Mel Gibson: still growing up.
Gibson approaches life asking one big question: "How can I make this fun?" He describes a household in which he plays the role of chief loony, supported by a rambunctious bunch of five boys and a girl, ages 3-13. Though he confesses to being a strong disciplinarian when required, he seems to spend most of his off-duty hours telling stories to his brood, building them a treehouse, taking them for motorcycle rides around the pastures of his ranches in Australia and Montana, or just roughhousing with them at home in Los Angeles.
"I'm an excellent parent, if I do say so myself," he says--and then reconsiders: "Actually, I'm not excellent. I'm sure I've gone through the same things as everyone else who's got offspring. Most of the time I scratch my head and think, 'What am I going to do?' You have to set examples. I want my kids to like me, so when they really need a lot of help later on, they won't mind coming to me. It's easy to alienate your offspring. That, to me, is the worst crime. You've got to be prepared to just sit down and be accessible to
Talking to Gibson is a little like interviewing a child actor, one of those precocious preteen kids who can conceptualize like a professor but loves to have fun most of all. Here in a Los Angeles hotel room, dressed for play in black jeans and shirt and sculled black cowboy boots, Gibson, 37, passes another hour avoiding adulthood by snickering and giggling, squirming and fidgeting.
He suddenly spots a nearby plate of chocolate cookies and scarfs a few. "These cookies are great! Try 'em!" Nothing tempting is safe from Gibson, who describes himself as an amoeba enfolding whatever it encounters.
He will try anything once, and if he likes it he'll try it a thousand times. Eventually the cookies have to be removed from his reach. "I gave up one vice last week. I think I'm gonna start another," he says, looking longingly at the receding cookie plate.
Drinking is a vice Gibson gave up some time ago, after a drunk-driving arrest and a few too many head-splitting mornings. Smoking is the latest bad habit to go--he's stopped 12 times now. "I got sick of it, sick and tired. I decided to quit again when I played tennis with my dad for three hours. He's 73 and he ran around the court and wasn't very puffed afterwards, either. That's kinda cool. I thought I'd knock it off while I'm ahead. I'd like to still be running around the court when my kids are older, instead of them visiting me in an iron lung."
The picture of himself ill and immobilized sends him into a paroxysm of giggles. A cappuccino arrives from room service, and he slurps it up greedily as he returns to the subject of being a kid--er, parent.
"We play the wild animal game," he says enthusiastically, wiping coffee froth off his lip. "They wanna get away and they wanna get caught. I love chasing 'em around. Not with a gun! Someone always ends up getting hurt, though. They all start jumping on you at the same time, and they can hurt one another. You have to be very careful with that stuff. Hey, maybe they should wear helmets and pads.
"I've got five sons, and they don't know you can't take it. They think you're invincible, so they come in at you full-bore. A head butt from a l O-year-old doing 90 miles per hour can just about kill you. One of these days, I'll have to clue him in on the fact that it's killing me.
"When there's five of them, you can't keep 'em all blocked off. You're gonna take a couple of shots now and then. It's awful, terrible. My daughter doesn't engage. She doesn't like the rough stuff anymore. I used to include her in all the rough stuff, but now she's just not interested. That's the difference between men and women."
Gibson is one of 11 children himself (he was right in the middle). All four of his grandparents were Irish. His father, a railway worker in upstate New York, won $20,000 playing "Jeopardy" when Mel was 12 and used the money, plus an insurance settlement, to move his family to Australia. "It was a difficult move," Gibson remembers. "It made me observant. Right away, I saw there was a difference between them and me. In order to cope and not have a punchup every other day, I tried to be like them. I remember looking at them and observing them. It was good training as an actor."
When he left drama school, Gibson's good looks and hunky body quickly led him to a dual career as romantic lead and action hero. He moved from such stage parts as Romeo to the retarded title character in Tint (1979). At the same time, he was learning how to handle a gun in the Mad Max series and Gallipoli (1981). By 1984, after appearing in The Bounty, The River and Mrs. Soffel, he had become an American star. However, it wasn't until he passed 30, stopped drinking, and learned to show his madcap side in his work that he became a household name and reached the $10 million-perpicture level.
