No one saw it coming.
Not his agent or his bosses -- the shoot he had just wrapped had been long, strange and physically difficult but not out of control. Not the Malibu restaurant owner who served him appetizers early that fateful evening, or the two young women with whom he later posed for pictures. Certainly the friends with whom he spent his last scandal-free afternoon had no idea that Mel Gibson was about to go on a life-changing bender.
If they had, they would have done everything to stop it -- because though conventional wisdom says that Gibson has been sober since the early ‘90s, some of those close to him acknowledge that he has been on and off the wagon for years.
“I have been with Mel when he has fallen off,” says producer Dean Devlin, who had spent the afternoon before the arrest with Gibson, “and he becomes a completely different person. It is pretty horrifying.”
And horrified is exactly how Devlin and many of Gibson’s friends felt when they heard that the actor-director, in the course of his arrest for drunk driving, made sexist and anti-Semitic remarks, including one that quickly became infamous: “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” Gibson has since been charged with two misdemeanor counts of driving under the influence of alcohol.
Devlin and Tom Sherak, a partner at Revolution Studios who once headed distribution at 20th Century Fox, had spent last Thursday afternoon screening Devlin’s upcoming film “Flyboys” for Gibson, and Gibson seemed very much himself.
“We were kidding around, talking about our kids, he was very friendly,” said Sherak, who met Gibson while working on “Braveheart.” Gibson, he added, had a trailer of his new film, “Apocalypto,” that he was very excited about. “We talked about the shoot and he was just very upbeat, not stressed out at all.”
Said Devlin: “I consider Mel one of my best friends in Hollywood.” Devlin met Gibson while co-producing “The Patriot,” in which Gibson starred.
“The day this happened, my wife had gotten this long letter from Mel full of congratulations [for the birth of the Devlins’ first child] and talking about the joys of being a parent,” Devlin said. “She’s Jewish. I’m Jewish. If Mel is an anti-Semite, then he spends a lot of time with us, which makes no sense. But he is an alcoholic, and while that makes no excuse for what he said, because there is no excuse, I believe it was the disease speaking, not the man.”
His sentiments were shared by longtime Gibson friend Jodie Foster, who, upon hearing the news while on the New York set of her new film, refused to believe it.
“Someone told me what had happened, and I said, ‘That is just so not true,’ ” she said. When it was confirmed, Foster said, she was stricken with deep sadness that a man she considers “one of the nicest, most honest men I have ever met” had taken such a fall. Although she and Gibson speak regularly, Foster had no idea he was drinking again.
“Is he an anti-Semite? Absolutely not,” Foster said. “But it’s no secret that he has always fought a terrible battle with alcoholism. I just wish I had been there, that I had been able to say, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t take that drink.’ ”
Like Devlin, she does not believe that drunkenness excuses hurtful remarks, but she bristles at accusations in the media that Gibson is using his alcoholism as a “get out of jail free” card from charges of anti-Semitism.
“It is a horrible disease, and it affects everyone differently,” Foster said. “I do not have personal experience with addiction, but I have seen it take many paths in people I know. For some, it is a soft slide off the barstool, and some experience true psychotic episodes.”
She points to friends Christian Slater -- who has had many drunken run-ins with the law, including a 1997 scuffle with a police officer after allegedly hitting his girlfriend -- and Robert Downey Jr. as examples of the personality-changing effects that drinking can have on the alcoholic.
“Would I have believed Christian Slater, who is the nicest, gentlest man in the world, would hit a woman? No,” Foster said. “Or Downey, you cannot find anyone in the film business who does not love Downey, and look at some of his exploits.”
“Mel is honest, loyal, kind,” she said, “but alcoholism has been a lifelong struggle for him and his family.” (The actor and his wife, Robyn, have been married for 26 years and have seven children.)
Said Sherak: “Here is this major celebrity who has been involved in so many things. There are so many sides of him, you have to wonder where something like this comes from.”
According to Wensley Clarkson, author of “Mel Gibson: Man on a Mission,” a classic midlife crisis may have contributed to Gibson’s recent bender. But, Clarkson added, “he’s always fallen off the wagon quite regularly. He is two people, a person of two extremes.”
Of course, the condemnation and speculation that have seized Hollywood since Gibson’s arrest last Friday morning are not about an alcoholic’s Big Slip; had Gibson confined his remarks to a few general obscenities, this would have been, at most, a two-day sensation. But anti-Semitism doesn’t fly in Hollywood, especially coming from a man whose father is a documented Holocaust denier and whose last film, “The Passion of the Christ,” left many Jews -- and Christians -- feeling angered over the film’s portrayal of events leading up to the Crucifixion.
