Austrian actor Karlheinz Böhm on Friday received the 2007 Balzan Prize for Humanity, Peace and Brotherhood among Peoples in the Swiss capital, Bern.
Böhm, who has championed the cause of the poor in Ethiopia since 1981, received his parchment award from Swiss Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin.
The prize was awarded to Böhm "for his life's work serving humanity and peace, for his extraordinary personal commitment, for the successful, outstanding network of activities he has created to support concrete affirmative action in Ethiopia".
The citation noted that Ethiopia was a country with one of the most ancient cultures in the world "but one of the poorest".
Along with the prize, 79-year-old Böhm, who founded the aid organisation Menschen for Menschen (People for People), also receives SFr2 million.
The International Balzan Prize Foundation said that in the middle of a highly successful acting career Böhm had decided to break with his usual life and commit himself to a "great humanitarian" project in the African country.
It added that he had established the foundations for humanitarian development that included the construction of 173 schools, school hostels and training centres, several infirmaries and three hospitals.
Not just charity
In carrying out these projects, Böhm followed the principle of helping those who help themselves rather than providing charity.
Böhm is a great example of what the commitment of a single individual can achieve for our world, the foundation said.
Other 2007 Balzan Prize winners were Britain's Rosalyn Higgins, president of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, who was cited for her "outstanding contribution" to the development of international law since the Second World War, Japan's Sumio Iijima (nanoscience), Michel Zink of France (European literature) as well as Bruce Beutler of the United States and Jules Hoffmann of France (innate immunity).
The Balzan Prize ranks close to the Nobel Prize and is one of the highest awards for science, culture and humanitarian achievement.
Each prize carries with it SFr1 million, half of which must be earmarked for research projects preferably conducted by young researchers indicated by the prize winners themselves.
The Balzan Foundation makes four annual awards, two in literature, moral sciences and the arts, as well as two in the physical, mathematical and natural sciences, and medicine.
swissinfo with agencies
The actor became a celebrity playing the part of in Emperor Franz Joseph at the side of Romy Schneider in the "Sissi" films between 1955 and 1957.
He set a counterpoint to the image of the Sissi emperor in 1960 with the psychodrama "Peeping Tom".
Today, the New York Times ranks this film among the top ten film classics.
In 1981 Böhm undertook a bet in a German TV show "Wetten, dass...?" (Do you want to bet that...?) that "not one in three viewers would donate a German mark, Swiss franc or seven Austrian schillings for the needy people in the Sahel zone" of Africa.
Böhm won the bet and nevertheless flew to Ethiopia with about SFr1.2 million in October 1981. A month later he founded the relief organisation Menschen für Menschen in Germany.
The Balzan Foundation was established by the Italian Eugenio Balzan (1874-1953), a part-owner of the Corriere della Sera who had invested his assets in Switzerland and in 1933 left Italy in protest against fascism.
He left a substantial inheritance to his daughter Angela Lina who at the time was suffering from an incurable disease.
Before her death, she left instructions to create the foundation. It has two headquarters – the Prize managed from Milan and the Fund from Zurich.
The president of the International Balzan Fund Foundation is the former vice-chancellor and Swiss government spokesman Achille Casanova.