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Just Plain Mel : Hollywood’s hottest leading man is moving from ‘Bird on a Wire’ to make his fourth movie this year--'Hamlet.’ But Gibson has learned to handle the pressures of Hollywood fame and fortune.

Mel Gibson strides purposefully along the polished wooden floor of the long corridor in his huge hotel suite. “Mineral water, please? And gum?” he says to no one in particular, glancing neither right nor left. He moves like a man who holds all the trump cards.

Circumstances would seem to confirm this impression. More than 100 journalists, most of them from the United States, have traveled here at the invitation of Universal Pictures; the studio wanted a splashy publicity bash to promote “Bird on a Wire,” the action-adventure romantic comedy opening May 18, starring Gibson and Goldie Hawn.

Normally, such a junket would take place in Los Angeles, or at least in the continental United States. But there was one snag--Gibson was holed up in England, rehearsing his next film, “Hamlet,” directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Playing the Prince of Denmark is easily Gibson’s thorniest career challenge to date, and he wanted to spend two whole months preparing for the role.

Gibson wasn’t about to be deterred from this groundwork, so he informed Universal that he would gladly grant them a weekend of his time to hype “Bird on a Wire"--if it meant he could do so without leaving London.

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Consequently, Universal moved the entire affair over to Britain. “It wouldn’t have been much of a junket without Mel,” says a source at Universal. “So we moved it over to where he was.”

It’s an indication of the Australian-American Gibson’s current firepower that such an expensive concession would be made. He’s about as hot as a leading man in movies can be, basking as he is in the extraordinary financial success of the two “Lethal Weapon” films, the public approval of his work in the thriller “Tequila Sunrise” and the cultish appeal of his character in the “Mad Max” trilogy. Add to this the critical acclaim he garnered in movies as stylish as “The Year of Living Dangerously” and as intriguingly different as “The Bounty,” consider that infamous People magazine tag of “The Sexiest Man Alive,” and one appreciates he’s quite a property.

Indeed, Gibson’s name on a marquee can unquestionably “open” a movie these days--which is why a phalanx of Universal publicists, some apparently dispatched here primarily to hold doors open for him, hang on his every move and jump to his every whim. Anything for a guy who can make “Bird on a Wire” boffo box-office.

After hours of talking to groups of journalists who were each granted a few minutes in his presence, then flashing his long-lashed azure eyes and dazzling grin for a series of TV crews, Gibson strides down the corridor, enters a quiet side room, flops into a chair and shoos away the phalanx for the first time this day. Gum and a bottle of sparkling water have somehow materialized on a table at his side.

Gibson in person is shorter than one might expect; stocky and muscular, he moves with a lot of bustle, shoulders pumping. In repose, he’s all Aussie cool; friendly but diffident, he talks in clipped sentences, frequently allowing a self-deprecating wit to emerge. For all this, he loves wordplay, puns and double-entendres; he refers to “Bird on a Wire” producer Rob Cohen and director John Badham as “Cohen the Barbarian” and “Mal Jambon,” the latter being an imprecise schoolboy French translation of “bad ham.”

With the door to the side room finally closed, Gibson relaxes, and allows himself a knowing, sideways grin at all the attention being rained upon him. “Easy, isn’t it?” he says.

Well, yes. Gibson is now embroiled in work on his fourth movie in the space of a year, and appears to be thriving on it. But it hasn’t always been easy; the last time he did four movies back to back, in the mid-'80s, he suffered a sort of burnout. He went on drinking sprees, was arrested for drunken driving, acted hostile toward reporters and eventually retreated to his 800-acre cattle ranch in Australia to get Hollywood out of his system for a few months.

“The business would get to me,” he says now. “I didn’t understand Hollywood. I didn’t understand the mechanism behind the film industry. I had suspicions about what made it tick, about how people could be. I just had to have those suspicions confirmed, and they were. And once you have that stage out of the way, then you’re OK. Once you know, you know.

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“It’s cold. There’s no room for emotional involvement at all. You can’t be a monster--but you have to realize you’re working in a factory and you’re part of the mechanism. If you break down, you’ll be replaced, and there should never be any offense taken at people’s attitudes. It’s part of life there, it’s the culture. Once you figure that out, it’s easy. You don’t get offended, you don’t get hurt, you’re not suspicious, you don’t care. Then you can have fun.”

Gibson admits to having been “emotionally burned a couple of times,” but then adds ingenuously: “I wasn’t always the saint, either, you know.” He recalls one occasion when he dishonored a contract by committing to a movie and then backing out. “I felt guilty, just horrible about it,” he muses. “I wouldn’t do it again, but then I wouldn’t be so rash going in. And if I did want to get out, I wouldn’t. I’d honor my word.”

