Paul Newman, let's face it, is in his 50s. Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds are in their 40s. Clint Eastwood is verging on self-parody, and Pacino-De Niro are too serious. So what Hollywood plainly hungers for these days is new beefcake. Enter Richard Gere. After setting female pulses pounding in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (in which he performed a nearly nude fandango around a mesmerized Diane Keaton) and Yanks (as the Gl who romanced Lisa Eichhorn), Gere, 30, is emerging as Hollywood's slickest new leading man and the heir apparent to the temporarily shelved John Travolta.
Gere's star property of the moment is the role of the Rodeo Drive Romeo in American Gigolo, for which he was once passed over in favor of Travolta—who later backed out. In fact, Gere had to shed his rep as a kind of second-string Travolta (both actors started out in Grease stage companies, and both were considered for the role in Days of Heaven which Gere eventually won). In Gigolo he displays a technique as smooth as his Giorgio Armani silks and magnetizes director Paul Schrader's otherwise leaden film about a Polo Lounge lizard. He also offers audiences a rare instance of male frontal nudity. But the movie has become an unexpected hit less for its R-rated raunchiness than because of the simple fact that American women are discovering what Gere's co-star Lauren Hutton already knows: "Richard is a sexpot."
Yet instead of going the matinee-idol route, in his follow-up part Gere took a risk that could have been professional suicide. He is currently appearing in Broadway's Bent as a homosexual who carries on a love affair with another man in a Nazi concentration camp. (The Nazis persecuted homosexuals as brutally as Jews.) His luxuriant chestnut mane has been shorn to a kind of three-day cranial stubble, leaving him looking, he cracks, "like a lobotomy victim."
To prepare for the part, Gere, a confirmed hetereosexual, visited Dachau, talked with writer Christopher Isherwood about gay life in Weimar Germany, and read voraciously. It all came together in a soul-stripping scene when Gere makes love verbally but graphically to co-star David Dukes. "We went through our own trips to get to that," says Dukes. "We both knew it had to be shocking, erotic, uncomfortable."
"Gere has a wealth of riches," agrees Gigolo director Schrader. "He can be a traditional leading man, a tormented soul, a stage actor. Most actors don't have that many options." And now Richard is free to exercise those options. Agrees another of Gere's admiring directors, John (Yanks) Schlesinger: "Richard takes risks. He's not that concerned about image." Indeed, Gere's success in Bent takes the sting from a few of his carping critics. The New Yorker's redoubtable Pauline Kael had once erupted that Gere's sullen, brooding presence achieves "total inauthenticity in every role" and amounts to a "soap-opera impersonation of De Niro."
If those bricks sometimes hurt, the outwardly reticent and aloof Gere shrugs them off, just as he tries to dismiss the rest of the press. When an inquisitive Ladies' Home Journal interviewer once showed up at Gere's hotel suite with a provocative leadoff—"How does it feel to be a sex symbol, or are you gay?"—Gere indicated his disdain for such questions in body language. He stood up and dropped his pants. "First there was no reaction on her face," he laughs, "then she looked down and matter-of-factly said, 'Oh, I've seen better' and continued with the interview." The story never ran.
"I'm just me, that's all. I don't want to be a personality," Gere grouses. "How can anyone pay attention to Elizabeth Taylor's work when they know all about her six husbands? I don't want to be invaded. If I just wanted to be in the public eye, I'd climb the Empire State Building," he rants on in his Bent dressing room. "It would be a hell of a lot easier than doing this eight times a week for six months. But the creative high," he admits, "is as close as many of us get to God."
While on Broadway, Gere accepts backstage offerings from fans, but few visits—except, awestruck, from the likes of Laurence Olivier. He is sentimental enough to keep a very-slept-with blue mouse he received from a 13-year-old girl. Gere has also hired a full-time secretary to deal with his mail, signing all the photos himself. "He used to be a rebel—rude, anti-Hollywood—but he's grown up a lot," says one friend. "He wants to be a star." "There are a lot of Richards," agrees Lauren Hutton. "You can see him change five different colors in four seconds."
It is typical of Gere's reclusive style that the current woman in his life—Brazilian painter Sylvia Martins, 25—met him over the telephone. Just after wrapping Yanks, Gere began receiving breathy phone calls from a woman who said, "I'm Sylvia from Brazil and I'd like to meet you." Then one night at New York's Elaine's, she came up to Gere's table and introduced herself. They have been together ever since. "She's so open and friendly, she has a very calming effect on Richard," reports a friend. Sylvia flees home to Rio when the weather gets cold, and while she's away, Gere pals with the likes of Diane von Furstenberg and Diana Ross. "This business is very seductive," muses Gere. "You find out quickly the kind of people who want the best for you."
Thus Richard remains a dutiful son who seldom misses Christmas at home in North Syracuse, N.Y., where he grew up with three sisters and a brother. His father, Homer, is an insurance broker who, Gere brags, "works as hard as I do." His sister Susan remembers Richard "brooding at the age of 2." But in due course he joined the Boy Scouts and played trumpet in grade school and composed music on guitar and acted in high school. He studied philosophy and drama at the University of Massachusetts for two years before concluding, "College wasn't for me. I knew I didn't want to be told what to do anymore."
Drifting to Cape Cod, he auditioned for the Provincetown Playhouse. "Here was this student who'd never had his haircut—torn blue jeans, leather jacket, the hippie bit—who read brilliantly," remembers director Bill Roberts. "He seemed quite indifferent. But when I had posted the cast list with his name on it, I looked out the window and saw Richard run down the beach and hurl himself into the sea." Gere followed Roberts to a Seattle theater at $75 a week. "I was doing all kinds of things—running dope, improvising piano music for fashion shows—just to make extra money," recalls Gere. After the season he made a stab as a Van Morrison-styled rock singer in Vermont until "one day I decided, okay, I'm going to New York and get real serious about acting."
He lived in the tough Lower East Side—"guns and knives in the back of the neck"—but he got roles. He moved from a flop rock opera to Richard Farina: A Long Time Coming and a Long Time Gone, where he met co-star Penny Milford, his on-and-off girlfriend for seven years, and replaced Barry Bostwick in Grease's Danny Zuko role. Gere loathed television—"It's humiliating; there's no subtlety." A few movie parts (Report to the Commissioner and Baby Blue Marine) which he took "for the bucks" led him to Hollywood. Yet he turned down Midnight Express because it was too violent.
Now he finds "one of the positive things about position and power is that you can initiate things that you have an interest in." In Gere's case, that means projects with German directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog. But his success also, he admits, makes it "easier for a director to do a very-big-budget film with me." He is angling for director Alan Pakula's Sophie's Choice, and Barbra Streisand is seeking a property to do with him.
Meanwhile, he wakes up late for scrambled eggs and herb tea (he doesn't eat red meat) in his rented Greenwich Village duplex, furnished with his collection of early American antiques. He has contemplated buying a house in Los Angeles, but says, "I don't have enough money to invest." His new possessions are an Alfa Romeo and a baby grand piano. He works out with weights and practices t'ai chi chu'an, an ancient martial art. One sign of change is that Gere now has a gun-toting bodyguard (formerly Pacino's).
But he concludes the subject of celebrity: "I think we'd all be a lot happier if people realized they had the same kind of magic inside themselves and didn't have to look outside to find it."