“It’s been like a powder keg waiting to explode for so long,” said Clarkson, who devoted a large section of his book to the anti-Semitism of Hutton Gibson, Mel’s father. Mel Gibson “refused to condemn his father.”
It was rarely the drinking itself that got Gibson into trouble. He was arrested for drunk driving in Canada in 1984, but unlike other stars with addiction issues, Gibson never slowed production on his films because of alcohol. (Legend has it, however, that he almost missed the audition for his breakout role in 1979’s “Mad Max” because he was involved in a drunken brawl the night before).
Though Gibson has had his share of “creative differences,” it was mostly off-screen mischief that earned him, early in his career, the sobriquet “Mad Mel.” Even at 50, friends acknowledge, Gibson has a seemingly physiological inability to filter his remarks even when sober; about 14 years ago, he apologized to the gay and lesbian community for homophobic remarks.
Although he has not supported his father’s beliefs that much of the Holocaust is fictional -- Gibson has acknowledged that the Holocaust did happen -- he has refused to repudiate them, at least publicly, and as recently as two years ago said that there was a good possibility his wife would go to hell because she is not Catholic.
“That is the dichotomy of Mel,” said one Hollywood insider who has worked closely with the actor over the years. “He is a person who has the discipline to succeed in every idiom -- his work speaks for itself -- yet he has been known to function in a very unedited world, governed by his own unique theology.” (So different is his theology that he founded his own church in Agoura Hills several years ago.)
This time, Gibson’s words have taken him over a very visible line. Dozens of Gibson’s friends and co-workers either did not return calls or refused, through their publicists or directly, to even talk about him. “People are just very sensitive about the topic,” said one who demanded anonymity.
Gibson has always been a star with a visible dark side; for years, that’s been the secret of his success. Despite his blue-eyed baby face, in his early films -- such as “The Year of Living Dangerously” -- he rejected the standard hero template in favor of roles that combined humor and/or heroism with psychosis. In “Lethal Weapon,” the film that would make him a franchise star, we first meet his character as he plays a sorrow- and beer-soaked game of Russian roulette.
And there has been a stream of films notable for extreme, if realistic, violence -- what other leading man would direct himself being disemboweled on camera, as Gibson did in “Braveheart”? The film earned him best picture and directing Oscars and cemented his position as one of Hollywood’s most powerful stars.
“There have always been stars, like Sean Penn or Russell Crowe and before that Kirk Douglas or Frank Sinatra, whose tough-guy personas on screen allowed them to survive bad behavior off screen,” says one longtime publicist. “It’s not like he’s ever been Mr. Nice Guy.”
This is the reason some Hollywood insiders believe that Gibson will survive the current firestorm. Others wonder if this is the culmination of a career arc predestined to crash.
“I remember the days when Mel Gibson was nearly as lovable as he thought he was,” said film historian David Thomson. “When he began, he was a widely popular rascal. Women went for him in a big way -- if you got involved with him, he’s not going to be exactly a gentleman, but you’d have a pretty good time.”
But when he became a director, Thomson added, Gibson seemed to take himself too seriously and emerged as very right-wing.
“He is very anti-English,” said Thomson, pointing to anti-British portrayals in “The Patriot” and “Braveheart.” “And there is a real extraordinary cruelty” in his films.
But Gibson remains resolutely complicated. Yes, he may be pushing the boundaries of violence and cruelty on screen -- “Apocalypto,” the film that Walt Disney thus far still plans to release in December, is about the brutal fall of the Mayan civilization -- but on the set he maintains a reputation as a prankster who is genuinely friendly and professional, which is what drew Foster to him.
“I knew I liked him right away,” she said. “We have a lot in common. We are both well-liked on sets because we work hard and we don’t make a big deal about it.” Starring with Gibson in “Maverick,” she said, “was the happiest co-star experience I have ever had.”
Gibson and his wife are well-known for their generosity. Over the years they have given more than $17 million to a charity that provides medical treatment to needy children around the world; more recently they paid for the $2-million operation in which conjoined infants from Guatemala were separated.
Devlin remembers how, during the filming of “The Patriot,” Gibson went into a small South Carolina town and single-handedly financed the building of a battered women’s shelter.
“He does things like that all the time,” Devlin said. “When my parents were dying from cancer, Mel called me two and three times a week from on set, sent me names of doctors, books. He was totally there for me.”
Though not known for having a wide circle of friends, Gibson is fiercely loyal to those close to him. He produced “Paparazzi,” the big-screen directorial debut of Paul Abascal, Gibson’s former hairstylist. Gibson jump-started Downey’s career. After a jail sentence had left Downey uninsurable, Gibson cast him in “The Singing Detective” and later persuaded producer Joel Silver to give him a shot in “Gothika.”
