Mel Gibson: From 'Mad Max' Nobody To 'Braveheart'
Mel Gibson was Mad Max in 1979. He really was, in a way. The handsome Australian actor strolling onto American movie screens, a veneer of outback dust on his cheeks and leather duds. Through Mad Max sequels The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, and the Peter Weir-directed Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously, the world came to know Gibson as the brooding yet charismatic leading man from Down Under. Gibson turned out to be not quite as Australian as we originally thought, and he turned out to have a few other issues, but he did keep us entertained through three Lethal Weapon films and, of course, Braveheart.
Many Hollywood stars follow a similar path to fame and fortune. But Mel Gibson, like his character in Braveheart, blazed his own trail, for better and for worse. Born in Peekskill, New York, his road to stardom took its first abrupt turn when his father moved the entire family of 11 children to Sydney, Australia when Mel was 12.
It was a very random move but Gibson’s father was concerned that his five sons would get drafted into Vietnam. Once settled Down Under, Mel Gibson had no plans to go into acting. In fact, Gibson was working at an orange juice bottling company when one of his many sisters applied on his behalf to the National Institute of Dramatic Art. Amazingly, he was accepted despite not having any previous acting experience.
A Very Slow Burn
Although he knew very little about acting, he found his people quickly. Once accepted into the Dramatic Art Institute, he moved out of his parents’ home and found a place with three friends. One of those friends just so happened to be Geoffrey Rush who went on to win an Oscar!
For Mel, Oscars were a long, long way off. His first gig as an actor was with the South Australia Theatre Company and the production, “Waiting For Godot.” During that time he met his first wife, Robyn Moore. Gibson took one look at her and thought, “One day, I’m gonna divorce that woman.” For Mel’s first film, he made $400 working on a surf film called Coast of Terror, which we’re going to guess featured sharks..
Gibson’s Big Break
In keeping with Gibson’s strange road to stardom, he got the lead role in Mad Max purely by coincidence. As the story goes, Mel was simply dropping off a friend at the casting calls for the dystopian hit and just so happened to be black and blue from a melee with “half the rugby team.” The casting director saw the disheveled and beaten Gibson and took some pictures since they were also looking for wild-looking extras for the dystopian action flick.
As the star remembered, “It was real weird. [the director] said, ‘Can you memorize this?’ and it was like two pages of dialogue with a big speech and stuff. I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I went into the other room and just got a gist of what it was and I came out and just ad-libbed what I could remember. I guess they bought it.”
A Mad Max Masterpiece
However, the budget for Mad Max was a meager $350,000. George Miller, the director, was forced to moonlight as an emergency room doctor to help pay for the film. “It was very low budget and we ran out of money for editing and post-production, so I spent a year editing the film by myself in our kitchen, while Byron Kennedy did the sound. And then working as an emergency doctor on the weekends to earn money to keep going. I’d got my best friend, and friends of friends of friends of his, and Byron ditto, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, we made a film and it won’t cut together and we’re going to lose all their money.’”
Thankfully for Gibson and Mad Max fans everywhere, the film became the biggest Australian film to date, grossing over $100 million worldwide. Funnily enough, due to the lack of funds, Miller gave out “slabs,” which in Australia are cases of beer, to pay extras, drivers, bikers. Beer, it’s Australian for money!
To no one’s surprise, Gibson holds The Road Warrior in a special place in his heart. “It still holds up because it’s so basic. It’s about energy—it didn’t spare anyone: people flying under wheels, a girl gets it, a dog gets it, everybody gets it. It was the first Mad Max, but done better. The third one didn’t work at all.”
Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously
After the success of The Road Warrior, which was called Mad Max 2 outside the U.S. and which won five Australian Film Institute Awards, Gibson stepped into another huge Australian movie, Gallipoli. At the time it was the most expensive Australian movie ever made and became so popular the battlefields became a tourist destination. Director Peter Weir described Gibson as “Full of beans, and really with no grand career ambitions." Nevertheless, Weir enjoyed his Gibson experience so much, he cast him again in The Year of Living Dangerously.
It was Gibson’s magnetic nature that gave Weir so much confidence in the actor. Producer Jim McElroy saw that same charisma, "He's got a magnetism, that magic indefinable quality that comes out of the eyes." Apparently, Gibson’s bosses weren’t the only ones to feel it, "You immediately feel close to the guy once you spend a little time with him. I remember in the first couple of days in Manila on Dangerously, we had bodyguards from day one for him and Sigourney [Weaver]. But Peter suggested that the bodyguards weren't necessary. The only trouble was the bodyguards wouldn't leave him. They decided to stick around with him... and they did.”
The 1995 historical drama Braveheart stands out as the definitive Mel Gibson performance. Ironically, Gibson had no interest in directing. It wasn’t until several producers and Hollywood heavyweights kept badgering him to direct that Gibson finally relented. Of course, Paramount Pictures only let Gibson direct if he would star as William Wallace. Directing also gave him a chance to throw his brother, Donald Gibson into the fray. Gibson smartly used his experience with George Miller on Mad Max to film the unforgettable battle scenes. Braveheart won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Gibson took home the Best Director statuette.
Extremely Rough Around The Edges
Naturally, you can’t write about Mel Gibson without addressing the elephant in the room. As Ricky Gervais famously said, “I like drinking as much as the next man, assuming that man isn’t Mel Gibson.” The A lister has had multiple extremely regrettable run ins with the law while driving under the influence. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Gibson also tacked on multiple rants that included heinous racial slurs directed at Jewish and black people. There’s no excusing or getting around the fact that Gibson has said horrible, horrible things. That’s just a fact.