Sept. 14 2006 11:00 AM

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Event 3: The First 1,000 Words of a Vanity Fair Profile


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Michael
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Richard Gere: Between Heaven and Earth

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By Michael Specter

       Richard Gere--of Hollywood, Katmandu, and Calcutta--has fallen deep into thought on the top of the world. After an 8-hour flight from London we are finally dancing across the peaks of the Himalayas in the actor's brand new Cessna Ultra Citation.

       We stare, in dazed awe, as the jagged summits of the world's highest mountains pass beneath us. As the jet stream crashes against Mount Everest--we are flying only 5,000 feet above its black, ghostly pinnacle--the mountain sends an enormous plume of ice crystals trailing like a comet into the sky beside our plane.

       I close my eyes and pray that the pilot isn't mesmerized by the most audacious sight on earth. Gere senses my distress and breaks out of his reverie. "Freedom," he shouts, sipping from a bottle of Highland Stills mineral water, then running both hands through that famous hair, which almost looks like gray cashmere. "Always freedom. I'm always trying for the adventure."

       No news there, really. Richard Gere has been on a roll for two decades, ever since he got his break as Diane Keaton's handsome, high-risk pickup in one of the signature films of the late '70s, Looking for Mr. Goodbar. From there it was a short hop to American Gigolo, An Officer and a Gentleman, Pretty Woman, and a permanent role as an emblem of the suave--sometimes cynical--modern urban American. These days he earns $12 million a picture and is starring in two films that have just been released. In The Jackal, he plays an IRA soldier freed from prison in order to bring down one of the world's most notorious assassins. Red Corner is about an American in China framed for a crime he did not commit.

       Neither has been a hit. Yet Gere seems oddly not to care. And that is why we are on our way to India today, where Gere retreats each year to purge himself of the obsessive materialism that he says begins to defeat him when he works too much. It has been a time of much publicity for Gere--his criticism of Chinese President Jiang Zemin made news for days last month during Mr. Jiang's state visit--and Gere, whose boyish and serene face never betrays exhaustion, says he has had enough publicity for a lifetime.

       So each year he retreats to the Ganges, where he spends time in a hut--sharing a bathroom--and living without television, hot water, or a telephone. He leaves his wondrous wardrobe at home, taking only the clothes that can fit into a carry-on bag.

       "I am on my way to India," he told me when I called and asked to visit with him in California for this story. He argued that his movie life and his public life--the disastrous marriage to Cindy Crawford, the endless rumors of his homosexuality, even the bizarre myths about his sexual behavior--were not subjects he was willing to dwell on again at length. He suggested that I might have some fun looking for his other side and I was too much of a coward to admit that he had always been my hero because I, too, had prematurely gray hair.

       "I go every year to India," he said, about his trip, "to get away for a while." He says he does "internal work" there. "When you are doing internal work you need nothing," he said, explaining why I would be permitted to load only one bag on his private jet.

       As an activist Gere travels relentlessly, which is why he says he bought the jet (that and his often-repeated fear of missing connecting flights). He has been to Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua to promote democracy. Politically he is most famous for his support of Tibet and the Dalai Lama.
       Hundreds of millions of people were stunned in 1992, when Gere, while presenting an Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony, asked the crowd to beam thoughts of "love and truth" to the Chinese leaders in hopes that they would free Tibet from China. It didn't work. Tibet stayed in chains and the press instantly attacked him as a brainless bimbo who should shut up, take his paychecks, and go back to the pool.
       "Richard has wonderful technique," said his friend, the director Sidney Lumet, who hired him for his film, Power. "But when an actor is as beautiful as he is, its difficult to be taken seriously."

       It is a problem that has plagued Gere throughout his career. Most critics agree he was at his best in his most unusual role: the sleazy cop and drug peddler battling Andy Garcia in Mike Figgis' homoerotic classic, Internal Affairs.

       Nobody has yet compared Gere to Laurence Olivier--nor have most of his films been particularly well received by critics, but his Buddhism seems to have helped him control any anger he might express at bad reviews. Today we will stop in Katmandu, before moving on to India, because Gere has promised to appear at a charity event for the Dalai Lama. The two facts most Americans know about Gere is that he was married to Ms. Crawford, and that he is an ardent support of the Dalai Lama.

       People ridicule him for it, but he no longer cares. When the Chinese president came to the United States this month, Gere was one of the only prominent people in the nation who was willing to say publicly that the man ran a police state and that Washington should be ashamed to treat him with honors

       It is primarily that episode that has so wearied Gere.

       "When I was younger ... I'd burrow into those emotions," he said, explaining his acting technique and his unique ability to shed his daily troubles. "I'd be crying all day in my trailer. If I was supposed to be angry, I'd be throwing things. ... I destroy my attachments to things, but they don't go away. Early on I thought if I achieved [the transcendent states of] kensho or satori, I'd disappear, baboom! In fact, it was a very juvenile way of seeing it. I realize now, the ego is always going to be there."

       So when we land in Nepal ...
 
 Michael Specter is a Moscow correspondent for the New York Times.

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