Mister Richard Gere

The American Gigolo becomes America's Sweetheart

Richard Gere
Herb Ritts
Richard Gere on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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Richard Gere, for five years the sexual grenade of Hollywood's sub-star leading men, has suddenly become America's sweetheart. With the unexpected success of An Officer and a Gentleman, he's broken through the narcissistic punk, Goodbar-Gigolo persona to become a heroic heartbreaker, a romantic lead who not only gets away with literally sweeping his leading lady off her feet in a dangerously cornball finale, but also manages to leave everybody in the house teary-eyed and smiling.

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An Officer and a Gentleman marks the first time Richard Gere has truly won over an audience. Even with all the exhibitionism of the obstacle courses, the karate and the hot-cha love scene with Debra Winger, his role never makes him look like he's being used to sell some kind of high-tech body-building equipment or bikini underwear for men. Everything seems to click. He plays it from Anytown instead ofAngst-ville. His character's pain is right at eye level. He gets pissed off instead of acting tortured. He squawks and sputters instead of writhing. He falls in love like a person. Despair is not glamorized. Isolation not ennobled. He plays your basic vulnerable kid with a chip on his shoulder. Although it seems to be another one of his loner-learns-to-love characters, this one doesn't fool around. His education is so linear you feel like you're sitting through a training film. Made in America.

I first met Richard Gere in 1977, a few weeks after he had landed his first starring role, the teenage hard hat in Bloodbrothers, the movie based on my novel. Gere was living in a less-than-stylish Greenwich Village pad, a former plumbing supply shop on ground level, in the shadow of the West Side Highway and flanked by heavy-leather gay bars. Although I showed up twenty minutes late, his girlfriend at the time, Penny Milford, who won a best-supporting-actress Oscar nomination for her work in Coming Home, had to entertain me because Gere was napping.

When he finally emerged, Gere was wearing his finest BVDs and smoking a cigarette that hung from his lips in a Belmondo vertical drop. He mumbled "hey," gave me a hug and dropped on the couch as if he were suffering from combat fatigue. Despite his casual, gummy-eyed beefcake act, despite the fact that he never seemed to fully wake up or raise his voice above a lazy murmur, and despite the fact that the dude was definitely on from the minute he made his entrance, the room seemed to shrink to the dimensions of a broom closet. It had nothing to do with his glamour or physicality. It was something deeper, more anxiety provoking. He projected a furtive alertness, an acute self-consciousness, with a mind that never stopped checking out the scene. There was a part of him standing across the room, not only sizing me up but sizing himself up as well.

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None of this was apparent in his words, posture or eyes; all we did was have a warm, mutually flattering conversation. In fact, he seemed curious and attentive to a fault, but the air was so charged that I felt like a medium sitting in a room full of ghosts. He seemed so convinced of his own presence, so effortlessly insistent that I watch him, that I just happily leaned back and passed the popcorn. The opening moments of An Officer and a Gentleman, in which Gere's character wakes up and stumbles around in his shorts, dragging on a cigarette, were so identical to his show in the loft that I felt like I'd already seen the movie. But I would no sooner have called Richard Gere vain on that first encounter than I would have called a kamikaze a flyboy. Vanity doesn't shrink rooms.

I felt that it was important to Gere that I liked him and was taken with him. I felt he was wooing me, offering himself. But despite the obviousness of his deciding to enter a room in his BVDs to meet a stranger, it wasn't sexual. And it was a successful woo; not because of the preening and schtick but because the preening and schtick were so humanly transparent. He seemed so self-consumed, so self-conscious, that he laid out more cards on the table than he realized. In his own ass-backward way, he was one of the most honest and open people I'd ever met. I liked him tremendously.

The only thing I remember of what he said to me that night was that earlier in the week he'd been mugged by some Chelsea teenagers who had been regularly victimizing lone men on the dark gay-bar strip near his loft. "They probably thought I was fucking gay because I had on a leather jacket and motorcycle-boots. I've always worn that. I'm into motorcycles for years. Pisses me off."

Gere was born and raised in upstate New York as one of five children in a good Methodist family that was "amorphous middle class," in his adolescent estimation. "My old man's an insurance salesman," he says, "but he's not one of those huckster types. He's really great at it because he believes in it. He's like a minister; he really wants to help people, and they love him."

Gere not only learned to play trumpet, piano, guitar, banjo and sitar, but wrote the scores for several high-school productions and acted in them. "I was a child prodigy," he says. "When I was fourteen, I played trumpet in a local symphony orchestra. My whole family plays something. When I go home, we all play together, then switch instruments and play something else. They're great people, my family."

