, taking a panoramic view of America before the Great War, with all the characters enduring terrible loneliness and seething with rage.
Now Gere turned to Britain once more, and joined William Devane in John Schlesinger’s Yanks, penned by Colin Welland (soon to give his famous "The British are coming" speech at the Oscars when a winner for Chariots Of Fire). This involved American soldiers billeted in England before D-Day, and their effect on the ladies. It was easy to see why Lisa Eichhorn’s Jean might fall for Gere’s smooth, sweet Matt.
Suddenly, Gere’s life had changed. When he returned from filming Yanks he found that Looking For Mr Goodbar and Days Of Heaven had made him a movie star. In itself, this was a good thing, but all the magazines were salivating over "sexy Richard Gere" and, as a stage actor of some ten years experience, he did not take kindly to it. In one interview, when asked yet again about being a sex object, he snapped "You want to see a sex object?", and pulled out his penis.
He tried hard to build a different life for himself. Having parted company with Penelope Milford, he’d began another open relationship, this time with Brazilian artist Sylvia Martins. Together they travelled extensively, first to Tibet, where Gere met up with lamas and monks. Later, they’d be off to Honduras, Nicaragua and, while there was a war going on, El Salvador. They’d crash-land in a helicopter on Bali, Richard then going off alone to meditate on a volcano. All of these experiences combined to increase Gere’s desire to help others, particularly tribal peoples facing the theft of their land, or even extinction. Eventually, he would be co-founder of Tibet House, an organisation dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture, and once headed by Uma Thurman’s father, Robert. He’d also become involved with Survival International, aiding tribal peoples everywhere. Indeed, when opening the Harrods sale in 1994, he donated his entire Ј50,000 fee to SI. "If people lose their land," he once explained "they have nothing. You lose your land, you lose your culture, you lose your self".
With the onset of the Eighties came superstardom, and the most clear-cut example of Gere battling to control his public image. First there was American Gigolo. Starring hot Richard (who’d stepped in for John Travolta) and promoted with the song Call Me by the even hotter Blondie, it had its populist side. And, with Richard starring as a sexually expert escort who services older women and gets tied up in a murder case, it was very controversial. So you can understand why the movie, a big hit, made Richard even more of a sex symbol than he was. But there was another side to American Gigolo, a side that would have appealed to Gere the actor. Written and directed by Paul Schrader — who’d penned Taxi Driver and Hardcore, and would later write Raging Bull and Affliction — this was not just a sexy thriller. It was a study of the seamy and perverse Los Angeles underworld, of sex and dying in high society, Schrader yet again revealing a world we do not ordinarily see. And the characters weren’t simply glamour-pusses. The movie was about displacement and loneliness, about money and power and, considering Gere’s role, it was about narcissism, self-love and self-confidence.
And then there was Bent. With American Gigolo, Gere may have been playing with his sexy image, trying to subvert it by so over-stating the case for his sexiness. But with Bent there could be no doubt that he was attacking that image with righteous fury. For Bent saw him back on Broadway as a decadent, manipulative homosexual trying to survive in a concentration camp and finally choosing to die rather than deny his true self. Richard was a sensation. Not only did he pick up a Theatre World Award, but he must have hoped people would recognise the depths of both himself as an actor, and his latest movie, American Gigolo.
But it just got worse. Richard appeared bare-chested on the cover of People magazine, with banner headlines calling him "the reluctant sex symbol" and America went potty for this new male totty. Gere couldn’t believe it. He sacked his press agent, who had been ordered to with-hold the pictures. Unfortunately, the damage was done. In fact, an awful lot of damage was done during this period. Seldom has an actor so suffered from being mistaken for his screen characters. For every woman that wanted the American gigolo, ten men wanted to kick his head in. One disapproving trucker actually ran his car off the road. But male revenge does not always manifest itself in physical violence. Often, the victim’s reputation is viciously shredded instead.