He also reset his priorities, putting family first. "I think something happens to young men as they approach their fourth decade," he says. "There is a kind of mild crisis where men get a little smarter. I mean, boyhood has to go out the door. I remember that as a big transition period for myself. I was probably pretty wild. You've got to grow up. You just have to.
"The whole thing is, you've got to learn to relax. You've got to be a bit older to figure it out. I figured it out around 30. I said to myself, 'I'm really beating myself up here. I've got to go a bit slower and check things out more.'
"I've always been terribly impulsive, and I still am to a degree. But the day comes when you say to yourself, 'Gee, how could I have driven that fast? Why am I still here?' Your own mortality really comes into focus with kids and with your parents getting older (Gibson's mother died in 1990). But as an actor, you still have to be like a kid."
Today, Gibson flies his family to every filming location, from Maine to California, from Bangkok to London. He's learned to be comfortable in chaos. "If you're going to be a film star, which can't be very pleasant all the time, be Mel Gibson," says Michael Maloney, who played Rosenkrantz to Gibson's title character in Hamlet (1990). "Mel is well-balanced and happily married with six children who all seem normal, because they're very well brought up. And he's very
Self-deflating humor is Gibson's specialty. "I like doing this stuff, and it matters to me. But what is acting? It's just kidding around, isn't it? If you try to take it too seriously, you'll spoil it for yourself. The minute you have to claw tooth and nail for it, you might as well give it up, or you'll start damaging other people."
A few years ago, when a magazine pinned the inane title "sexiest man alive" on him, his comment was, "That implies there are a lot of dead guys who got more points than I did." Another time, discussing poses with a Hollywood photographer who wanted a poolside shot, he cracked, "How about if I just walk on the water?"
Though not all his films have a humorous element, he has lately preferred roles where his playfulness can gain the upper hand. "I play a lot of characters who are close to the edge, so there's a lightness about them. That's why humor creeps into so many of my characters," he says. "If you can find opportunities anywhere to give your characters humor, it's probably a sign that you're enjoying what you're doing."
His Lethal Weapon character, Martin Riggs, started out suicidal, lightened up in the first sequel, and practically became one of the Three Stooges in the second sequel. Gibson got more laughs out of Hamlet's "antic disposition" (as decribed in the play's first act) than most actors do. Forever Young was less a romance than a romp. Even The Man Without a Face, which Gibson directed, had a few funny scenes. Also, watch out for Gibson as Bret Maverick in next summer's remake of the old TV series.
When Gibson chose to direct (which he describes as "like cutting up corpses, easy as wetting your bed"), he gravitated toward a story about a fatherless boy who finds a man to "teach the kid some things he needs to know." The theme of guidance and nurturing is close to Gibson's heart. His one aim as a parent is "not to raise a bunch of maniacs or people neglected by their parents. I just want to be there for them as much as possible.
"Having kids is very scary. They change your life. You realize you have to start acting a little responsible. It scares you. All of a sudden it hits you: Somebody's gonna call me Dad! Yet another tie, and it's not in the nature of men to want to be tied down to anything. It's the expectation of being tied down that scares you. But then you get to know the little creature, who ... sometimes you wanna wring its neck ... you become the servant of.
"They're imaginative and pretty wild. They love stories, the wilder the better. You put your imagination out there for 'em. Some of the most outlandish and horrible stories have been
However, sometimes is heard a discouraging word. He jokes, "You've got to like your own family. But they can drive you around the bend. I'm probably the only person in Australia who wears ear muffs in the summer." Gibson is a believer in corporal punishment.
"The important thing is to break their will, but not their spirit. They have to learn to be part of society and that they can't get everything they want all the time. But they also have to be ambitious enough to want things. I'm still trying to figure it out. I'll know in a few years if I'm doing it wrong."