Dan Yakir
August 17, 1990 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Casually dressed in khaki pants and a checkered shirt, Mel Gibson stands in the middle of an airfield in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, where he is filming his new action-comedy, Air America. From afar, he appears to be relieving himself on a shiny new Mercedes.

It seems that Gibson’s character, an irreverent pilot for a CIA-backed airline based in Laos during the early days of the Vietnam War, has just taught a stuffy U.S. government attaché a lesson by dumping concrete on his car. Now they?re shooting the other pilot’s reaction to this mischief, and though he’s not needed for the scene, Gibson has chosen his unusual gesture as a way of getting his fellow actors to register the requisite amusement. His performance, complete with broad gestures and a manic expression, provokes roars of genuine laughter — even though it turns out that Gibson is actually dousing the vehicle with the contents of a plastic water bottle that he?s grabbed as a prop.

This is not the way most big stars spend their off-camera. But then again, most big stars wouldn’t work for a fraction of their normal multi-million-dollar salaries and sink their own money into a movie project so they could play Hamlet, either — both of which Gibson has done since the completion of Air America. The actor who created such powerful screen characters as a nuclear-wasteland survivor Mad Max and off-kilter cop Martin Riggs of the Lethal Weapon movies will play the great Dane himself in Franco Zeffirelli’s film, scheduled for release in March of ’91.

Back in muggy Thailand, however, Gibson is on lunch break, scarfing up a huge serving of spicy local food. From the easy way the cast and crew interact with him, it is clear that he doesn’t take himself or the world around him terribly serious. Between mouthfuls, Gibson describes the manic pilot he portrays in Air America.

”Gene Ryack is a mercenary, but he doesn?t feel like knocking people off,” Gibson says. ”He’s just in it for the money. He fits into this part of the world,” he add, toying with the Buddha he wears around his neck for the part. ”He’s not really American anymore. He’s more Asian. He likes it here. He found a better way to cruise through life.”

Gibson, too, has found a better formula for life and for shifting through the ups and downs of stardom. Early in his career, frustrated by the harsh glare of the Hollywood limelight, the young actor buried himself in his work and nearly suffocated. In 1984, he shot four movies in a frantic rush: The River, a farm saga with Sissy Spacek; The Bounty, a failed remake of the movie classic; Mrs. Soffel a dour drama with Diane Keaton; and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the last installment in the Mad Max trilogy. Before he was through, he found himself dangerously drained. ”I ran out of gas,” says Gibson, whose family emigrated Down Under from Peekskill, N.Y., when he was 12. ”It was horrible. I was creatively out of my mind and drunk driving in Toronto where Mrs. Soffel was shot, and he got into unseemly mudslinging matches with journalists, whom he blasted as ”parasites.”

Both mentally and physically exhausted, Gibson retreated to his newly bought 800-acre cattle ranch in Australia, and there he learned to cool out. How? Sheer willpower; he claims. ”You have a button in your mind that you press and simply tell yourself to relax,” Gibson says, puffing on a cigarette. ”It used to be my fear of the unknown. I hadn’t been through that before and it used to spook me; there were so many new things. Now it doesn?t matter. You can allow it to bother you. It simply isn’t worth beating yourself so much about that.”

Or about anything else, for that matter. Gibson, who likes to sketch in his free time (”when I?m in the mood, every now and then I can catch a little piece of somebody”), begins sketching disjointed lines that come to bear a remarkable resemblance to Art LaFleur; who plays a fellow pilot in the film. This relaxes him. Tomorrow, his day off will bring other, richer relaxations: He’ll hop on a plane to Chiang Mai, a 35-minute flight, to be with his family — Robyn, a former nurse and his wife of 10 years, and their six children, who have joined him in Thailand while the film is shooting. In Chiang Mai he’ll also surrender his tired flesh to the ministrations of expert Thai masseurs.

”It’s the best massage I?ve ever come across,” he says enthusiastically. ”I have chronic back pain, but after two hours a week, I’ve had no trouble whatsoever. It’s miraculous! This is a stress-free country. Everyone?s cool.”

Yet underneath all that nonchalance, Gibson is still pretty intense fellow. (”I’ve got to stop smoking before I die or something,” he mutters, tapping an unlit cigarette violently on the table next to him.) And it’s his intensity that vibrates off the screen and makes him notable, as those who have directed him know. Air America‘s Roger Spottiswoode lauds ”his inner energy that is invisible from a distance but shines through when you get closer.” According to Richard Donner (both Lethal Weapon movies), , ”Mel’s mind is full of insane wit and he bounds with endless energy. You just can’t tie him down.” And Peter Weir (Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously still marvels at ”Mel’s enormous screen presence…his ability to do nothing. It’s very difficult to simply be there, but he’s a natural.”