At 34, Gibson claims he now has a better fix on life. “I’m more sure of myself and what I’m doing. You can waste a lot of energy on worry of one sort and another about your work and your personal life.

“I’ve started to get a handle on where I’m at. When you get things in perspective, you can operate better. It’s better to be 30 than 20--thank God. It looks like 35 is better than 30. You get to use economy in the way you work and live. It’s a bit like going into a pub for the first time. You drink 10 schooners and you end up flat on your face. Next time you drink a couple and you walk out. With dignity.” His face creases into a smile. “Like a man.”

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Oddly, the same factors in Gibson’s life that have helped him handle his celebrity have also encouraged him to distance himself from it. He is a committed family man; he and Robyn, his wife of nine years, have six children, including 7-year-old twins. Gibson, himself the sixth child from a family of 11, reflects: “I like making films more than anything, but you can’t do it all the time. You’ve got to go somewhere and recharge. Family life as a foundation is a big help. Being a father is not without its trials, but I enjoy it very much.

“When I started out acting, I had a suspicion this (stardom) could happen, but that was all. I didn’t care. I mean, I really didn’t care. I had no commitments, no kids, no one to be responsible to. But then, in a funny kind of way, the less you care, the easier you seem to get there.”

Spoken like a true “no worries” Australian. But Gibson’s experience of two countries--he grew up in Upstate New York and moved to Sydney with his parents at age 12--has reinforced his perception of himself as someone who stands apart from the industry. “Sure,” he says, “but who wouldn’t feel like an outsider in Hollywood?” His face crinkles with disgust, and he starts to talk sneeringly, then checks himself. “I just think no matter where you come from, it’s the sort of place you’d need to adjust to,” he offers. “And being from one culture, then transported to another, then reintroduced to the first, that was certainly true for me.”

There’s also the matter of his devout, rigorous Catholic faith. His father, Hutton Gibson, is a retired railway worker and a leading figure in a conservative Catholic splinter group called the Alliance for Catholic Tradition. Hutton pulled Mel out of school in Sydney because he disapproved of the way it taught religious education. The alliance disapproves of the liberalization of Catholic ceremonies, attends Mass only in Latin and brands Pope John Paul II as a virtual heretic.

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Gibson does not hide his religious beliefs but is tentative when asked if they shape his attitude to work. “They must,” he says finally. “I’m not sure how, but they must. They’re in there somewhere. Even if it’s only in realizing the beastly side of human nature.”

There are those who would dispute this assessment and argue that Mel Gibson has made his fortune in movies that have been decidedly bloodthirsty. Certainly the “Mad Max” pictures had a kind of joyously casual violence; the “Lethal Weapon” movies likewise look like sleek commercials for heavy-duty small arms, with which a pair of vigilante cops dispense murderous mayhem.

“They have a . . . gritty element to them,” says Gibson cautiously about the “Lethal Weapon” series. But does their violence ever bother him? “It’s the old law of the West, isn’t it?” he shrugs. “There has to be a showdown. Films like these have replaced the Western, which was a box-office staple. If you’re going to pretend to be in them, that’s what you’re going to have to deliver.”

Even “Bird on a Wire,” which is basically a romantic comedy, is packed with scenes that are not for the faint of heart. Gibson plays Rick Jarmin, a guy who once dabbled in drug-smuggling, turned state’s witness against a pair of major criminals and went into hiding under the Federal Witness Protection Program. But his cover is blown when his old college girlfriend (Hawn), who thought him dead, encounters him by chance. Together they flee from the criminals who are bent on vengeance against Rick.

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“Yeah, it’s violent at times,” agrees Gibson. “A little bit more so than I thought, actually. But it wasn’t offensive. You didn’t see any blood spurting out.”

Still, one scene that he saw at a London screening of “Bird on a Wire” surprised him: Gibson and Hawn, in a rickety two-seater plane, foil an attempt by a pair of bad guys in a helicopter to catch them. Gibson maneuvers the plane over the chopper and puts its wheels into the helicopter’s blades, sending it out of control.

"(The producers) gave me a cut of the movie on video, and when the helicopter blows up and hits the ground, you see the two guys running away,” he says. But in the final cut, the two men are not seen, and the assumption is that they have perished in the flames.

This does not appear to concern Gibson. “It’s superficial,” he says of the violence in “Bird on a Wire.” “It stays away from reality wherever possible.”

