HOW MEL BECAME MAD MAX A new book reveals how an unknown Mel Gibson scored his first major movie role—and how his drinking was already a problem.
A new book reveals how an unknown Mel Gibson scored his first major movie role— and how his drinking was already a problem
Mel Gibson was fresh out of drama school in September 1977 when he walked in to audition for George Miller, a 32-year-old Brisbane-born doctor desperate to make a movie. That movie was Mad Max, a groundbreaking action-thriller that would catapult both men to dazzling careers. In this edited extract from Miller and Max (Hardie Grant Books, $35), author Luke Buckmaster reveals how Gibson won the role of the vengeful rogue cop and how he struggled with alcoholism as his star rose throughout the world. [George] Miller began the search for his Road Warrior in Los Angeles in 1976, but returned home empty-handed. He knew a famous name would help sell the film at home and abroad; the problem, of course, was that famous actors tend to want money commensurate to their celebrity status. The director and producer cast the net high and wide, auditioning scores of young men and screen testing some, but few inspired confidence.
An Australian casting agent, Mitch Mathews,
encouraged the pair to meet some graduates from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), a prestigious and picky Australian arts school, at the time accepting fewer than 30 students a year. The school’s 1977 alumni included a handsome, fresh-faced, blue-eyed aspiring actor by the name of Mel Gibson. It also included one of his housemates, Steve Bisley. The pair lived with two other young men in a run-down four-bedroom house near Bondi Beach in Sydney. The four students were poor, though they hosted plenty of alcohol-fuelled house parties.
Late one afternoon in September 1977, having screen tested several people, George Miller was feeling exhausted and pessimistic when Gibson walked through the door. Miller felt shivers up his spine when he looked through the eyepiece of his camera: at last, here was the guy they were looking for. “I remember George calling me and saying, ‘Do you want to come and look at footage of some auditions? I think we’ve got a Max,’ ” recalls Mad Max production coordinator Jenny Day. “I remember going over there and seeing the audition with Mel and two or three other male NIDA graduates. There was no doubt that Mel had it. Everybody felt that. George felt that. Mitch felt that. I felt that.”
The search to find Max Rockatansky was over; Mel Gibson signed on. His housemate Bisley also joined the production, taking the role of Jim Goose, Rockatansky’s best friend. It was a coup for both of them. “In Australia in those days there was not a big film market. People like George Miller were a totally new breed on the horizon,” recalls Faith Martin, who was Gibson’s agent from 1976 to 1979. On the subject of her yet-to-be-famous client, she says: “It was clear even back then that there was a lot more to Mel than his looks. There always has been.”
“It was clear that there was more to Mel than his looks”
—agent Faith Martin
Gibson was born in New York on Jan. 3, 1956, the sixth of 11 children. He was raised in a staunchly conservative family by his father, Hutton Gibson, and mother, Anne, who migrated to Sydney when Mel was 12. It is impossible to consider the life of Mel Gibson without taking into account the influence of Hutton. Like his father, Mel would go on to have a large family and be a devout Catholic. And, like his father, Mel’s reputation would eventually be questioned by many due to controversial opinions on subjects such as Jewish people and homosexuality (see box). All this, however, was well into the future. In late 1977 Gibson was a major new talent on the cusp of celebrity. Having found fame with ‘Mad Max’ in 1979, Gibson went on to star in Peter Weir’s ‘Gallipoli,’ ‘Mad Max 2’ (aka ‘The Road Warrior’) and ‘The Year of Living Dangerously,’ gradually cementing himself as one of the world’s biggest movie stars. Having been paid $15,000 for the original ‘Max,’ he agreed to reprise his role once more for ‘Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome’ (1985), for a rumoured fee of $1.2 million.
Gibson later revealed he was battling alcoholism during the making of [ Beyond Thunderdome] and several others, downing a sixpack of beer with breakfast before even arriving on location.
Gary “Angry” Anderson, an Australian music icon and long-time friend of George Miller, was cast as the villain Ironbar. “Once we got to the desert it was f--kin’ on for young and old,” recalls Anderson. “There was a lot of dope going around. A lot of cocaine. A lot of speed.”
And of course, a lot of alcohol. Anderson recalls one blurry evening at the local Greek restaurant. On this evening an altercation took place involving Gibson and an angry local, who believed the actor was having an affair with his girlfriend. Recalls Anderson: “I went into the toilet with Mel to have a slash. We’d been in the restaurant, we’d had dinner, then this guy comes in and pulls a f--kin’ gun on Mel. He’s shouting, ‘You been f--kin’ my girlfriend!’ Ranny [a friend and colleague] steps in between him and Mel and says, ‘Look mate, no.’ He says the girl, with all due respect—or words to that effect—she’s just tellin’ stories. ‘Mel’s wife is here with him’—which she wasn’t—‘and Mel goes home to his missus every night.’ ”
Continues Anderson: “This mad guy is saying, ‘Is this true, is this true?’ We go, ‘Yeah, yeah yeah, it’s true, it’s true.’ That was the sort of thing that went on in Coober Pedy.”
From his early years as an actor fresh out of NIDA, Gibson has shown signs of being uncomfortable with his celebrity status. Speaking to a Rolling Stone journalist reporting on the production of Beyond Thunder- dome, Gibson, in his hotel room late at night, munching on gyros picked up from the Greek restaurant on the way home, described himself as the “guy that dances on tables, puts lampshades on his head, sticks his dick out in crowds.”
The actor, who was bestowed with US People magazine’s first ever Sexiest Man Alive cover one year after Thunderdome opened, was a sort of travelling human tourist attraction. Women came from miles to get a chance to see him. One night [set decorator and dresser] Martin O’neill shared a spot with Gibson on the floor of the pub as he hid from a pack of girls. The (very drunk) pair were engaged in what O’neill remembers as a really ridiculous conversation. “We were literally, physically under the table, having a heart-to-heart. Mel was telling me he was waiting for everyone to realise he was a total fraud and not a very good actor. He was saying we’re all going to wake up to him one day and it was all going to be over.”
Another night at Porky’s, Gibson was drinking with Karan Monkhouse, the stand-by props coordinator. Covered in dirt, dust and grime after a long day shooting in the desert, Monkhouse fended off a group of women hoping to catch a glimpse of the star. “They said, ‘That’s Mel Gibson, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, do you think Mel Gibson would be sitting here having a drink with me? That’s his double,’ ” she recalls, laughing. Mel was just sitting there looking at his drink, because he didn’t like that sort of attention.
“He was saying we’re all going to wake up to him one day”