The movie executive left Hollywood behind to work with children in Cambodia
About a decade ago, in Phnom Penh, an 86-year-old Cambodian woman grabbed then-Hollywood executive Scott Neeson’s hand to lead him over to where three young children were on a garbage heap, gravely ill with typhoid. Then his cellphone rang; at the other end was a major actor complaining that his private jet didn’t have the right amenities on board. “My life wasn’t meant to be that difficult,” said the actor.
At that moment, Mr. Neeson realized that it was time to give up his job as president of Sony Pictures for his charity work, as head of the Cambodian Children’s Fund. He soon left behind his $1 million a year salary and sold his Porsche, yacht and home in what he describes as “the mother of all garage sales.” Speaking over Skype from his new home in Cambodia, he says, “I lost that sense of doubt about selling everything and moving over here.”
Mr. Neeson had first visited the country on a five-week vacation through Asia in 2003. Out of curiosity, he asked a local friend to show him the poorest area of Phnom Penh, where he found women and children rummaging through burning garbage piles for scraps they could sell for money. He found the scene so disturbing that when he met one 10-year-old girl there, he asked to meet her mother (through an interpreter). He set the family up in a rental home and gave them money and rice to eat, at a total cost of $35 a month. He also made sure the girl could go to school.
These days Mr. Neeson, 56, spends much of his time in the vicinity of Phnom Penh’s garbage dumps. When we spoke, he had just returned from the shantytowns around a former landfill. There he had witnessed two funerals and a wedding and had found two abandoned children.
His fund has 65 interconnected projects around Phnom Penh, providing services such as health care, child care and education to children and their families. Last year, it spent $8.8 million and helped some 2,400 children. Nearly 80 participants have graduated from high school and are now enrolled in college.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Mr. Neeson and his parents moved to Australia when he was 5. The son of a cleaner at the local high school and an employee of Australia’s defense department, he dropped out of school at 17. “I was a rat bag of a student,” he says, adding that he had no ability to concentrate. “I’m sure if it was today, I’d be on pills for ADHD,” he says. “I was incredibly restless, and I’d just want to be in the outside world. Fortunately, there were no such medications, and I dropped out.”
He had trouble getting a job because he didn’t have his high-school certificate, so he went on the unemployment roll as “chronically unemployed.” He finally found work at a movie company through a government program, running projectors at a drive-in at night and working as an office and marketing assistant during the day. Mr. Neeson moved up the ladder to film promoter and then to film buyer, eventually becoming managing director of the distribution arm at Twentieth Century Fox-Australia in 1986.
In 1993, his work took him to Los Angeles, and in 2000 he became president of Twentieth Century Fox International, where he oversaw the release of films such as “Braveheart,” “Titanic” and “Ice Age.” (Fox is now part of 21st Century Fox, which until two years ago was part of the same company as News Corp, owner of The Wall Street Journal.) He enjoyed the creative marketing roles, but when he was promoted to president, he says, “you’re looking after the bottom line, so that became a real drag.”
In L.A., he had never been involved in philanthropy. When he took his five-week trip to Asia, just before he started at Sony Pictures, he didn’t expect to be so affected by what he saw in Phnom Penh. A massive, 18-acre garbage dump, with over 1,000 children living and working there, looked like “the apocalypse.” In addition to Cambodia’s high temperatures, the methane from decomposing garbage made fires rampant. He says, “I can’t even describe the heat.”
Many abandoned children are left for financial reasons or because their mothers remarried and the new husbands didn’t want the children. On his first visit, “what affected me most was that there wasn’t any kind of plan B, so it wasn’t like I could put all my money into an existing entity or process,” says Mr. Neeson. “You sort of come face to face with your own values at some point, where you can walk away or do something about it.”
He divided his time between L.A. and Phnom Penh for a year and started his fund in 2004, as he grew increasingly disenchanted with his Hollywood life. “You’re earning more money than you ever thought possible, you’re living what many people consider the dream…but the more things I acquired, from cars to houses to boats, the more I felt it was sort of a lie,” he says. “I really didn’t want to be on my deathbed feeling that my contribution to the world or society would be a successful career in the film business, or any business, for that matter.”
Now he typically spends part of his day in meetings and his evenings at the dumps, visiting his fund’s outreach areas and satellite schools. He has recently added new programs to persuade parents to keep their children in school—rewards like food and housing for good attendance—rather than to send them to scavenge trash, which usually earns them 40 to 50 cents a day. A “granny program” encourages grandmothers to teach children and their parents about traditional Cambodian values from before the late 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge regime forcibly separated families.
Mr. Neeson is also working with the national police to help reduce domestic violence, alcohol abuse and homicides, and with Cambodia’s drug enforcement agency, which is in the midst of a crackdown on methamphetamine. Local dealers have made threats against him and threw acid on the face of an employee, so now the country’s Interior Ministry has assigned bodyguards to protect him.
After a decade of expanding the fund’s reach, Mr. Neeson plans to cap the number of children involved at 2,500 and to focus on improving the schools and outreach programs already in place. The fund relies on outside donations by companies such as Velcro Industries and Credit Suisse, as well as by individuals such as Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, film producer and Giants President Steve Tisch and motivational speaker Tony Robbins.
Mr. Neeson, who is single, concedes that his work is emotionally exhausting. He hasn’t left Cambodia for more than a month at a time since 2004, and seeing the hardships regularly suffered by children there has taken a toll. For a break, he is taking a trip to meet the Dalai Lama this month, and then he’ll head to Tuscany to start writing an autobiography. After that, he plans to spend at least three months a year away from Phnom Penh, though he hasn’t yet decided on a location. “I just need to get out occasionally to get some perspective,” he says.
Although he doesn’t want to grow old in Cambodia, he’s torn. “I’m very much involved with a large number of children who don’t have parents…and I couldn’t imagine living without them,” he says. “This is my family now.”