Mel Gibson took a deep breath, shook his head and stared down at his palms. "I just can't do this. You've got me at a disadvantage." The movie star, his voice a croak, was a mere 19 minutes into an interview, but it was clear there was no way he was going to make it to 20.
"I'm coming rapidly to the conclusion that right now, today, my brain cannot function. Honestly? I'm six days off the cigarette. You're looking at someone who's having a pretty bad withdrawal from a 45-year habit."
The question that sent the jittery Gibson on his way out of the room was about the cultural riptides that await anyone who brings religion into the modern public life of Hollywood. "I'm not running away from it. I want to give you a fair trot. I like where you're coming from with these questions. I just feel ill-equipped to answer."
These are difficult days to be Mel Gibson, with or without nicotine.
On Friday, the 54-year-old will find out where he stands with moviegoers as a leading man with "Edge of Darkness," a dark thriller that marks Gibson's first starring role since "Signs" in 2002. In those eight years he has devoted himself instead to producing and directing, most notably the massively successful "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004. He also found himself starring in a bleary mug-shot in summer 2006 after a DUI arrest that would become a life-changing calamity after the anti-Semitic remarks he made while in custody were reported across the planet. Gibson apologized and called it "a moment of insanity" and a "public humiliation on a global scale" that had one positive aspect in that it led him to get help with his alcoholism.
Once, back in the 1980s, the tales of Gibson's wild ways made him just another Tinseltown bad boy, but in recent seasons he's come off as just plain bad. Now, stepping back into the spotlight as a movie star, he is trying to balance his pride with his need to do some serious reputation repair. It's taking him to some strange places.
A few minutes after cutting short the interview, there was Gibson, marching through the underground parking garage below his offices in Santa Monica. He was looking for the visitor he had just sent home early. "I forgot about your parking," he blurted. "I'll wait at the gate for you." Then, to the befuddlement of other drivers waiting to pay, one of the most famous men in the world perched himself next to a guard shack and waited, shoulders slumped, for the moment of validation. "Don't worry," he promised with a weak wave, "I'll see you soon and we'll get this done."
Three days later, Gibson looked like a new man. "I'm sorry again," he said as he reached out to shake hands, "I was in pretty rough shape. Today is better. Nine days is better than six."
Putting in time is never easy. Gibson was standing in a suite at the Casa Del Mar Hotel in Santa Monica, where he was enduring two long days of press interviews to promote the new movie from Warner Bros. and GK Films. The place was crowded with reporters eager for their chance to get Gibson on the record about his DUI, the anti-Semitic rant and the recent juicy twists in his personal life (Gibson is in the process of divorcing his wife of 29 years, Robyn, with whom he has seven children; 39-year-old Russian musician Oksana Grigorieva, meanwhile, gave birth to the actor's eighth child, Lucia, on the day before Halloween).
"It's going OK," Gibson said gamely of his movie-star chores. "It's always a struggle. This part has always been a struggle to sort of friend-up and be that." The junket was not without its bumps. Some female journalists were aghast that Gibson told a marriage joke with some coarse language. (Gibson is still dogged by the perception that he referred to one of his arresting deputies as "sugar tits," which he has denied.) Also, a day earlier, Gibson's interview with Sam Rubin of KTLA turned sour after the anchorman mused that some people think the leading man "should never come back" after his ugly rant about Jews. Gibson leaned forward, ready for a fight. "Why?" Rubin looked desperately uncomfortable and, really, who could blame him? Every moviegoer learned long ago that no one comes uncorked quite like Mel Gibson.
The whole Mad Mel persona shaped Gibson's stardom with the nut-job cop role in the four "Lethal Weapon" films and then the far-from-funny battlefield rages in the gore of "Braveheart" and "The Patriot." The angry man is back in Gibson's new movie; the actor said he chose "Edge of Darkness" for his return vehicle for the simple reason that it had an excellent script by William Monahan (who won an Oscar for "The Departed"), but it's probably no coincidence that the movie falls into the uniquely American cinema of vengeance -- playing the righteous and violent man has given Gibson some of his biggest commercial successes.