Traveling around Asia while in between Hollywood studio jobs in December 2003, Scott Neeson figured he'd come back fired up for a new round of power lunches and red carpet premieres. Instead he stumbled across the Steung Meanchey garbage dump in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and witnessed a scene unlike any he'd seen in the movies: a wisp of a girl, dressed in rags, picking through syringes and broken glass. Her name, Neeson learned through his driver, was Srey Nich. She was 9 and lived in the dump with her mother and younger sister; there they collected scraps, which they sold for money to buy food. "How could anyone survive here?" Neeson recalls thinking. "I couldn't look away."
Instead Neeson, 53, gave up his Hollywood life and never looked back. Once president of 20th Century Fox International, overseeing films from Titanic
, the Scottish-born executive had all the trappings of high-rolling Hollywood: a Porsche, a Brentwood, Calif., home, a yacht the self-described "babeaholic" named No Ties. Today he lives in a two-story home that doubles as office space for his nonprofit Cambodian Children's Fund (cambodianchild rensfund.org). Since 2004 Neeson's charity has helped house, educate and provide health care for more than 1,450 children in the country's most desperate slums. "Scott is a remarkable human being who put his life on the line to help children in Cambodia who had no hope," says Dr. Jay Winsten, associate dean of the Harvard School of Public Health. "Now they have a future."
Neeson never imagined much of a future for himself. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Elizabeth, Australia, where his father worked for the Department of Defense and his mother as a cleaning lady, he was a frail kid, unhappy both at home and in school. "A lot of teachers said I'd be unemployed, spend my life on welfare," he says. He dropped out of high school and found work delivering movie posters to theaters, working his way up to projectionist and then assistant to the director of movie programming, eventually landing the position of managing director at an Australian film distributor that later merged with Sony. By 1993 he was vice president of international marketing for Fox and moved to America, ultimately being promoted to president in 2003. "Scott was a major driving force," says former Fox colleague Gina Kilberg, now senior vice president of international media at Sony. "He was very motivated to be successful." And along with success came lavish perks. "Cindy Crawford lived two doors down from me," he says, laughing. "For someone who'd been told over and over he'd never amount to anything, to earn a million dollars and have this great lifestyle was something I'd never dreamed of."
The excesses of that life came into sharp relief on his second trip to Phnom Penh just a few months after his first. He had returned to the dump and was trying to help three sick children when he got a call on his cell phone. It was an agent whose star client was having a meltdown before boarding his private jet because it wasn't properly stocked with his favorite amenities. "The actor said, 'My life wasn't meant to be this difficult.' The kids I was with were very sick and here's this movie star yelling," says Neeson. "If I needed a sign, that was it."
These days Neeson is as driven as he ever was, only about different things. He starts work at dawn with a cup of coffee from his espresso machine, his one luxury, and leaves the country only for fund-raising trips. He uses his formidable negotiating skills to persuade desperate and starving parents to enroll their kids in his school or bring a sick baby to his clinic. "I guess I identify with [the kids] never believing they could do anything with their lives," he says. "They've been through so much, but they're so hugely energetic and joyful. I've got more love in my life than I ever thought existed. My fear is what would have happened to me if I was still living a life all about me."
For the road he did take, Neeson only need thank Srey Nich, that first little girl from the dump. Using his own money, Neeson got Srey Nich and her family out of the now-closed dump and into a house. She then became one of the original students at Neeson's CCF school. Today, 18 and planning for college next year, she says Neeson changed everything for her. "The dump was a very bad, dirty place," she says. "Now my life has changed. I can speak English with you, I have the opportunity to go to school. Everything is different."