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To the crowd at Moonshadows bar in Malibu, Mel Gibson seemed a genial sort of drunk, the life of the party who topped off patrons' drinks, vodka bottle in hand, posed for cell phone pictures and even doled out playful hugs and kisses to fellow patrons. "He wasn't falling down drunk, but the kind of tipsy where you just want to love everyone," says one guest who partied with the middle-aged movie star on the night of July 27. "You look really good for a 50-year-old guy," she recalls someone telling Gibson. "He said, 'Thanks. I try to take care of myself. I quit smoking last week.' Then he looked at the bottle of beer he was holding and said, 'But this I just can't quit.' He was smiling when he said it—but it was a sad sort of smile."

A few hours later, the habit Gibson couldn't kick kicked him hard. At around 2 a.m., says another witness who came with a group of friends, "the five of us and a bouncer were walking out with [Mel]. I kept grabbing for his keys. My coworker offered him a ride. I don't know what his reaction was to it. Then we left."

So did Gibson, in his 2006 Lexus. By 2:15 the Oscar-winning actor and director had been pulled over—with a bottle of tequila within reach—going 87 mph in a 45-mph zone on a coastal highway. A belligerent Gibson (whose blood-alcohol level was found to be .12, 50 percent over the legal limit) threatened L.A. County sheriff's deputy James Mee, and launched into a bizarre tirade. "F—— Jews," Gibson told Mee, who is Jewish. "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?"

The following evening, those words had hit the media—and the career of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood had imploded. The L.A. sheriff's department is now probing whether Mee was pressured by higher-ups, some of whom know Gibson as a donor to the department's fallen-officer fund, to omit details from his report (four key pages of the document were leaked). Prominent members of the entertainment and Jewish communities have denounced the remarks, among them powerful agent Ari Emanuel, who urged his peers to "professionally shun" Gibson, and Barbara Walters, who announced on The View that she would no longer see his films. Gibson, who weathered charges of anti-Semitism after the release of his 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ, entered an alcohol-treatment program and issued not one but two apologies. "I acted like a person completely out of control ... and said things I do not believe to be true and which are despicable," he said in the first apology. "I am deeply ashamed."

That may not be enough. While Gibson publicly thanked Mee for "probably saving me from myself" and issued a plea to meet with Jewish leaders for a "discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing," through his spokesman Alan Nierob, who is the son of Holocaust survivors, not everyone who heard his appeal was in a forgiving mood.

"His career is over," says one entertainment executive. "He's going to become toxic." Gibson's production company has been dropped by ABC from a planned miniseries about Dutch Jews during World War II, and the commercial fate of Gibson's next film, Apocalypto—an epic about the ancient Maya people filmed entirely in their language, which is slated for release in December—remains uncertain. But the biggest questions surround Gibson himself and the demons that seem to have consumed him.

Friends of all faiths say Gibson is a good man, loving father and devoted husband with a blind spot: an addiction to alcohol that, by his own admission, has brought him to the brink of suicide. Asked by Diane Sawyer in 2004 if he seriously contemplated ending his life, Gibson said, "I really did.... You have to be insane to despair in that way." Anchored by faith and family (he has seven children with Robyn, 50, his wife of 26 years), Gibson appeared to have reined in his drinking in recent years. At a 2001 Oscar party, says L.A. acting coach Ivana Chubbuck, Gibson seemed "intent on being sober and was helping others stay sober."

But in recent weeks a different Gibson emerged. After a grueling nine-month shoot in Veracruz, Mexico, for Apocalypto, Gibson told friends he had finally kicked cigarettes. "He was cleansing his body," says a friend. However, Gibson was also drinking again, visiting Moonshadows more than once. And the more he drank, says the friend, the more self-destructive he became: "Something snapped—I would say he had a death wish." But at least some in Malibu say the star had never really dried out in the first place. "This doesn't surprise around here," says a longtime resident. "This is Mel. If you are looking for a story about this being an example of him suddenly spinning out of control, you aren't going to find it. Maybe this will finally knock him off his pedestal and force him to look at himself."

Gibson will have time to reflect during treatment. But outside, even friends are wondering, was his outburst the drink talking, or the real Mel? "I know Mel," says Tom Sherak, a film exec who worked on the distribution of Gibson's Braveheart. "I've not heard him say [anything anti-Semitic]. Those things in his head—which we all find very offensive, especially those of us who are Jewish—I don't see portrayed when I'm around him."

