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​Richard Gere shines a light on the forgotten

Richard Gere has been a matinee idol since stepping in front of the camera. But for decades his passion for helping communities in need has helped shine a spotlight on social issues all over the world
Richard Gere, a star advocate 07:16

Richard Gere played a millionaire who had everything but love in the 1990 movie "Pretty Woman." Very different from the role he took on recently. It was a project close to Gere's heart ... as he told our Seth Doane:

"I think we're all looking for home," said actor Richard Gere. "I think we're all looking for our place."

After a career of playing the dashing, leading man in movies like "Pretty Woman," "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Chicago," Gere, in a recent film, turned his attention to the fringes and the forgotten.

Doane sked, "What made you want to make this movie about being a homeless man?"

"There are 60,000 people homeless in New York City," Gere said. "And by some estimates close to a million in the country. It's a serious issue. It can be viewed as a problem, or it can be viewed as a responsibility we have."

The film "Time Out of Mind," which was released in the U.S. last year, was a dozen years in the making, and a labor of love for the actor. With very little dialogue and long-distance camera shots, Gere almost disappears on the streets of New York.

Richard Gere as a homeless man in New York City in the film "Time Out of Mind." IFC Films

"I think you start to actually feel what it's like to be fragmented in that world," he said.

We met Gere in a very different world: at a screening of the film in Rome, where he added some Hollywood sizzle to the already-spectacular Villa Taverna -- the U.S. ambassador's residence.

"He's not only a fantastic artist, but he's an equally fantastic humanitarian," said John Phillips, America's Ambassador to Italy. He admires Gere's lifetime of advocating for the disadvantaged. He believes the film's Italian debut this past week would spark discussion.

Richard Gere on bringing social issues into focus 02:09

"We have a lot of government officials, a lot of politicians, people in power that should understand more of the causes of homelessness and the life of a homeless person," Phillips said.

Gere said of those in attendance, "It's a small crowd, but an important crowd for a movie like this."

In Italy, the issue of searching for a home has taken on new urgency, as nearly 400,000 migrants and refugees have arrived on this nation's shores since 2014, fleeing war, persecution and extreme poverty. Thousands have died making the dangerous crossing.

Doane asked, "When you watch these pictures of these families coming across the Mediterranean, what goes through your mind?"

"Where am I safe in the world? Where am I safe?" Gere replied. "When you see a father with his kids and how horribly guilty he feels that he can't protect his family."

Gere wanted to hear firsthand from some who have made that perilous journey. So, while in Rome, he visited a community aid group, Sant'Egidio, which provides shelter, language classes, and the tools refugees and migrants need to start a new life.

"People always look at me a little funny -- 'You want to hear my story?'" Gere said. "I just want to hear how did you end up here? What happened? That room felt like we'd all known each other forever. Already it felt like, 'I got your back.'"

"Is that why you do it? Is that what you get out of hearing the stories?"

"I think that's what we're all about, our stories."

One of those stories was Nour Essa's, a Syrian who, in April, was rescued along with her family from a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, and brought to Italy by Pope Francis himself.

Doane first met Essa the night she arrived. "Can you believe that you are here?" he asked.

"No, no. I can't believe it!" Essa smiled.

She told Doane she'd seen Gere's films back in Syria and never imagined meeting him here.

"Does a visit by someone like Mr. Gere really change anything? Does it really help?"

"I don't know," she said. "But, maybe, maybe. I hope."

Gere's visit certainly put the issue of refugees and homelessness on Italian front pages.

"A celebrity has this ability to shine a light on an issue," Doane said, adding, "It's also a huge responsibility."

"I have to know a little bit what I'm talking about -- that's really the responsibility," Gere said. "That's why I'm going to Lampedusa. If I'm going to talk about refugees, I gotta be there."

The next day he traveled to Lampedusa, an Italian island just off the coast of Tunisa. It's the entry-point to Europe for thousands of refugees.

Richard Gere visits a migrant center on the island of Lampedusa. CBS News

Our cameras were not allowed inside the migrant center, but an employee gave us photos of Gere's meeting.

"This is the real deal situation," a reflective Gere said later. "When you look at the survival level here of people. Also, a sense of joy -- I mean, look around. There are not sad people here. These are people who have created community."

For decades, Gere has fought for a number of communities, among them Tibetans, those living with HIV/AIDS, people without a home, and now, people without a country.

Doane said, "Even when I met you, you put your hand on my shoulder. It's like you're looking for a connection in your work, with the people you meet."

"When things slow down and there's space, and people look each other in the eye, something magical can happen," Gere said. "My father is 94 years old. I remember maybe 20, 25 years ago talking to my dad, and I said, 'Dad, you've seen everything, all these incredible things, and he finds it marvelous -- I mean, when I started showing him Facetime, and you could actually see us from, I could call him right now, I can get him right now if he would figure out how to press the button! -- but I said, 'This is just incredible, Dad, all this stuff, do you think it makes life any better?' 'No.'

"For him, it's still, it's still this space where people genuinely show up and respect themselves, respect the other, realize that we have so much that we share."

Richard Gere is sharing his time, his spotlight, and his voice in hopes that, somehow, the world might be just a bit better if we work together, listen and, perhaps most of all, engage.

"That simple connection," he said, "makes everything meaningful."

To watch a trailer for "Time Out of Mind" click on the player below.

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