Mel Gibson is gambling on 'Maverick'

May 20, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

New York -- Loose as a goose and banty as a cock, Mel Gibson saunters into a roomful of reporters and with the insouciant grace that is his screen signature, leaps over the rear of a couch to deposit himself on its cushions.

But this is no movie and the couch doesn't know he's a movie star. When he hits, there's a slippery moment as the couch tips and seems about to deposit his royal buttness on the floor in a heap.

The couch tilts, wobbles . . . and rights itself neatly. Of course it wouldn't dump him! He's Mel Gibson!

"I'm always lucky," he says with a bright star smile.

Probably true. Faces that the camera loves so much, lighted by )) eyes that blue, packed in flesh that ruddy and molded on jaws that heroic, come along once in a generation. But he's not just a face without a man. "Maverick," the product he's touting today, is his own property. He and his partner got the idea, commissioned the script, hired the director and the rest of the cast, and made the movie happen. And if it hits?

"He's got the franchise," says director Richard Donner.

Still, this is a recovery move from his last film, "Man Without a Face," which he not only starred in but directed as well. He's kind of happy about the lessened stress.

"It was a blessed relief to be a hunk of meat again," he says with that politically incorrect honesty that occasionally gets him in trouble. And he's dressed like a hunk of meat in standard Rodeo Drive cowboy regalia: a pair of black cowboy boots, black jeans, a black-and white houndstooth jacket and a black shirt with gray piping on the collar. He's trim, he's slim, his hair is a puffy penumbra about the beautiful face. His attitude is part smirky high school show-off and part Fourth Stooge.

"Maverick," of course, began for him where it began for everyone else of his generation -- on the boob tube, where droll James Garner talked his way out of trouble for three seasons on ABC between 1957 and 1960 (though the show lasted two more years without him).

"I'd only seen it in reruns but I was really charmed," says Gibson. "It came at a time when there was a massive amount of westerns on TV, and it was different. Jimmy Garner had major impact. I loved the lack of killing. It's a charming aspect of his -- he was almost like a fish out of water. He avoids the showdown, he finds other ways around it."

Gibson resurrects the moment when the idea first occurred to him.

"I was on a cigarette break and I was thinking about being on the Warner Bros. lot. And I remembered 'Maverick.' My partner [co-producer Bruce Davie] said it would make a good movie, and bingo, we had it. We commissioned a writer [William Goldman] and took it to Donner and he fell in."

He leaves out the part about trying to hire Meg Ryan and Paul Newman to play the parts played by Jodie Foster and James Garner.

"It didn't seem like Jodie's kind of thing," he says. "She just completely stunned us and turned out to be very much what the part should have been."

As for Garner, who, all these years later, is still identified with it: "There never was any kind of problem. He's a great guy. Jim's Maverick was smoother, suaver; I borrowed from that as a starting point."

"Mel's Maverick is much broader than mine," says the still laid-back Garner, "much more hyper."

"And," he adds with some of his famous sly charm, "much more interesting."

"You have to remember that we were still in the infancy of television," he recalls. "We couldn't stray very far from the average western. The only thing we had going for us was humor, a certain wryness. Now, of course, audiences are much smarter and you could do it with much broader humor."

Gibson admits that much of the film was improvised off of Goldman's script, and that at one point the production wasn't sure where it was going. "We didn't know how to end it. We just kept going and going and going with the twists."

For Gibson, "Maverick" was a return to the nurturing friendship with Donner, the director who rescued him from his floundering American career with "Lethal Weapon."

"I loved those two guys," says Jodie Foster. "They're so quick. They really care about each other. They're an incredible team."

As for the Mel, she says, "I knew I was going to like him. It's his sick sense of humor. Immediately, it worked, the first time."

Which was a welcome relief, for she wasn't sure about her talents as a comic actress.

"I didn't know if I'd have the knack. That's what's so frustrating about comedy. With drama, you can intellectualize your way into a character. With comedy, either you can do it or you can't, and you can't get better at it."

After so many heavier roles, Foster says, "I think frivolity is very important. It's a side of me I would like to let people see. Growing up, I was never allowed to be that way. If you've been scrutinized your whole life, like I have, you know what I mean. I think 'Maverick' may be a way for me to say, 'You haven't figured me out yet.' "

Sounding less like a Yale grad, Academy Award-winning actress and accomplished director, and more like a teen-age girl, she says, "I'd be in another Mel-movie in a second. I would do anything with him because he's so easy to work with. I really like him."

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