Mel Gibson pulled off the seemingly impossible last year, turning "The Passion of the Christ," his low-budget biblical film in a dead language, into one of the year's biggest hits. Now Hollywood's in a frenzy over his newest project, a proposed ABC miniseries partly based on a little-known Holocaust memoir.
Network executives fielded calls from media organizations hoping to interpret the latest move by the actor-director, who has been criticized in the past for statements he has made about the Holocaust and whose elderly father has described some accounts of the mass murder of European Jews during World War II as "fiction."
Quinn Taylor, ABC's senior vice president of movies and miniseries, said Wednesday that he viewed Gibson's possible involvement as a potential plus in marketing the program, although he added: "We would never buy a project that didn't have merit solely for the purpose of getting publicity."
Taylor said he was a little surprised at the intense reaction to the miniseries, because "it's so early in the process."
Indeed, network officials haven't even seen an outline from writer Cynthia Saunders, who's adapting Flory A. Van Beek's 1998 memoir "Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death," which recounts her experiences as a young Dutch Jew in Holland during World War II.
Taylor said the project, which was bought more than a year ago, wouldn't reach TV screens until spring 2007 at the earliest -- assuming it's made at all. The project is one of 40 to 50 that ABC has in development, Taylor said, and the network airs about 10 such "event movies" per year.
At this point, Gibson and his spokesman, Alan Nierob, aren't talking about the project. It's unclear how much the star of such films as "Lethal Weapon" and "What Women Want" and director of "The Passion of the Christ" will be involved. Con Artists Productions, the TV division of Gibson's Icon Productions, is behind the project, along with other producers.
But some of the organizations that did battle with Gibson over allegedly anti-Semitic portrayals in "Passion" are already warily eyeing the star's latest move.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he remained concerned about remarks Gibson made during interviews last year. When asked whether the Holocaust happened, Gibson told one interviewer, "Of course," but added: "The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps." Hier and some other commentators believe those remarks downplayed and distorted the history of the Holocaust.
Still, "we should keep an open mind," Hier said of the new miniseries. "It may be an education course or eye-opener for his father, who said the Holocaust was mostly exaggerated."
Meanwhile, the controversy has already been good for Van Beek's publisher, who's planning to rush 2,500 additional copies into stores next week. James Riordan, publisher of Seven Locks Press, said the book sold just 3,000 copies, delivering perhaps $30,000 in total revenue, since its initial printing in 1998. The Santa Ana-based press, which publishes 23 books a year, is the publishing arm of Chapman University in Orange.
The Gibson project may change the book's future prospects dramatically. Riordan said Wednesday that "we're going to have to reassess" future plans for the book.
Van Beek said she had been deluged with calls from around the world since news broke of the miniseries.
"I have never met Mr. Gibson, I have never seen his movies and I don't know his father. I just know recently that he is connected with this film," she said Wednesday in a phone interview from her Orange County home. "A producer called me out of the clear blue sky. He liked my book and wanted to make a movie."
Times staff writers Rachel Abramowitz, Anne-Marie O'Connor and Robert Welkos contributed to this report.