The sixth of the 11 children of Hutton Gibson, now 87, and Ann Reilly Gibson (who died in 1990), Gibson has always lived a life of contradiction. Raised in upstate New York until the age of 12, he and the rest of his family moved to Australia in 1968 so that the sons in the family could avoid the Vietnam draft. There, life was defined by an ultraconservative brand of Catholicism embraced by Hutton, a former railroad brakeman, in reaction to the 1962-65 reforms of Vatican II. The self-published author of three books critical of the contemporary church, Hutton Gibson, who now lives in West Virginia, has denied the Holocaust, telling a New York Times reporter: "Go ask ... a guy who operates a crematorium what it takes to get rid of a body. Now, 6 million?" Mel Gibson has denied he shares such views but refuses to rebuke his father publicly, citing their close relationship.

One thing he has been far more outspoken about is his battle with alcohol, which dates back to his Australian youth. Gibson's early Hollywood career was marked by enormous success—and drunken binges. On the set of the 1984 movie The Bounty, Gibson reportedly feuded with Anthony Hopkins because his costar, a recovering alcoholic, did not drink. Also that year, he was arrested for driving drunk in Toronto, and his drinking once prompted an intervention from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome costar Tina Turner, who sent Gibson a photograph of himself with the message "Don't F— This Up."

The tough talk—and a few long stints in rehab—helped for a while. But Gibson has said his marriage and return to the Church got him to turn a corner. "The real medal goes to my wife, who's a wonderful woman," he told Sawyer in '04. During his recent Apocalypto shoot in Mexico, "Mel came home on the weekends, Robyn visited him," says a friend. The recent controversy hasn't changed that. "She's as supportive a wife as you'll see. His marriage is as strong as ever."

Despite her support, there were moments, Gibson told The New Yorker in 2003, "when you get to that point where you don't want to live and you don't want to die—it's a desperate, horrible place to be." In that instant, Gibson, alone, raised himself up, using his faith. "I just hit my knees. And I had to use the Passion of Christ and [His] wounds to heal my wounds. And I've just been meditating on it for 12 years." That moment of healing led to Gibson's commitment to put the Passion on film—a movie some critics saw as blaming Jews for Christ's crucifixion even as it took in more than $600 million worldwide from a grateful, mostly Christian audience.

Since then, Gibson has thrown himself into his next project—an admittedly esoteric movie about a Mayan warrior hero with a Native American cast. While in Veracruz, "the weather was often pretty bad, oppressive and raining, so Mel would get upset a lot," says actor Mauricio Amuy. "He'd be screaming at the cast." Two actors contend that Gibson sometimes launched into long discussions of his religious beliefs. "He sometimes started talking about how the Jews were at fault for the killing of Jesus," says Amuy. "I got the feeling he didn't like Jews." (Nierob, Gibson's rep, says that the actors misinterpreted Gibson and that Amuy was on-set for only three days.)

That comes as a surprise to friends—many of them Jewish—in California, who describe him as a good man who would pull over if your car broke down, as a strict but devoted father who has raised seven decent children, and as an irrepressible on-set joker who knows just the right moment to pull out the clown nose while filming Christ being flayed by the Romans.

"He was very excited about his [new] film," says longtime friend, Hollywood producer Dean Devlin, who saw Gibson the day of his arrest. "I recently had a baby, and he was going on about how great it is to have kids, how it changed his life." There was no sign Gibson had been drinking again. Says Devlin: "He must be going through hell."

It may be only the beginning. But if Gibson is convicted of DUI after leaving rehab, it's unlikely he'll get any jail time. "Malibu is not the toughest of courts," says Lawrence Taylor, an L.A. attorney who specializes in drunk-driving cases. "He'll probably get DUI school for a few months and be on probation for about three years. Legally, his alleged comments are irrelevant—a judge will likely not take that into consideration."

The damage to his career may take far longer to repair. "People are capable of horrors, of atrocities. We're also capable of wonderful things, of good things," Gibson told ABC in '04. "I'm somewhere between Howard Stern and St. Francis of Assisi on the scale of morality." Now those close to him are trying to help Gibson be the man he wants to be. "I like that he apologized," says old friend Tom Sherak. "And now he has to mean it."

  • Contributors:
  • Ron Arias/Los Angeles,
  • Johnny Dodd/Los Angeles,
  • Michael Fleeman/Los Angeles,
  • Maureen Harrington/Los Angeles,
  • Ken Lee/Los Angeles,
  • K.C. Baker/New York City,
  • Mary Green/New York City,
  • Michelle Tan/New York City,
  • Theresa Braine/Mexico City.