Gibson, said Foster, “was a shining example of how low you can go when you are young and still pull yourself up. He took his recovery very seriously, which is why I know he is strong enough to get through this now.”
Not that it’s going to be easy. Several Jewish leaders have pointed out that someone doesn’t “recover” from anti-Semitism overnight. Nor does one recover from alcoholism in a week. There are the actual charges, of course, though it seems doubtful that Gibson will do time.
He’s already begun trying to repair his image -- in addition to two public apologies, he has been calling friends and colleagues to apologize personally. According to Gibson’s representatives at ICM, there have been no changes in the star’s current or future projects, and a CNN.com poll released early this week found that more than 70% of moviegoers would still show up to see him in a film.
“I just hope some good comes out this,” Sherak said. “I mean, besides the fact that he didn’t kill anyone, driving 85 miles per hour on PCH, which he could have. He’s a smart man. I think he knows his life needs a change. I hate what he said, everyone should hate what he said, but maybe this will get him to think through whatever’s in his head and work it out.”
Times staff writers Robert W. Welkos, Claire Hoffman and Chris Lee contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Hollywood’s famous have far too often found themselves caught in very public scandals for misdeeds that range from murder to mere embarrassment. Here is a selected list.
Scandal: Charged with the rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe in 1921.
Resolution: Acquitted in third trial after the jury deliberated for six minutes. Effectively banned from acting.
Scandal: Charged with raping a teenager in 1977, he fled the country to avoid prosecution.
Resolution: The Paris-based director works steadily, winning an Oscar in 2002 for “The Pianist.” He didn’t return to the U.S. to collect the award.
Scandal: Sex tape with Lowe and a teenager surfaced in 1989. Facing criminal charges, Lowe agreed to two years of community service.
Resolution: Career stalled until he was cast in “The West Wing” in 1999. He’s currently working on a film.
Scandal: Drug, assault and sexual abuse incidents beginning in 1989; charged with grabbing a woman’s buttocks in 2005. For a 1997 assault, all the felony charges were dropped. In a plea bargain, he was sentenced to three months in jail, three months in rehab and three years’ probation. Charges were dismissed in the grabbing incident.
Resolution: Slater’s 2000 role in “The Contender” was his big screen return. He’s worked steadily and is currently involved in at least six film projects.
a.k.a. Paul Reubens
Scandal: Arrested in 1991 for indecent exposure at an X- rated movie house. His record was cleared after he paid a fine and made a public-service announcement. Arrested again in 2002 in connection with a child pornography investigation. The charges were dropped after he pleaded guilty to “misdemeanor obscenity.”
Resolution: Reubens has finished a script for a third Pee-wee Herman film, and reruns of the 1986-91 “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” were added to Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup last week
Scandal: Mia Farrow found nude photos of her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi, in Allen’s apartment in 1992. During a subsequent child custody battle, Farrow accused him of abusing their adopted daughter, Malone, then 7. Allen was never indicted, and the case never went to trial.
Resolution: No longer an industry darling, Allen has continued to make movies, though none has captured the critical and box-office success of his earlier efforts. He married Soon-Yi, and the couple have two children.
Scandal: Arrested in 1995 with Divine Marie Brown on Sunset Boulevard. Charged with lewd conduct with a prostitute, fined $1,180 and received two years’ probation.
Resolution: A mea culpa on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” helped him quickly spring back.
Scandal: Multiple drug incidents and domestic disputes beginning in 1995. In April 2006, placed under a restraining order by soon-to-be ex-wife Denise Richards.
Resolution: Currently starring in the CBS comedy hit “Two and a Half Men,” for which he just received an Emmy nomination.
Robert Downey Jr.
Scandal: Multiple arrests for drug possession from 1996 to 2001.
Resolution: Six months in jail, a stalled film career that has rebounded, including co-starring with Nicole Kidman in the upcoming “Fur.”
Scandal: Stopped by police after he picked up a transsexual prostitute in 1997.
Resolution: Suffered a round of bad press, and his movie career slowed. Starring in the upcoming “Dreamgirls.”
Scandal: Two women died in a head-on collision with Broderick’s car in Ireland in 1997. Fined $320 and convicted of careless driving.
Resolution: The actor has worked steadily in film and on Broadway, most notably co-starring with Nathan Lane in “The Producers.” He has a couple of films due out this year and more on the way.
Scandal: Arrested in 2001 for shoplifting at Saks Fifth Avenue. Convicted of theft and vandalism and sentenced to probation, counseling and community service.
Resolution: The actress is making her movie comeback as a femme fatale in “Sex And Death 101.”
Information compiled by library researcher’s Julia Franco and Vicki Gallay.
Los Angeles Times