And, whether he likes it or not, Gibson is also a hunk. He still rankles at being labeled People magazine?s ”sexiest man alive” in 1985, but over the years he has shed his aversion to steamy love scenes. ”They are not embarrassing,” he says, ”but a lot of times they?re unnecessary. In Bird on a Wire’ (with Goldie Hawn) they had one of those scenes, but it wasn’t really needed, so I didn’t do it.” He did, however, provide yet another glimpse of his famous buns, which he appeared in three of his films, to the delight of his ardent fans.

Whatever his state of dress or undress, Gibson remains a perfect gentleman. His Lethal Weapon 2 costar, Patsy Kensit, says their love scene ”was very difficult — a very unnatural and unromantic situation to be in — but Mel made it as easy as it could be. He tried to make me comfortable. We became friends and kept laughing about it.”

Talking about such things doesn’t bring sparks to Gibson’s eyes, but the mention of Hamlet does. For a 34-year-old superstar who has built a career on action performances, playing Shakespeare?s tormented, classically indecisive hero is, to say the least, a departure. It also leaves Gibson open to the slings and arrows of outraged critics, but he doesn’t seem greatly worried about that. ”It’s a challenge,” he admits, ”and, yes, it’s a little scary, but I feel I’m in pretty good hands. And you must take risks. I always wanted to do Hamlet onstage, and I loved Franco’s interpretation. He has set it in a medieval, barbaric, pre-Christian Denmark, a place rotten to the core; it’s a great concept. These Vikings were killing each other and scheming all the time. The world hasn’t changed that much, except for the costumes, has it?”

Even the prospect of performing Shakespeare alongside such theater and film veterans as Paul Scofield (the ghost), Alan Bates (Claudius), and Glenn Close (Queen Gertrude) doesn’t appear to intimidate Gibson. ”As an actor you’re an emotional prostitute — you get caught with your pants down,” he says. ”That’s much harder if you’re doing it in front of somebody you don’t know, and when I was young I was definitely intimidated by more experienced performers. They knew it and took advantage of it. But now I can manage. Look,” he adds, with a touch of impatience at the idea that the role may be new territory for him, ”Hamlet is a guy who’s slightly bitter at the world and not that stable. He’s got good qualities — but he’s bored, he wants to kill himself, and he seeks revenge. Heard that one before?” he concludes, having drawn the parallel with Martin Rigss, his Lethal Weapon character.

Gibson’s confidence and comfort in his work clearly stems from the stability he has found in his personal life. Although he spends most of his time working in the U.S., he has found peace and quiet on his ranch in Australia — his ”haven of sanity.” There he shuts himself off from the industry, does menial work and tends to his cattle. ”I spend all my money on that,” he says, smiling. ”I have no use for big toys.” Wherever he is, he insists, his family always comes first. ”Success is flattering and hard to resist, but it’s also dangerous because our craft begins to suffer. If you don’t lead a real life, you tend to lose truth in your work. I learned not to act in my own life, not to lose touch with my real self.

”You see, I take things as they come, play it by ear, and refuse to worry about the future. Even when we were having babies and I didn?t have a job, it didn’t worry me. When I was a little kid, one of the most surprising things my father told me — and it really worked — was that it was a sin to worry too much. I’ll always remember that, because it nailed me. I don’t seek too much out of life, and since I have no expectations, I can’t be disappointed.??

But make no mistake about it: The actor, who may be doing Lethal Weapon 3 sometime in the future, is very ambitious. ”If I said I didn’t want to achieve something great and unique in the cinema,” he concedes, ”I’d be either mad or lying.”

Gibson lights another cigarette, and just then an assistant director rouses the troops for another take. Once more, the pilots must show their amusement at Gibson’s trashing of the shiny Mercedes. And once more, the star is eager to help out. In fact he’s on a Road Warrior mission to make his cohorts laughs correctly.

Walking over to LaFleur, Gibson bends the actor over backward and plants a passionate kiss smack on his lips. But again, there is deception at work here: Gibson is actually kissing his own hand, which is slyly covering his friend’s mouth. But no matter. The pilots clap and cheer lustily. It may not be Shakespeare, but it plays.

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