Mel Gibson's commitment to everything he touches explains how the esteemed actor moves mountains in Hollywood -- and the emotions of dedicated audiences --- with the heroic characters he embodies in films, inspiring awe with singular imagination, ingenuity, moral code and good nature -- not to mention sparkling blue eyes and rugged good looks.
He is often described in epic terms, so it is little wonder that Gibson inhabits the roles of heroes so naturally. "He has a touch of the divine about him," says actress Madeleine Stowe, who plays his wife in We Were Soldiers, a film based on the true story of a young general, played by Gibson, who leads his troops into the devastating first battle of the Vietnam War. "It's beyond moral strength. He's not of this earth," intones the actress.
The 46-year-old Gibson, who was born in Peekskill, New York, but moved with his family to Australia as a young boy (his mother is an Australian citizen), first charmed audiences worldwide in 1979, with his edgy performance in the small Australian film Mad Max. Later that year, Gibson won the Australian Film Institute's Best Actor award (equivalent to the U.S. Oscar) for Tim, a now little-known but first-class film based on Australian novelist Colleen McCullough's book about a mentally challenged young man. His performance in 1981's Gallipoli earned him a second award from the AFI, which led him to America for his U.S. debut in 1984's The Bounty. But it was 1987's Lethal Weapon -- which would grow into a four-film franchise -- that certified his glittering star status, the legacy of which is the $25 million salaries he commands for starring roles.
"Mel is as fine an actor as there is alive, and he didn't get that way without a reservoir of moral courage to match his artistic talent," says Randall Wallace, who wrote and directed We Were Soldiers (he also penned Braveheart). "Mel has walked the long, lonely streets of his own soul, and that has given him a depth and a strength."
In the vivid war drama, Gibson plays Lt. Col. Hal Moore, an accomplished military strategist who led the first American troops onto Vietnamese soil, unfortunately with horrific results. Moore and journalist Joseph Galloway cowrote the book on which the film is based, chronicling the brutal battle of Landing Zone X-Ray in November 1965.
"It's a great story, a true story -- and a great book," says Gibson about why he took on the role. "And then I met the guys. And they get in your heart with their stories. These are tough men who are incredibly compassionate, and they have big soft hearts. And they've been wounded, all of them, whether they took a slug or not. So it was heart-rending. I really sympathized with them."
Many of the real-life characters from the book were on hand before, during and after production for the film, including Moore, his wife, Julie (played by Stowe), Major Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear), Joseph Galloway (Barry Pepper), Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott) and Barbara Geoghegan Johns (Felicity's Keri Russell). The actors met with the men and women, which they said was both inspiring and daunting.
"I was really nervous," admits Gibson about playing Moore. "Because I had read his work. He is a very great guy."
But the 79-year-old Moore was more than pleased with Gibson's portrayal. "A superb performance. Not only did I see myself, but beyond that I saw a superb infantry battalion commander in battle -- his actions, his attitude, the look in his eyes, the tone of voice on the radio, his demeanor. He got it."
"Mel is a tremendous mimic," says Julie Moore of the actor who played her husband. "And with some of the trailers, my children have called up and said, 'Mom, that's Dad!' -- the glint in the eye, the jut of the chin and even his Kentucky accent," Mrs. Moore says fondly.
"I could see him studying me," adds the retired lieutenant colonel. "And he was memorizing me. He was memorizing my accent, my mannerisms."
Gibson has successfully shed the image in which he was cast early on -- as a sex symbol with meager acting talents. As the hugely popular actor ages, the iconic Mad Max and Lethal Weapon franchises of his career may begin to fade against his more ambitious dramatic roles in films such as We Were Soldiers, The Patriot, Hamlet and Braveheart -- as well as his extraordinary direction of that now-classic film.
"I've been a Mel Gibson fan for a long time, just like a lot of other people in this country and around the world. And he deserves every bit of success that he has," says Soldiers costar Elliott. "He's a good guy. He's a great actor. He maintains his family. He's smart. And he knows a lot about the moviemaking process. It all looks great from our perspective, but it's a tough load to shoulder."
Certainly Gibson is hardworking, and he is known for his devotion to family. Married to Robyn Moore since 1980 (they reportedly met through a dating service), together the couple has seven children -- sons Edward and Christian, who are twins; William, Louis, Milo and Tommy; and daughter Hannah. A practicing Catholic, Gibson and Col. Moore shared a few qualities that made their connection deeper.
"I'm a Catholic and Mel's a Catholic, and he's got seven kids; I've got five. Same girl all my life, same girl all his life," says Moore. "We share the same morals and beliefs. And the first thing we did was go to mass, in his chapel. And he served the mass, and the mass was in Latin, which is very unusual."
What is unusual about When We Were Soldiers is the effort to offer a perspective from the wives and families at home. And, in spite of the current patriotic climate, this film aims for gritty realism, not sensationalistic propaganda.
"That's what I liked about the book, the section on the wives," says Gibson. "It's just the wives and the children -- these people just talking, saying what it did to their lives. The family thing -- I've never seen that in war films, where they focus on that, the silent hell of the war going on at home."
In this respect, We Were Soldiers is a metaphor for all wars, a story of love and sacrifice and leadership. "There's a quote from Colonel Moore," relates Gibson, roughly paraphrasing a passage from the book. "He said, you're not fighting for your flag or mom or apple pie or your country or an ethic or an ideal or anything, you're slugging it out for each other. You are fighting for the guy next to you. So there's an unselfishness that defines heroism."
One can't help but consider that Gibson's own well-documented magnanimity is what so endears and elevates him among his colleagues, audiences and the film industry at large. But it is his ability to identify with the common man that makes him such an uncommon performer.
"People who would hate each other on the street, love each other on the battlefield -- because they have to," says the actor. "And that's about the best thing you can say about war. If people behaved like that in their normal life, there probably wouldn't be any more wars. Whatever you think of the Vietnam conflict -- the political football, the statistics war -- whatever you think of it, doesn't change the fact that ordinary men and women had to go and deal with it."