People were jealous, and Gere’s (despite his own protestations) was a famously sexual persona, so the attack was sexually based. The rumour spread that Gere, apparently a closet homosexual and a decadent pervert, had wrapped a gerbil up in masking-tape and slipped it into his anus, in the hope that its struggles to escape (I gotta get OUT of this shit-hole!) would be uniquely pleasurable. But something went wrong. Maybe the masking-tape came loose, allowing the dying creature to tear at his innards with its pin-point claws. Maybe he couldn’t get it out again, and infection set in. Whatever, the story went that Gere was forced to make a top secret visit to LA’s Cedars-Sinai hospital to have it surgically removed.
It wasn’t true. Records showed that Gere had been on another spiritually-elevating trip to India when he was supposed to have been in hospital. But the story did not go away. So strong was his image, so powerful was the hype, that people really thought he must be some kind of sexual genius. It would be better for everyone — for the men who would never be like him, and the women who would never have him — if he wasn’t heterosexual. And let’s not forget the people who thought that he was too damned convincing in Bent. Incredibly, this story would plague him for twenty years. Luckily, though raised a Methodist, he’d be a Buddhist throughout — the discipline and patience he learned must surely have helped.
Good press, bad press, it was all grist to the mill. And Richard’s next movie was a REALLY big hit. In An Officer And A Gentleman he was Zack Mayo (ANOTHER part turned down by Travolta), a young man from the wrong side of the tracks who, despite his violent and dismissive father (Robert Loggia), decides to attend Navy Officer Candidate School. Here, whipped into shape by Oscar-winning Louis Gossett Jr ("You eye-ballin’ me, boy?"), he falls for factory worker Debra Winger, passes the course and everyone throws their hats in the air. Like American Gigolo, the movie was a great deal more gritty than your standard romance, but once more Gere, who received a Golden Globe nomination for his pains, was seen as Loverboy Number One.
From now on, when he wasn’t travelling or working for charity, Gere made a mighty effort to achieve professional respect. In Breathless, a remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s debut A Bout De Souffle, he played Jesse Lujack, a car thief, killer and all-round desperado, who goes on the run with sweet young French girl Valerie Kaprisky. Deliberately, it was a major departure for Richard. Before, it was his stillness onscreen that captivated, the way he allowed you to watch his mind working. Lujack, though, was a live-wire, loud-mouthed and funky, strutting and preening, his lust for life overflowing. Gere was excellent. Sadly, the film was not a success. Neither was his next effort, The Honorary Consul, written by Graham Greene and concerning a dark love triangle in South America.
But Gere was still a huge star, scoring leads in the biggest productions. Next came Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club, concerning the Harlem nightspot of the 20s and 30s. Here Richard played Dixie Dwyer, a cornet player who saves the life of gangster Dutch Schultz (James Remar) and is employed to look after Schultz’s girlfriend (Diane Lane — 18 years later to co-star as Gere’s straying wife in Unfaithful). Love trouble, of course, ensues, with complications added by Dwyer’s nutty brother, played by Nicolas Cage. Drawing on his musical experience from High School, Gere both played and sang.
It was another flop. But it didn’t crash as badly as Richard’s next movie, King David. This was a Biblical epic, directed by Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies, Breaker Morant), with Richard as the titular monarch dealing with Saul, Goliath and Bathsheba (played by the wonderful Alice Krige). Strong support came from Brit thesps like Edward Woodward and Cherie Lunghi, but audiences were not drawn to this slow re-telling of ancient stories, particularly not as sexy Richard was hidden by a beard AND indulging in weird dancing. So purposefully assaulting that public image, he was struggling to find a balance between artistic and commercial success.
The mid-Eighties saw him slowly slip away into small productions. First came No Mercy, a tough action thriller where Gere played a maverick cop hunted through New Orleans, along with Kim Basinger. Then he was a political consultant drawn into all manner of shadiness in Sidney Lumet’s moody, uninvolving Power. And then he was back out in Days Of Heaven territory with Miles From Home as one of two brothers who burn their farm rather than lose it to the bank and then go on the run. John Malkovich featured, as he would in actor-director Gary Sinise’s next effort, Of Mice And Men.
