By Dann Halem
Stevie Wonder is sitting at the piano (Where else?) The piano is of the upright persuasion and located inside his L.A. recording studio, a stone’s throw from the Wiltern Theater. The neighborhood that surrounds Wonder’s space isn’t exactly Rodeo meets Wilshire—especially not at two o’clock in the morning. The neighboring buildings are chock-a-block and industrial, and the singer is guarded by an old iron gate and a single burly bodyguard. It isn’t the sunniest scene to write music, yet this is when and where the famed composer of such stalwart standards as “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You” gets his best work done, and it’s right here, right now, in the middle of the night, that Newport Beach doctor Richard Weiss finds him.
The doorbell by the gate is broken and the bodyguard has been taking his vitamins. Still, Weiss, who’s known Wonder for about 10 years and had driven into town earlier that evening to attend a Crosby, Stills, and Nash concert, casually tosses his name through the bars and within a minute, is being led into the room where Wonder is studiously sitting.
“No glasses, no glitz,” Weiss says of the singer he usually just calls Stevie.
For years, Weiss—who owns a successful cosmetic and laser vision correction practice in Newport Beach—has collaborated with Wonder to launch a foundation to end curable blindness. It’s a monumental task—more than 25 million people around the world are needlessly blind, according to the World Health Organization —and the doctor and singer have developed a kind of shorthand working relationship. Weiss travels around the world, meeting with scientists and politicians, visiting Third World hospitals, wrangling celebrities for their support, and personally handling much of the dirty work. Wonder provides an ear, Hollywood clout, and his name to keep things moving forward. But on this night, after discussing the latest challenges faced by Weiss’s One World Sight Project Inc., the doctor—who also happened to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Jazz—decides it’s time he and the singer have a different kind of collaboration.
“There wasn’t anyone around. No management. No handlers. So I said to him, ‘Stevie, this is my big chance. I want to play a duet with you. I’ll play left hand. You play right.’” And then, Weiss says, he settled himself down on the piano bench, next to the legendary musician, and had the highlight jam of his life.
By the time Weiss finishes retelling this story, the consistently upbeat doctor is playing percussion along the edges of his desk, overlooking the decidedly non-chock-a-block Fashion Island. When it’s pointed out to him that most people would never dream of asking Wonder to jam with them, would never consider suggesting which part of their duet to play, and definitely wouldn’t do so at two o’clock in the morning, Weiss smiles with a glint of late-arriving abashment and passes a hand through his well-combed hair.
“It’s a matter of confidence,” he explains, and after all, Wonder hadn’t minded. Such sunniness has served Weiss well throughout his career. “The biggest thing my father gave me was the confidence and ability to go to people, talk with them, and get things done.”
Indeed, if Weiss got in line more than once when the time came to pass out courage, he’s used his supplemental reserves to altruistic ends. From a one-room office adjacent to his practice, he runs One World Sight Project, a foundation with goals so extraordinary it takes someone with Weiss’s considerable aplomb to even conceive they’re actually possible.
In a nutshell, Weiss hopes to accomplish this: He would like to stamp out curable blindness, a malady widespread in many developing nations, which is often caused by cataracts, glaucoma, and other treatable diseases. He hopes to do so through his foundation by helping spearhead fund-raising efforts to support more than 100 religious, political, and other non-governmental medical organizations that provide doctors, build infrastructure, and already cure more than one million patients each year. To raise money, he is actively working to put together a charity album that would rival We Are the World in terms of star power and hopes to eventually organize a concert in the spirit of Live Aid, attracting as many as 500,000 concertgoers in North America, Europe, and Asia and a worldwide television audience of 50 million, while at the same time providing eye surgery to as many as 25,000 blind people around the world over the event’s one or two days.
Weiss’ colleagues often say they’re awestruck at the scale of his plans. “It’s amazing that someone with their own private practice is able to give so much of their time and want to do so much to help this cause,” says Dr. David Paton, former chairman of the American Board of Ophthalmology and founder of the world’s first flying eye hospital.
Weiss is a bit more understated when it comes to talking about himself. “I’m just a child of the ‘60s, an old hippie,” he says. “What that means to me is I’m idealistic. If I wasn’t, I don’t think there would be any way I could conceive of getting all this done.”
The last thing most people would expect to find inside the office of a “peace-loving hippie” is a 55-pound stuffed salmon. Weiss has named this trophy “Sisyphish,” and in a self-described case of beginner’s luck, caught him years ago in Alaska. The name comes from the Greek myth (later popularized by Albert Camus) of Sisyphus, the highly intelligent, and somewhat devious, mortal who was forced by the gods to roll a rock up a mountain for eternity.
Weiss vigorously resists any psychobabblish efforts to find subliminal meaning within this name choice. Never mind that many of his life selections have seemed like their own respective boulders, and the doctor seems to enjoy the thought of pushing his ideas uphill.
Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, Weiss says he excelled at math and science, and he eventually followed his Depression-era father’s dream that his two sons enter stable, respected professions. With his brother choosing to become an attorney, Weiss attended medical school. Then, much to the chagrin of his family—who’d grown accustomed to their son taking the chance of “ruining his life” by protesting Vietnam or marching on Washington—Weiss decided to move to Southern California.
After being offered jobs in places such as San Diego and Beverly Hills, he says he chose to settle in the one place where his field of specialty was so competitive, nobody had room to hire him. Setting up his own practice in Newport Beach, he borrowed up to his eyeballs and prayed for the best.
“If I couldn’t have made the money,” he remembers, “that would have been it.”
Eventually, Weiss’s work ethic and willingness to take on the most difficult cases—many involving surgical error in eye and plastic surgery—led him to earn the respect of colleagues as a true medical workhorse. “The cases that others didn’t want to tackle, he’d always want to do them,” recalls Henry Bikhazi, an Orange County head and neck reconstructive surgeon, who has referred many patients to Weiss over the years.
