Ex-Hollywood Hotshot Trades Glitz for Grace

The municipal dump in Stung Mean­chey commune is a long way from the wealthy canyons of Brent­wood, California, where Holly­wood moguls value their mul­timillion dollar homes as sym­bols of power as much as luxurious places to live.

But the notorious Phnom Penh dump, where hundreds of children eke out a living rooting for anything they can salvage, is where one-time Brentwood resident Scott Neeson, former head of international marketing for movie industry giant 20th Cen­tury Fox, said he had a life-changing awakening.

“Seeing such nightmarish levels of poverty really made me re-ex­amine this rarefied life that I’d been living in California,” said the Scottish-born, Australian-reared 46-year-old, who had lived in a five-bedroom house two doors down from supermodel Cindy Crawford.

“Literally, I didn’t sleep for days after the first time I saw the dump,” he said.

Accustomed to staying in luxurious hotels across the globe while promoting box-office hits such as “Titanic” and “Brave­heart,” Neeson said nothing in his high-powered Hollywood car­eer could have prepared him for the searing images of poverty he viewed firsthand in Cambodia.

As a result, Neeson, who is not religious, has made a dramatic change in lifestyle. The former Hol­lywood executive, who had all the glitzy trappings of wealth from a Porsche to a boat, now runs a four-story center in central Phnom Penh providing shelter, schooling and healthcare for or­phaned and impoverished children as part of an NGO he started last year called Cambodian Child­ren’s Fund.

Neeson’s new life took root during a three-day vacation stop­over in Phnom Penh in 2003, shortly before he was about to start a senior international marketing post for Sony Pictures. Approached by a child begging in a restaurant on the riverside, Neeson decided to see how his money could help Cambodian youngsters trapped in a life of poverty and neglect.

But as his first attempts, which he acknowledges were “extremely naive,” all flopped miserably, he began to realize that he was seeing the problem through the wrong end of the telescope.

“It really was a disaster, actually. I was getting ripped off left and right,” Neeson said, laughing.  “I’d sponsor a family, give them stacks of money, furniture, motorbikes and all the rest, and two to three days later all the money would be gone and their things sold. The parents, grandparents, or guardians of the street kids would gamble and drink the money away.”

After making nearly a dozen short trips back to Cambodia where his efforts at sponsoring families gradually grew more successful, he decided to devote himself to charity work in January 2004 for a 12-month trial run and, as he puts it, cleanse his soul of Tinseltown.

“Many times I was just millimeters away from calling Sony and telling them I wouldn’t be coming back. But then I’d think, well, maybe this is a mid-life crisis or something, and I wouldn’t make the call,” he said.  “Finally, when I realized that I couldn’t both commit myself to my film career and accomplish what I knew I needed to do here at the same time, I made the decision that this was what I wanted to do.”

He quit his job and sold his house. He said his close friends in the creative side of the movie in­dustry, such as filmmakers Peter and Bobby Farrelly, creators of comedy hits including “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber,” understood and supported his decision.  Others on the business side were generally cynical, and the insular Hollywood gossip mill went into overdrive.

“People were saying that this was a ploy to get offers from other studios for a bigger salary, or that I had really been fired from my job,” Neeson said. “Peo­ple in the film industry are totally driven by their promotions and their status, and so for me to move to a harsh developing country and give up all that they had seemed to be insulting to them.”

The Cambodian Children’s Fund is currently filled to capacity with 116 children.

Roughly two-thirds of the young­sters served at the spacious part-orphanage, part-vocational school—where Neeson lives in a spartanly furnished room—used to be scavengers at Stung Mean­chey dump.

The children, many of whom had never set foot in a classroom before coming to the center, learn computer skills, math and budgeting, reading and writing, as well as Cambodian dance, music and drama.

Some of their parents or guard­ians died of AIDS. Others came from abusive homes. But a good portion of the children, ranging in age from 6 to 14, are simply from desperately poor families who want them to have better futures, Neeson said.

“The decisions of these parents are so courageous considering the circumstances,” he said. “They are giving up $15 a month of income to make sure their child has a better future. One family has three kids here, and they were the family’s only source of income.”

Neeson insists that the families of the non-abused children who live at the center stay involved with their youngsters. Thirty of the children enrolled at the center travel to and from the center by a tuk-tuk shuttle service from their ramshackle homes on the rim of the dump.

On a recent morning, the former film executive stood in the center’s rooftop classroom where about 50 children, their skinny frames hidden beneath brand new T-shirts, listened raptly to their Khmer teacher. He related many of the children’s individual stories of escaping places of hardship and want.

After investing about $140,000 of his own money to start the Cam­bodian Children’s Fund last year, a recent financial windfall gave the center a welcome shot in the arm.

In May, Jim Giano­po­lous, co-chair of Fox, organized a fund­rais­er at his Brentwood home that netted more than $100,000 for the fund and attracted Hol­lywood luminaries including Matt Dillon and the Farrelly brothers.

Neeson said there are specific moments when he misses his Hollywood life, such as when he’s “swamped by the frustrations of getting things done in Cambodia, or dealing with bureaucratic nonsense.”

But he has no regrets when he sees the progress the center’s children are making.

“These kids are just so re­sil­ient. It’s amazing to see the ca­pacity they have for so much joy, so much happiness, when you con­sider what they’ve lived through,” he said.  “It really is in­spir­ational.”


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