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Role Change

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Richard Gere had recently returned to his New York City townhouse from the Dallas set of the romantic comedy Dr. T and the Women—in which he plays an obstetrician—when, on Sun., Feb. 6, his live-in girlfriend of several years, former Law & Order star Carey Lowell, went into labor. After racing to a nearby hospital and watching the medics in action, he told Dr. T director Robert Altman, he felt right at home. “He said, ‘Man, it was the same,’ Altman recounted. “‘I could have done it myself.'”

Instead, the first-time dad wisely chose to observe as 8-lb. 12-oz. Homer James Jigme Gere made his big stage debut, followed shortly thereafter by the strains of Handel’s Messiah ringing from a portable CD player Dad had brought into the delivery room. “Richard is over the moon and Carey’s in good shape,” says the couple’s close friend Sharon Simonaire, an interior designer who introduced the pair at a Manhattan restaurant in late 1995. “He said you can’t even understand it until you experience it yourself.” Simonaire visited the new family soon after the birth and reports that the son of PEOPLE’s reigning Sexiest Man Alive “is absolutely beautiful. The baby,” she adds, “was incredibly happy, blue eyes wide open and beautiful lips and skin, a little brown hair. He’s perfect.”

The child was named after the couple’s fathers: Homer Gere, an ex-salesman, and James Lowell, a geologist. (Jigme stems from Gere and Lowell’s interest in the teachings of Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama; the word means “fearless” in Tibetan.) Late in the evening after Homer’s birth, Gere, 50, called his father in Syracuse, N.Y., to tell him the news. “He sounded very, very up and enthusiastic,” says the elder Gere, who has seven other grandchildren from Richard’s four siblings. When his son told him the baby’s name, he adds, “it was very sweet—and it made me feel good.”

Only a few years ago, Gere was starring in his own one-man show: Runaway Dad. His first wife, Cindy Crawford, often spoke of her desire to have kids during their four-year marriage, which ended in 1995, but “never quite believed that Richard wanted to be a father,” Simonaire told PEOPLE last year. “She had a fear that Richard cared more about India and Buddhism and that he would leave and go off on a retreat or something.” But Gere warmed up to fatherhood after he began dating Lowell, 39, a Huntington, N.Y., native who in 1998 quit Law & Order after just two years to spend more time with her daughter Hannah, now 9. Several months ago, on the set of Autumn in New York (due this fall), says Jill Hennessy, a costar of the film, “he was glowing every time I saw him. He had this wonderful serenity and joy about him. Every time he spoke about Carey and the baby, he would have this beautiful smile on his face.”

Friends say Gere’s change of heart came from his bond with Hannah, Lowell’s daughter from her five-year marriage to actor-director Griffin Dunne, 44, which ended in 1995. (Dunne, who shares custody, lives nearby in Manhattan.) Gere, Runaway Bride costar Rita Wilson predicted to PEOPLE in October, “will be a fantastic father. He’s already been a father in a way. If you date someone who has kids, you become a parent to them.” Indeed, the threesome are regulars at Caffé Lure in their Greenwich Village neighborhood. “He’s very friendly with Hannah,” says co-owner and chef Anthony Labriola. “He plays with her, they chase each other around. They definitely communicate well with each other.”

But other than eating out near home (passing up their favorite sushi restaurant during Lowell’s pregnancy) and spending summer weekends at Lowell’s modest cottage near Southampton, N.Y., the couple have done their best to keep Hannah—and their own relationship—out of the media spotlight. Now that Homer is here, “they’re going to be nesting alone for a long time,” says Simonaire. Adds Amy Robinson, a producer of Autumn: “His home life is settled and happy.”

And for the foreseeable future, happily unmarried with children. But those who know the couple say his priorities will obviously shift. “There were a lot of tears and great joy, and I think he’s irrevocably changed,” says matchmaker Simonaire. “Now I just have to get them married.”

Dan Jewel

Elizabeth McNeil, Sharon Cotliar, Eve Heyn, Sue Miller, Ivory Clinton II and Anne-Marie O’Neill in New York City