He was also a good gymnast, but his grades weren't so hot. He left high school feeling "pretty confused," going through what he calls his "paranoid stage — you know, when it seems like the whole cosmos is trying to rip your balls off."

In 1967, he enrolled at the University of Massachusetts, studying philosophy before dropping out and joining the Provincetown Playhouse for a season and moving on to the Seattle Repertory. Theater for another. After a period of long-haired hippiedom in Seattle, Gere headed back east. He made a brief, abortive effort at forming a rock band with old school friends in Vermont. "We called ourselves the Strangers or something," he says. "It only lasted three months. We hated each other with a passion." Eventually, he moved to a Lower East Side walk-up in New York City.

In 1972, Gere landed a part in the fast-folding, fatefully named rock opera Soon, but despite this inauspicious big-city debut, he began to get roles that got him noticed: Danny Zuko in the Broadway and London productions of Grease, some Shakespeare at Lincoln Center and an appearance on Kojak and in the TV movie Strike. The latter work brought Gere to the profound conclusion that television is a "disgusting, humiliating experience." But his growing visibility had its rewards; he was working on a regular basis. His intense performances as a pimp in Report to the Commissioner, a shell-shocked raider in Baby Blue Marine and a condemned murderer in Sam Shepard's Killer's Head earned him the lead in Terence Malick's beautiful bomb, Days of Heaven.

Then came Looking for Mr. Goodbar, in which Gere played the menacing stud who danced around Diane Keaton's bedroom with a switchblade. It was a flashy, electrifying piece of work that had the audience sitting up straight. After the release of Good-bar in 1978, Gere says he had enough offers to play "Italian crazies for the next fifteen years."

In order to change his public image, he reluctantly decided to start playing the publicity game. This meant dealing with industry types – "leeches, vampires and hustlers" – and doing interviews, which he loathed. One reporter described his attitude toward interviews as the same "sentiments a dog has for flea baths."

Bloodbrothers was a flop, and in Days of Heaven he and the rest of the cast played second fiddle to the cinematography. However, he got a lot of magazine coverage: lots of full-page photos of his bedroom face and gymnast physique. Next thing you knew, he was a star, complete with his own blowup poster.

That same year, 1978, saw a whole new crop of male sex stars: various dark, smoldering, androgynous, Italian-looking actors in their late twenties, but most notably Gere and John Travolta. Newman, Redford and Reynolds were over forty, and these young bloods were the new wave.

Some critics – confronted by the glut of young dark angels who seemed spawned more out of a photogenic "come hither" look than from any sustained, tour de force acting – started screaming bloody murder. If Gere had been born with blond hair and blue eyes, he might not have been able to ride the wave, but his reviews might have focused more on his art. As it was, Gere, like the others, caught it in the neck.

"Richard Gere is to Robert De Niro what Beatlemania is to the Beatles," smirked Pauline Kael in her review of Bloodbrothers. And other critics referred to him as a movie star as opposed to an actor, as if he had simply lucked out, the millionth customer to walk through the door. They never gave him any slack. They bitched about his posturing and self-involvement but rarely referred to the energy and intensity at the source. His magnetism was reduced to just so much meat.

In 1979, he appeared in Yanks, directed by John Schlesinger; in Paul Schrader's American Gigolo (in the lead originally intended for John Travolta); and on Broadway in Bent. Yanks didn't seem to matter much to the critics or the public one way or another. Gigolo earned him mixed critical reaction, strengthened his sex-bomb charisma and added fuel to his detractors' claim that he was all pinup boy. Bent, in which Gere played a young, hard-eyed hustler interned in a concentration camp for his homosexuality, was the first role for which the critical reaction was overwhelmingly positive. He was applauded for the daring of his commitment to so provocative a part, but one could also say that the very boldness and social power of the play's theme made it a safe bet. Even though 1979 was his best year for critical validation to date, his war with the press and public had escalated.

Back in 1977, I was having dinner with Gere when a nervous, smiling fan approached our table and Gere straight-armed him with an icy mutter that had the guy walking away backward. Gere was a relative unknown then, and I had a hunch that as his visibility increased, he was going to have a lot of trouble leaving the house. Two years later, it seemed that the bigger problem was his insistence on leaving the house.

Gere appeared to go out of his way to court the press' derision. He'd show up at people-page kinds of parties, pull down his cap and charge through the paparazzi. He really made the scene.

