TV lacks passion for Mel Gibson
As expansive as he can be on many other subjects -- perhaps you’ve lately gleaned some of his random musings on Judaism -- Mel Gibson has been uncharacteristically shy in discussing his TV career.
Yes, the 50-year-old actor-director does have a television production resume, although he may have hurled it down a rat hole, along with the remnants of his matinee idol status, after his anti-Semitic tirade during a DUI arrest last month.
Like other movie stars of his generation, the Oscar-winning Gibson is a creative overachiever, aiming to be a filmed-entertainment multihyphenate capable of scraping elbows with the increasingly impersonal and bottom-line-obsessed studios. Accordingly, his production company has a relatively small but active TV arm, which long before the arrest was unfortunately dubbed Con Artists Productions. During the 2004-05 season, the company actually succeeded in landing three series during prime time, a remarkable achievement for any entity, especially one that had no prior episodic TV credits.
These days, though, Con Artists’ offices are probably a suitably quiet refuge for, say, sleeping off a hangover. When ABC announced last week that it would pull the plug on a planned Holocaust-themed miniseries that Gibson would executive produce, it was widely perceived to be a (perhaps fleeting) indicator of the star’s fallen stock in Hollywood. Given that a drunk Gibson is alleged to have informed a deputy that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” the network’s decision may have deprived viewers of a fascinating alternate take on the commonly accepted history of World War II.
But the truth is that compared with his resounding success as a feature actor and director -- his international hit “The Passion of the Christ” remains among the most profitable films ever made -- Gibson has been a big dud as a TV producer. And no, the star’s alleged drunken rant has had nothing to do with this failure, at least before last week.
Instead, Gibson’s lackluster small-screen adventures point to the liabilities inherent in the TV industry’s lazy and toadying reliance on movie stars, even when those stars don’t seem particularly inclined to do much heavy lifting beyond making sure their name in the title credits appears as big as contractually specified (in TV industry lingo, this is known as “the nonwriting producer,” a euphemism that grudgingly acknowledges the writer-creator’s central role in a television show’s destiny). Typically, this is a state of affairs to which no one’s impolitic enough to object, unless there’s a Problem That Can’t Be Ignored.
One season and out
Networks are forever hoping that stars-turned-producers will lend wattage to a series, maybe coaxing those promo-proof folks at home to tune in. That’s why, for instance, to promote its fall drama “Ugly Betty” ABC last month trotted executive producer Salma Hayek before TV critics in Pasadena.
The inconvenient truth, though, is that a star’s involvement behind the camera has little if any bearing on a TV series’ success. (Even with series that exist purely as vehicles for big stars, the results are often discouraging, as bombs like NBC’s “Whoopi” and CBS’ “Bette” proved.) TV is not film. The auteur theory does not apply. What elevates a drama or comedy is week after week of strong storytelling and performances, not the token participation of a celebrity producer or director.
In fall 2003, Gibson himself attended a meeting at ABC to pitch his family sitcom “Complete Savages,” which was sold as a semiautobiographical, Bill Cosby-esque account of the star’s joys and tribulations raising a large brood in real life.
Network officials said before the premiere that they hoped the star’s involvement would stoke viewer interest, and indeed he was credited with directing the pilot and appeared in a walk-on role. But the series tanked anyway and was canceled after one season.
Gibson’s two other TV projects from 2004-05, CBS’ baseball drama “Clubhouse” and UPN’s legal/family drama “Kevin Hill,” suffered similar fates, although by all appearances he was much less actively involved in those projects.
So it is with much of what passes for Gibson’s TV career. Notice that ABC never complained publicly about the slow pace of progress on the Holocaust project until after his Malibu meltdown -- even though, according to a network spokeswoman, two years of “development” never yielded so much as a script. “Is there anything Mel Gibson can’t do?” Newsweek marveled of his multifaceted career in 2004. Now the relevant question is what Mel actually does to earn all those accolades. When asked exactly what work Gibson had done on the miniseries, the ABC spokeswoman e-mailed back a one-word reply: “None.”
So why bother slapping his name on TV projects in the first place? He must have a larger strategy than merely cashing checks for producer’s fees, but it’s hard to tell at this point what that might be. Gibson won’t say; he’s seldom talked in detail about the TV side of his company. In a stroke of serendipitous timing, his longtime spokesman Alan Nierob was said to be on vacation last week. Calls to Nancy Cotton, the executive who runs Con Artists day to day, and Gibson’s agent Ed Limato were not returned.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Gibson may have notched his most memorable TV work 2 1/2 years ago. Interviewed by Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “Primetime Thursday,” Gibson offered a rambling, sub-literate defense of his religious views that in light of his recent arrest looks even more bizarre and hilarious. Yes, this is the talk where Sawyer brought up Gibson’s Holocaust-denying father and the star clenched his jaw and warned: “Gotta leave it alone.”
Later in the Sawyer chat, Gibson the consummate actor even toyed with TV conventions in a way that might do Aaron Sorkin proud. Confiding to Sawyer that he once thought of ending it all by jumping out a window, Gibson said: “I was looking down thinking, ‘Man, this is just easier this way.’
“Whenever I hear of suicides, I just want to die, you know. I want to cry. Because it is -- there’s something better if they can just hang on a little longer.”
With an exquisite sense of timing, he then added: “Is this the crying segment? Wait a minute.” And then he appeared to choke up.
If Gibson could deliver that kind of performance week after week, he’d probably still have a series on the air.
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Scott Collins’ television blog of the same name is at latimes.com/channelisland. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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