Most reckoned that, by the end of the Eighties, Gere was finished. In fact, having rid himself of the "sex symbol" tag, he was pretty much where he wanted to be. And then, suddenly, he was huge again. Success re-arrived as a double strike. First came Mike Figgis’s brilliant Internal Affairs. As Dennis Peck, a ruthless renegade cop who runs all the scams and seduces most women he meets, he was tremendous, like a murderous American gigolo-come-entrepreneur. But he was also completely believable, showing that Peck has his own system of morals and responsibilities — indeed, he is OUTRAGED when the uptight and jealous Andy Garcia comes to break up his party. And his quiet, Zen-like qualities truly suited a character so dominant, manipulative and on top of it all.
Internal Affairs secured Gere’s rep, but Pretty Woman made him an A-list star once more. Here he played a corporate breaker who needs an escort for a week and hires fledgling hooker Julia Roberts. He teaches her sophistication, she teaches him to stop being a greedy, life-ruining corporate pig-dog. It was thoroughly charming stuff with Richard shining as the cool smoothie gradually enchanted by Roberts’ ungainly ebullience (he also wrote the piano piece he plays). Famously, it was an enormo-hit, sending Roberts into the stratosphere and earning Gere, who’d been there and come back, a second Golden Globe nomination.
Life was looking good. His career was on the up, Tibet House was in motion, and he’d found love with the super-model Cindy Crawford. After splitting from Sylvia Martins, Gere had had a relationship with fashion icon Tina Chow (later to die from AIDS-related illness). Then, due to the machinations of Shirley Ritts, mother of Gere’s friend and photographer Herb, he’d met Crawford. It’s been said that this love revitalised his career, but he nearly lost it. On December 12th, 1991, Crawford told long-term bachelor Gere that if he didn’t marry her she’d leave. That same day, on a Disney jet arranged by Jerry Katzenberg, they flew to Las Vegas and were married.
Now Richard began to alternate between small, "interesting" projects and bigger-budget productions. First came Rhapsody In August, where four young Japanese kids become obsessed with the nuclear assault on Nagasaki, when visiting their grandmother there. Richard popped up as her Eurasian nephew. It was a minor role, but it did allow him to work with director Akira Kurosawa. Then came Final Analysis, a superior psycho-thriller where Gere played a psychiatrist being used and abused by patient Uma Thurman and her sultry sister (Basinger once again). After this was Sommersby, Gere’s second remake of a French hit, this time Le Retour De Martin Guerre. Here he played a man returning home to his farm and wife Jodie Foster after the Civil War. But is he REALLY the husband, or an imposter who’s learned everything about this place from the real fellow, now dead? And, being as it’s Richard Gere, does Jodie care?
Co-incidentally, Gere’s next picture starred Nathalie Baye, who’d played Foster’s part in the original. This was And The Band Played On, a controversial cable film concerning the discovery of and early fight against AIDS. Many stars made cameo appearances, Gere appearing as a choreographer, but he stood out, receiving an Emmy nomination. Next came something of a pet project,Mr Jones, which reunited Gere with Mike Figgis. Here he played a manic depressive who engages in a torrid affair with his psychiatrist, played by Lena Olin.
It wasn’t that great. And neither were Richard’s next two movies. Intersection, a third remake of a French movie (Les Choses De La Vie), saw him having to choose between his haughty partner (Sharon Stone) and his hot new lover, Lolita Davidovich. Then First Knight saw him racing about as Sir Lancelot, rescuing and romancing Guinevere (Julia Ormond), much to the chagrin of Sean Connery’s King Arthur. It really wasn’t good, and Richard’s decision to play Lancelot as a late 20th Century American gigolo, with hindsight, seems flawed.
Life wasn’t that rosy. Richard had never been allowed to escape the rumours that sprang up after American Gigolo and, as Crawford had suffered similar accusations, as a couple they were constantly under fire. The marriage, it was endlessly alleged, was a cover-up for their homosexuality. Eventually, they actually took a full-page ad out in the Times, announcing that they were heterosexual, monogamous and in love. A few months later, sadly, they split. Rumours flew that Crawford was seeing her ex, club owner Rande Gerber, and that, while filming First Knight, Gere had been involved with 22-year-old British actress Laura Bailey (and then model Elizabeth Nottoli). The British tabloids went crazy, but Gere took it bravely. Appearing at a gay/lesbian fundraiser in London in October, 1994, he said "You’ve all heard some rumours about me over the years. I guess this is the time to do it. My name is Richard Gere… and I am a lesbian".