According to Village Voice columnist Arthur Bell, who started out as one of Gere's greatest touters but quickly soured on him, "He was trying to come on like Greta Garbo and Sylvia Miles at the same time. I mean, who the hell does he think he is?"

"Richard has always been very uptight about the press and being asked stupid questions," explains Taylor Hackford, the director of An Officer and a Gentleman. "He's a really complex guy who values his private life. He is not an arrogant asshole."

In 1979, I bumped into Gere at a party given in the lobby of an off-Broadway theater. As we stood talking in the middle of the room, it seemed that at least half the people around us were staring at him out of the corners of their eyes with what seemed to be a mixture of anger and awe. Photographers cruised the crowd for faces, but none of them dared approach Gere. A few shot him looks that suggested they wouldn't mind photographing his funeral. It was terrifying.

Gere has always had the power to demand that you watch him. It had bowled me over when we met, and it seemed to have grown even stronger. He was incapable of looking unaware of the people around him, incapable of projecting stay-away vibes. And now, in this room, it was as if he were holding everyone's neck in a noose at the end of a pole. They couldn't get too close and they couldn't walk away. But neither could he.

Gere tried to come off as though he were oblivious to all this tension, but the unsmiling tightness of his mouth betrayed him. He looked like a man trying to ignore the fact that his ex-wife is at the same party. I couldn't imagine he had come to the theater in anticipation of a good time. The night seemed like some blind foray into the combat zone. If Gere had exploded at that party, I don't know if he would have screamed, "I hate you!" or "Why don't you love me!" or "For Christ's sake, will you let me just go to a fucking party in peace?"

As an actor, some of Gere's biggest fans seem to be his directors. Robert Greenwald, who directed Gere in the 1971 off-off-Broadway play Richard Farina: Long Time Coming and a Long Time Gone and in the Broadway musical Soon, says: "Gere had enormous energy. He never stopped working. If a rehearsal was supposed to go eight hours, Gere would go twelve. There was no doubt in my mind he would become a star. The only other newcomer I worked with who gave me the same feeling was Jill Clayburgh."

Robert Allan Ackerman, who directed Bent, speaks of Gere's generosity and steadiness: "He's an incredibly hard worker. There was nothing he wasn't willing to try; he was always available, never showed any temperament. He could have just spent two hours lifting rocks, and if he overheard some actor saying something about missing a sequence, Richard would immediately offer to do it. He's so focused, so concentrated, so extraordinarily dedicated."

Paul Schrader, director of American Gigolo, talks about Gere's genealogy. "He comes from a long line of strong, sensitive matinee idols, a lineage that has been impoverished of late. Paul Newman and Alain Delon are the outstanding examples. They project the sexuality of a star who's sensitive without being neurotic. Not to diminish De Niro or Pacino, but they are from a different tradition. Gere stands in one that we've been a little short on. Richard fills in a vacancy as Newman grows older. I don't see him in the line of Clift, Brando, although Richard sees himself more as a mixture of both lines."

Although the directors' raves seem unanimous, the response of the ticket buyers had always been mixed before An Officer and a Gentleman. Young women and young gay men seemed to be turned on to Gere almost straight across the board. But when you talked to others, he ran into some trouble; they found his sexuality diluted by his inability to reach out and make them feel needed. As an actor, Gere is a plunger; his concentration is sea-deep. But on the screen, it can repel as well as attract. He can act "too hard," as one semi-fan said, and cut himself off.

Despite Gere's appeal as a smolderer, despite his ability to look at you and ask the time as if your Bulova were strapped to your soul, there's another, perhaps more compelling, side to his screen persona that prior to An Officer and a Gentleman I'd only seen once or twice: Gere as protector.

There's a scene in Bloodbrothers in which Gere, playing a hospital attendant, tells a room full of eight-year-old kids a ghost story. He speaks in a playful spook-house whisper, and the kids are popeyed with fascination. By the end of his tale, he's turned it into an allegory about brotherhood. Despite the potential bathos of that scene, he received a spontaneous standing ovation when the film was shown at the New York Film Festival. Sweetness and earnestness might not make an audience horny, but it can warm people – it can get them on your side. Sex doesn't last, but cooking does.

The last time I saw Gere was at the home he was renting in the Hollywood Hills for the duration of his work on Breathless, an L.A.-Las Vegas remake of the jazz-cool Parisian classic that made Belmondo.

