Hollywood Gives Its Heart (and $1.2 Million) to An Unlikely Movie Fan, Nelson Mandela

updated 07/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

By the time Nelson Mandela arrived in Los Angeles, the second-to-last stop of his 12-day U.S. tour, he might have become impervious to adulation. After all, he'd seen more than 750,000 New Yorkers line the streets to catch a glimpse of him and had received a standing ovation from a joint session of Congress.

But not even the 71-year-old spiritual leader of black South Africa, who had spent more than 27 years in prison rather than give up his people's struggle, could remain indifferent to the charms of Hollywood. "Where's Jane Fonda?" he asked upon arriving at the star-studded fund-raising dinner organized in his honor by the Hollywood Women's Political Committee. When Mandela found Fonda, he put his arm around her and said, "You're supposed to be older." The brief encounter left Jane, who attended the event with former husband Tom Hayden and her two children, with tears in her eyes. When Mandela, accompanied by his wife, Winnie, moved from the VIP room into the dining area of the Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles's Exposition Park, a crowd of nearly 1,000—including such luminaries as Gregory Peck, Lionel Richie, Susan Sarandon, Bonnie Raitt and Richard Dreyfuss—burst into five minutes of sustained applause. Together they had contributed $1.2 million to the Mandela Freedom Fund, which will provide educational assistance to South African blacks.

The onetime amateur boxer greeted Muhammad Ali—and received a hug in return. Then he proceeded to chide the film industry for its "one-dimensional" portrayals of Africans in movies like the Tarzan series, while crediting it with more accurate depictions recently.

Mandela "stands as one of the greatest leaders we've ever seen," says composer Quincy Jones, "because he holds to what he believes in regardless of the consequences. Everybody can feel the hope he represents." Or as Harvard psychiatrist and civil rights activist Alvin Francis Poussaint puts it: "Mandela is a small man who has taken on the giant forces of evil, and it looks like he is going to win. All of us, black and white, need to know that David can still beat Goliath."

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