Film mogul to charity angel: how tip trip made millionaire Scott Neeson join slumdogs

EIGHT years ago, Edinburgh-born Scott Neeson was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, with a 36ft yacht, a mansion and a $1.5 billion (£960 million) budget overseeing the release of blockbuster movies including Braveheart, Titanic and X Men.

Today he lives in the slums of Phnom Penh, where he has dedicated his life to turning round the fortunes of Cambodia's poorest children.

Now Neeson is bringing his charity, the Cambodian Children's Fund, to the UK. Previously active in America - where Neeson has used his Hollywood connections to attract big name investors including media mogul Sumner Redstone - he is now hoping to attract donors from his homeland to help poverty stricken Cambodians living in some of the world's most deprived conditions.

Neeson first visited Cambodia in 2003 during a sabbatical from his glitzy Hollywood lifestyle, where he was president of 20th Century Fox International and on first name terms with A-list stars such as Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford.

"I finished up my contract at Fox in July 2003 and was starting a new contract five week later with Sony Pictures," he told Scotland on Sunday this weekend.

"It had been a very stressful few years with movies like Titanic and Braveheart and I went travelling in Asia. I ended up in Phnom Penh and while I was there I was taken to see the garbage dump just outside the city. That turned my whole life upside down."

Neeson was so shocked by the poverty-stricken conditions he saw, where more than 1,000 children lived and worked on the rubbish dump, that he wanted to move there immediately and do what he could to help.

"I was certain at the time I wanted to do this but I was 45 years old and wondered if it could be a middle aged crisis, so I made myself a promise. I'd give myself 12 months back in Los Angeles in my new job before I did anything rash. Twelve months to the day I resigned and came over here," he said.

"It really was a calling, something I felt I could do, something I was good at. Really, it's about what you want your life to be about. That was the most important part for me."

Initially the charity helped change the lives of 45 children who lived and worked in the city's notorious rubbish dump. "What we have now is close to 1,000 children either in direct school or using our services and we also have families, parents and siblings who are living in squalor that we are trying to help," he said. "You'd be amazed how similar the problems are here with those of a Western family. It's just that the circumstances are more extreme."

Speaking from Cambodia, Neeson, who moved from Scotland to Australia with his family as a child, said: "We're moving towards a programme of trying to link communities and have more engagement with the UK. What I'd love to see is families in Scotland sponsoring families here in Cambodia, and having that human contact with whole families across the world."

Since the launch of the charity in 2004, the Cambodian Children's Fund has come to the aid of more than 700 children from Phnom Penh's slums, through teaching programmes and helping families climb out of poverty through work and employment schemes and food programmes. The charity also runs an active sponsor project that allows donors to sponsor individual children or families.

The charity launched its UK arm in December and now has a base in London overseeing its UK operations. Its patrons include Michael Mansfield QC. And Neeson is also exploring the possibility of bringing a children's dance troupe from the charity to this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

"I used to come back to Scotland every 18 months or so but since I've been in Cambodia I haven't had the opportunity. I'm thinking about getting across for the 2011 Fringe with the dance troupe - it would be an amazing experience for the kids."

Neeson says that, although he hasn't lived in Scotland since he was a child, he still retains a Scottish identity.

"I've always felt Scottish. I went back to Scotland in my early 20s and went up the West Highland Way and it's a stunning country, it really is amazing. I consider myself a Scot."

He acknowledged that, with the economic downturn, not everyone may have the means to dig deep into their pockets for a charity that helps people half way round the world.

"It depends on what you want out of life. Most definitely things are tough at the moment, particularly in Scotland with the high unemployment rate, it's hard. But there's nothing worse than this place - anyone who sees it can see that. If you truly want to help then give what you can. Five pounds here will buy enough rice to feed a family for two weeks. It's all relative."

Neeson, who still goes back to Los Angeles several times a year but says he won't move back there, says the most rewarding part of his job now is also the most simple.

"It's seeing the difference you can make to a child who has been through things so awful you just couldn't even describe them. Within two months of coming here you've got this whole new child with a sparkle in their eye. They laugh and play and you can see that change. That's what it's all about."