1995 saw Gere and Crawford divorce. Then Primal Fear pulled his career together again. Here he was fine as a hot-shot lawyer defending an altar-boy who’s whacked an archbishop. But as the defence continues, he first discovers that he can maybe save this no-hoper, and then slowly realises that the no-hoper may actually be an evil genius. Richard did well to stay in the picture as Ed Norton exploded in his Oscar-nominated debut.
Now came another pet project, Red Corner. Here he played Jack Moore, a US lawyer in Beijing to close a TV deal, who gets framed for murder and forced to prove his innocence by a cruel and unyielding government. Still fighting for Tibetan freedom, this was a chance to have a pop at the Chinese authorities, and Gere used it. He arranged a special premiere of the movie in Washington DC, just before an official visit by Chinese president Jiang Zemin and, during the visit, addressed a pro-Tibetan rally outside the White House.
Red Corner was not a smash, and neither was The Jackal, where Gere played an IRA prisoner who helps the FBI in their pursuit of Bruce Willis’s super-assassin. It was odd to see the pair star together for, just as John Travolta’s refusals had allowed Gere to break through, so Gere’s refusal of Die Hard had set up Willis for his first major hit.
Big money talks loud and, after many years of trying, Hollywood got Gere and Julia Roberts back together for Runaway Bride. Here Richard played a reporter who’s assigned to the case of a woman who keeps leaving men at the altar. He makes mistakes in his piece, gets fired and attempts to redeem himself by researching the story properly. And the charming inevitable ensues. Once more, Hector Elizondo featured, having appeared in Gere’s movie debut, as well as American Gigolo and Pretty Woman.
Runaway Bride was yet another smash and, inevitably, Gere’s next two pictures weren’t. Autumn In New York, where he was an ageing playboy who falls for a terminally ill Winona Ryder, was pretty sappy. Then there was Robert Altman’s Dr T And The Women which was far more effective. Here Gere was well cast as a Dallas gynaecologist who knows everything about women’s bodies but nothing about their minds, thus he can’t cope with his wife, Farrah Fawcett’s breakdown or the problems of his daughters, played by Kate Hudson and Tara Reid.
Then, after a two year gap, Richard entered his most successful period since the early Eighties. In The Mothman Prophecies he played a reporter who finds weird pictures drawn by his wife before she died. Two years later, he suddenly finds himself several hundred miles from where he thought he was, weird stuff is going on, and other people are drawing those weird pix. It was an excellent thriller and a surprise smash, as was Unfaithful, based AGAIN on a French hit, this time Claude Chabrol’s La Femme Infidele. Here Richard reunited with Cotton Club co-star Diane Lane as a steady suburban couple whose world is thrown into utter confusion when she embarks on an affair with sexy hunk Olivier Martinez. Directed by Adrian Lyne, it could have simply been Fatal Attraction with the sexes reversed. Thankfully, it was far more interesting than that.
And then, as if turning full circle, Richard appeared in a musical, just as he had in his early years in New York and London. In Chicago, he played Billy Flynn, the lawyer of two warring stage heroines (both of whom are secretly murderesses) — newcomer Renee Zellweger and falling star Catherine Zeta- Jones. As their battle continues, his position becomes ever more confused and precarious.
So, with three successive hits, Richard Gere is back on top. And he’s a happy dad, too. First he found love with Carey Lowell, daughter of a famous geologist and a woman as well-travelled as himself. She was also a well-known fashion model, then a TV star in Law And Order and A League Of Their Own, as well as winning small roles in Sleepless In Seattle and Leaving Las Vegas. Having fallen for each other, in February 2000 they had a son, Homer James Jigme — Jigme being Tibetan for "fearless" and married in secret in 2002. The family live in considerable luxury, Gere having earned $13 million for Runaway Bride and $15 million each for Unfaithful and The Mothman Prophecies.
That said, Richard Gere would be just as happy in a mud-hut (and often is). Like his friend, the Dalai Lama, he’s that kid of guy.