Mel Gibson Rebuilds Career After Alcoholic Downfall
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Mel Gibson Rebuilds Career After Alcoholic Downfall


Mel Gibson Rebuilds Career After Alcoholic DownfallNot that long ago, actor and director Mel Gibson had a seemingly unstoppable movie career. That said, today it’s almost impossible to remember a time when he toplined box office marquees, collected Oscars and charmed late-night viewers as a guest on Jay Leno’s couch. In his day, he was actually a household name in a good way. (He was People’s very first Sexiest Man Alive, dammit!) If one of his movies tanked, moviegoers simply forgave him. Mel Gibson had charisma to spare. He could pivot from Bird on a Wire right into a mega-smash like Lethal Weapon 3. But all that forgiveness vanished in 2006 in a very public, alcohol-fueled arrest that brought worldwide attention to his decades-old battle with the bottle. Now, with the release of a new starring vehicle (Blood Father) and a return to the director’s chair this fall (Hacksaw Ridge), Gibson looks to become less a cautionary tale than a story of redemption that’s ready-made for Hollywood.

“Spiritual Path for the Psychopath”

Since 2006, the Signs star has appeared in exactly six feature films—a far cry from the height of his career. In a recent interview, the actor-director opened up about having his alcoholism laid bare for the world to see. “You’ve lost a very precious thing and that’s your anonymity,” Gibson said of fame. “That’s part of it; now I get that. But you don’t sign the deal that says you have no more rights. You don’t sign a piece of paper that says people can say anything they want about you, in public, and there’s nothing legally you can do about it. You get all kinds of stuff. It’s a bit of a rude awakening.”

Gibson’s public scandals include his 2006 drunk-driving arrest, the release of venomous rants against his ex-girlfriend and secretly-recorded drunken outbursts (among others). So his starring role in Blood Father seems like something of a miracle. In fact, Gibson admitted to Good Weekend that his drinking problem has almost claimed everything good in his life more than once. The only way out, he discovered, was through Alcoholics Anonymous. “I’ve had to do [12-step work]—otherwise you don’t survive,” he said. “They call it the spiritual path for the psychopath. They say there’s only three options: you go insane, you die or you quit. That’s the harsh reality. I’m an old hand at that.”

His real-life recovery plays no small role in his Blood Father character. Gibson’s character is John Link, an ex-con-turned-tattoo-artist who is also a recovering alcoholic. It’s not a stretch to imagine that we’re watching Gibson wrestle his own demons and reconcile the past in affecting scenes like this one, where he wearily recounts everything and everyone he’s lost.

Recognizing the Signs

Alcohol has played a starring role in Gibson’s life from a very early age. He once told the Herald Sun that “this problem of alcoholism is a disease and it’s affected me my entire life”—pointing out that “in Australia, you don’t wait too long before you start [drinking].” In Gibson’s case, he started hitting the bottle when he was 13 years old. From then on, the disease haunted him as he climbed the celebrity ranks in films such as Papillon, The River and The Road Warrior. But even battle-hardened Mad Max has a breaking point. “I would get addicted to anything. Drugs, booze, coffee, cigarettes, anything. I was in pretty bad shape,” Gibson admitted in a 2004 interview. “I think everybody in their life gets to a point where that happens. Eventually you just have to say, ‘I’m not good enough to figure this out. I don’t know. Help. If there is anything out there, help.’ And if you’re lucky, you’ll recognize the signs of that help.”

Unfortunately, those signs didn’t reveal themselves fast enough for Gibson. In 1984, he was arrested on DUI charges in Canada. He spent a year on his Australian farm seeking recovery, but sobriety didn’t stick. Not long after, he was “drinking five pints of beer before breakfast.” In a statement following his infamous 2006 drunk-driving arrest, Gibson claimed that he’s “battled the disease of alcoholism for all of my adult life and profoundly regret my horrific relapse.” Gibson is nothing if not self-aware. As much as he has carved a career out of becoming other people, he knows his most challenging role is “Mel Gibson: Recovering Alcoholic.” In an interview with Diane Sawyer, he observed that, for him, a relapse is always lurking around the corner. “Years go by, you’re fine,” he said. “And then all of a sudden in a heartbeat, in an instant, on an impulse, somebody shoves a glass of Mescal in front of your nose and says, ‘It’s from Oaxaca.’ And it’s burning its way through your esophagus and you go, ‘Oh man, what did I do that for? I can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.’”

“Hugging the Cactus”

The Braveheart director clearly takes his sobriety as seriously as he does charting a new career path. Still, he knows that not everyone is championing his return to the screen, “all you can do is take another step, keep breathing,” he told Sawyer. To those who refuse to work with him despite his attempts at redemption, Gibson says “I feel sad because they’ve obviously been hurt and frightened and offended.” Still, it helps to have friends like Robert Downey, Jr. (his former Air America co-star) in his corner—especially since it wasn’t all that long ago that Downey was battling his own addictions instead of Marvel supervillains. The Iron Man implored Hollywood to forgive his friend, saying that Gibson was one of the few people to take a chance on him when he was down and out: “He said if I accepted responsibility—he called it ‘hugging the cactus’—long enough, my life would take meaning. And if he helped me, I would help the next guy. But it was not reasonable to assume the next guy would be him.”

In recent photos, Gibson’s face isn’t as fresh or bright as it once was. And it shouldn’t be. It’s rugged and weathered—the face of someone who has been to hell and come back on the other side, changed. “The last thing I want to be is that kind of monster,” he said of how he’s perceived in the media. Between Blood Father and Hacksaw Ridge, though, Gibson is clearly looking ahead rather than behind. Just like his most recent character John Link, Gibson is himself steeled against whatever lies ahead. He recognizes his part in the destruction that’s behind him and now, it seems as if Mel Gibson is writing a script for himself that has, finally, a genuinely happy ending.

Photo courtesy of Gorup de Besanez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)

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About Author

Paul Fuhr is an addiction recovery writer whose work has appeared in The Literary Review, The Live Oak Review, The Sobriety Collective and InRecovery Magazine, among others. He is the author of the alcoholism memoir “Bottleneck.” He's also the creator and co-host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and recovery. Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and their cats, Dr. No and Goldeneye.