When he opened the door, my first reaction was that he was nude but had somehow managed to airbrush his crotch. He was wearing a pair of flesh-colored bikini underwear. Jesus Christ, not again.

The white, sunlit house, which once belonged to Cole Porter, was buttressed by a blue-tiled pool hanging over the cliff like a setup for Biblical judgment. It seemed to be a statement of triumph and stature for Gere. It was a long way from the plumbing store in the Village, and he damn well knew it. When I asked for the bathroom, he said with a straight face, "There're two. The bigger one's on the left." When I came back, he asked me which one I'd used and seemed disappointed that I hadn't used the big one.

As we sat across from each other by the pool, Richard leaned back almost spreadeagle, centerfold style. I thought about getting into the spirit of things by squinting at him and saying, "You know, it really is kind of hot up here...." Then, I'd take off my pants, sit back in heart-print boxer shorts, black dress socks and black shoes, and turn on the tape. But I balked, not sure he'd laugh.

We talked about success, fucking up, Shakespeare, the old days, William Burroughs, and about how having a house with two bathrooms was better than a house with one.

A half-hour into the talk, I saw why he could finally pull off An Officer and a Gentleman. He seemed like a different person – softer, easier. He'd lost that look of someone who's got World War III going on inside his head. He seemed more aligned. Back in 1977, the text of his conversation wasn't nearly as compelling as the subtext, but now it felt like he could finally reach the ends of the table.

When I asked him if there was anything in particular that accounted for his success, he answered without hesitation. "Focus. I knew people who were as talented as I was who didn't have it. I think I've always felt that it was focus and commitment and concentration that made the thing happen. When things fuck up, you just keep going. Most people give in and say, 'Fuck it, I'm not cut out for this,' and they do something else. You got to outlast all the fuckups and just keep going, keep going, keep going."

He chanted, slightly rocking, his eyes locked on the blue of the pool. It struck me that during all the times I had met him in the past, he was so taut, so entrenched in his keeping going, that I never thought he could abstract the words.

"Richard, would you say you're the happiest you've ever been in your life?"

He took a deep breath and let it out in a slow hiss. "Let's put it this way: I'm the farthest from suicide that I've ever been."

For some reason, I thought it was the funniest thing I'd ever heard, and I started to laugh so hard I had to turn off the recorder.

Gere giggled tentatively, more out of delight at my reaction than because he meant it to be a funny line. "You know, I was very lucky. Opportunities arose when I was ready for them," he said. "I didn't get things I was not ready for, so I wasn't exposed before I was ready."

On the table was a paperback of Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul. Three days after finishing Breathless, he would be heading down to Mexico to play the part of a South American guerrilla fighter in the movie version of the book. It's the starring role.

A true star must possess a seamlessness, an easiness on the screen, that can warm an audience like a shot of brandy. He must be able to cultivate rapport, a winking intimacy and recognition. He must be able to laugh at himself. In the past, Richard Gere never struck me as someone who could laugh at himself. But suddenly I had the thought that if I'd actually stripped down to the boxers, he just might have cracked up. And if he had, I'd be willing to bet anything that his stock as a star was soon going to go through the roof.

At the end of the interview, Gere hunched forward: "Hey, that line I said about me being farthest from suicide? Make sure you put it in context. I don't want anybody thinking I'm fucking suicidal or something."

The next night, I went to a Thai restaurant with my girlfriend, Gere and two of his friends. It was a nice, low-key dinner. He seemed totally relaxed and unselfconscious about being in a public place. Although no one approached for an autograph, I heard someone at the next table running down Gere's filmography. I'm sure he heard it, too, but he didn't even bat an eye. In 1979, that film scholar might have found himself with a fork in his ear.

Back at the house, Gere showed us a box of car burglary tools. He demonstrated how to slip a lock, yank out a starter and hot-wire an ignition. He seemed like a kid showing off his danger toys.

"Isn't that illegal?" one of his friends asked. Gere held up one particularly devious-looking piece of metal. "This one's five years in the slammer, just by itself."

Someone spied an ad for gravity boots in the Los Angeles Times. "Hey, Rich, look at this! It says, 'Like Richard Gere in American Gigolo. '"

Gere came over and squinted at the paper and smiled. "Shit, they can't say that, can they?"

My girlfriend asked for the john, and Gere nodded toward me. "Rich knows the way," he said. As I left the kitchen to show her the stairs, Gere came around the corner. Before he could open his mouth, I said, "Show her the big one." He started laughing. At himself. Right through the roof.

This is from the September 30th, 1982 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 379: September 30, 1982