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He doesn’t sound at all defensive, and indeed cites the “Lethal Weapon” films as his favorite performances to date. “It sounds really crummy, I know, but the work doesn’t look hard, it looks easy. It doesn’t look like it took a damn thing, which is good, and I had fun doing them.”

In the same vein, he names the effortless-looking Cary Grant as an actor he admired, in the years before “Bird on a Wire” when he was looking for the right romantic comedy. Grant seems to epitomize Gibson’s attitude toward filmmaking. “Usually,” he admits, “I just wing it.”

For the next few weeks, it’s safe to say, Gibson won’t be winging it. Playing “Hamlet” (which started shooting two weeks ago) represents not only a huge stretch but an enormous gamble for an actor who could easily stick to crowd-pleasing, undemanding roles in movies that gross big money.

“It’s a risk, yeah,” sighs Gibson. “But it’s an exciting one. It’s something so frightening it’s made me pull my socks up.” He laughs nervously. “In a way, I’ve done what I always wanted to do, which is to exercise a bit of self-discipline in the last couple of months. I’ve keep my nose to the grindstone, which is something I normally find difficult.”

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In this time, Gibson has learned to ride a horse and how to participate in choreographed sword fights. “Useful skills, right?” he says. He’s given up smoking to restore his vocal cords for Shakespearean dialogue--the reason he is now chewing gum incessantly. And he is working with a voice coach to take both the American and Australian edge out of his accent.

“Then there’s the lines,” he says gravely. “I know them. I’ve read them so many times. I go to sleep thinking about them. But the character is so confounding. It doesn’t matter how many times you nail him, or you think you’ve nailed him, it’s the most (expletive) elusive thing. Every time you go back to (the text) there’s something else there which completely negates what you were thinking about (the character) before.”

Gibson appears to be walking into the lion’s den in another sense. The supporting players include three distinguished British stage actors who have themselves played Hamlet. Alan Bates is Claudius, Paul Scofield is the Ghost, and Ian Holm is Polonius. “Everyone in the cast has had a crack at it except me,” notes Gibson dryly.

Earlier in his career, he played Romeo on stage with the State Theatre Company of South Australia. He has seen other Hamlets, including Laurence Olivier’s film version, but not recently. “I don’t want to,” he says with a visible shudder. “This version is going to be different from Olivier’s. How could it not be? I wouldn’t even try to measure up to that.”

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Olivier’s widow, Joan Plowright, had the previous night given a party for the “Hamlet” cast (which also includes Glenn Close as Gertrude and Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia). “She made a toast to everyone,” reports Gibson shyly, “and she came up to me and gave me a special little toast. That was very sweet, I thought.”

Still, Gibson does not underestimate the difficulties of getting “Hamlet” right on film. “It would be a lot easier on stage, because you’ve got a lot more time to let it happen, and at least it’s in sequence,” he muses. “Whereas with this film, I know that in the first three days I have to film the second half of my first big speech, and then film the first half three weeks later. That’s kicking my ass a little bit, I think. But I’m not trying to weasel out of it.”

Indeed, Gibson has so energetically committed himself to the project that he joined it from the very outset, functioning almost like one of this producers of the independent feature.

However, a spokeswoman for Gibson denied reports that the actor had himself invested in “Hamlet,” which is budgeted at $30 million and will take 11 weeks to shoot. Instead, three companies--Nelson Entertainment, Carolco and Sovereign--have backed the project and are dividing domestic, European and international distribution rights between themselves.

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Gibson was already in England, completing work on the Columbia/Tri-Star movie “Air America,” an action comedy about covert CIA operations in Laos that will be released later this summer. “I thought I might as well stick around and be part of (“Hamlet”) from the time it cranked up,” he says. “I was around from the time there were only six people in the production office. It wasn’t Franco’s idea. He hasn’t been around for the whole two months of rehearsal. But then he has been thinking about doing this for the last 10 years.”

But why should Mel Gibson put himself through all of this? “Oh,” he says, “I want a lot of people to see what I see in Shakespeare. And the way to reach a lot of people is on film.”

Even so, this “Hamlet” has the earmarks of a masochistic venture. “Self-flagellation,” sighs Gibson. “No, I plan to enjoy it. I mean, look, I did some research"--here he pulls a sour face--"for ‘Lethal Weapon.’ But on the day I just, er . . . wing it.” (He grins at his compulsive tweaking of the language.)

“With ‘Hamlet,’ you can get a very good technical read, and you can eradicate all traces of the Hun from your accent, you can do all of that. But then it’s got to take flight. And that’s the bit you don’t know about. It’s the bit you can’t articulate, the bit you just can’t plan for. And that’s the bit that’s scary.”

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