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.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 09, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Roman Polanski: A graphic about the travails of other celebrities that accompanied an article about Mel Gibson in the Aug. 4 Section A said that director Roman Polanski was charged with raping a teenager in 1977 and fled the country to avoid prosecution. Polanski pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawful intercourse with a minor and fled the country to avoid sentencing.
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."