By 1988, Weiss had established his practice, though it wasn’t yet financially thriving. Single and without family on the West Coast, Weiss says he became increasingly reflective. Recalling travels to impoverished villages in Mexico and North Africa, and time he’d spent treating the blind in Haiti, he wrote a song about the world being blind to suffering. It was through his lyrics that Weiss again felt propelled to take bold action.
He laughs when remembering his family’s reaction. “My father would tell me how first you’re supposed to make your money and then become a philanthropist. He said I was doing it all backward, which was probably true.”
With few connections in international ophthalmology or entertainment, Weiss would spend much of the next decade convincing scientists and stars alike that his idea would work. The international medical community, he says, was particularly challenging, as everyone needed to be thoroughly convinced that Weiss’s approach of a more streamlined fund-raising process that actively worked with the entertainment industry was the proper way to go. Converting critics meant balancing his burgeoning medical practice with crossing the globe, visiting eye hospitals and attending medical conferences, and establishing relationships with stars such as Wonder and the world’s leading vision doctors.
“What was fortunate was that he happened to be leading us in the right direction,” says Dr. Bob Welsh, founder of the Volunteer Eye Surgeons’ Association and one of Weiss’s earliest and staunchest supporters. “If you don’t have brains behind a good idea, you can’t get things done. Luckily, Rick had the good idea and had the brains to back it up.”
Both of which helped him connect with Wonder. Working on a referral from a friend, one day Weiss dropped off materials, including the song he had written, at Wonder’s L.A. studio, requesting the artist’s help. Wonder responded almost immediately, and today Weiss credits the musician’s efforts as being vital to the foundation’s success.
“He immediately understood where I was coming from,” Weiss says. “Particularly since I had come at this through a song. He knew there wasn’t any other agenda—that I was simply being idealistic. On some fundamental level, Stevie could appreciate what it was like to try to create something from nothing and all of a sudden for it to be real.”
Also crucial, Weiss adds, has been the work of his wife, Portia, whom he met when she expressed interest in doing grant writing for the foundation.
“I was really surprised that a person like him was operating in Orange County,” Portia Weiss says of her husband. “He’d literally go home and work all night on the foundation. Any free time he had he’d use to get people inspired and motivated.”
These days, that hasn’t changed. Though Weiss insists he’s neither as serious-minded nor work-driven as he might appear, he does admit to being a little bit of a megalomaniac, though in a good way. And with almost two million people each year going blind, and only half that number being cured, he insists it’s not a bad thing.
“Sometimes it helps to think of yourself as a little bigger than you are.”
FOCUSED ON THE TASK
For years, One World Sight’s goal was to organize a worldwide benefit concert. Though that dream remains in the foreground, Weiss now says he’s most excited by a smaller effort—a benefit album he’s working to assemble—a project he characteristically describes as on the verge of greatness.
Or, in his own words: “Obviously, when this thing hits, it’s going to be the biggest-selling jazz album of all time.”
Joining forces with the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, which is partially supporting the project, Weiss is dedicating much of his free time toward spearheading the recording of an album of engineered duets with the late singer (who was blinded by glaucoma and diabetes) featuring a diverse group of today’s biggest stars. In addition to Wonder, Weiss has approached such music heavyweights as Rod Stewart, Gwen Stefani, Willie Nelson, Alice Cooper, Chick Corea, and David Mason of the rock group Traffic. If the album is cut, One World Sight would share a percentage of the profits.
But even if this is successful, Weiss says there’s still much work to be done. Though surgeries in the Third World cost only an estimated $25 to $50 per patient, more people are going blind each year than there are resources to treat them. No wonder when Weiss had the honor of operating on South African President Nelson Mandela a few years ago, one of the first things he discussed with his recovering patient was the possibility of bringing him onto the foundation’s letterhead. Indeed, even when Weiss hobnobs with Southern California’s own elite, performing surgeries on celebrities or helping radio personalities throw “Botox parties,” he says the foundation and its needs never fall far from his mind.
Portia Weiss says the cause is all-consuming. “I don’t think he’ll ever rest easy, or truly be relaxed, or feel he can be retired, until he’s achieved his dream,” she says.
Weiss doesn’t disagree. “Pretty much everything I do these days I’m trying to achieve this. I was talking with Stevie about it recently and I said, ‘Hey, we only have 20 or 30 years left, so we better get this done before one of us kicks the bucket.’”
For now, Weiss is continuing to do what he does best: Dreaming, talking, planning, and working—and yes, his parents and brother did eventually come around. In what little spare time he has left, he’s hard at work as a medical inventor. He recently developed a measurement instrument to be used in LASIK procedures and is working on perfecting painless Botox injections. And while Botox is widely used for cosmetic purposes, Weiss believes there are other benefits to the drug. “I believe Botox will be most remembered for treating migraines.”
Once again, he says, part of the profits from the LASIK invention and the Botox procedures will be pumped back into the foundation.
Put it all together and it’s quite exhausting, Weiss would be the first to admit. Still, when he needs to put a face to his cause, he thinks of a 9-year-old Haitian girl, whom he cured of blindness years ago with a simple cataract surgery. Nothing, he says, was quite like seeing her see the world for the first time.
“An individual can make a difference,” he says, and he clearly has fully swallowed this pep talk. Sisyphish hangs on the wall in front of him. E-mails are steadily chiming in and already the sky outside is dark. Yet there remains mountains of work to be done—letters to write, calls to make—and soon the doctor is back at his desk, planning his next 2 a.m. call to Stevie.
Dann Halem is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.