From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
It was the day before Halloween, and Mel Gibson was nervous. He was pacing, chattering nonstop—not unusual for the famously frenetic actor. But there was something more intense about the way he worked his cell phone that morning on the New York set of his upcoming film The Beaver, directed by his pal Jodie Foster. After Gibson finished shooting, he raced to the airport for a flight home to L.A. "We found out later that his girlfriend was in labor" almost a month early, says a set source. "He was flying to be with her." When he returned four days later, Foster led the crew in a round of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." Gibson, says the source, "was genuinely touched."

Leave it to Gibson to have the nerves of a first-time dad when it's his eighth time around. But then the circumstances leading up to the birth of his daughter Lucia, now 4 months, weren't exactly typical: In April Robyn, Gibson's wife of 30 years and mother of his seven other children, filed for divorce; the next month, news broke that his girlfriend, Russian singer Oksana Grigorieva, was pregnant. Still, for Gibson, who has revved up his acting career for the first time since his infamous 2006 drunk-driving arrest, becoming a dad again at 54 has been a source of joy—and a second chance. "He's happy [the divorce filing] is behind him," says a pal. "Mel is in a really good place now."

Maintaining smooth relationships with his older children—Hannah, 29; twins Edward and Christian, 27; William, 25; Louis, 22; Milo, 20; and Thomas, 10—hasn't always been easy, says a family source: "The kids are realizing that Mel caused their mother lots of pain over the years." But that hasn't stopped them from supporting their father, frequently visiting their new half sister and showing up Jan. 26 to the Hollywood premiere of Gibson's new thriller Edge of Darkness. "They partied with Mel and Oksana and laughed a lot," says a friend. As for Robyn, 53, "She's still very bitter," says the family source (see box).

Meanwhile Gibson has been quietly building a life with Grigorieva and Lucia in one of his Malibu homes. He dotes on the baby girl. "He just loves to have kids around," says Darkness producer Graham King. (When challenged on an L.A. radio show Feb. 1, Gibson changed a baby's diaper in under a minute.) The actor took a major step toward blending his new family with his old life in December when he brought Grigorieva and Lucia for the first time to a service at the Holy Family Chapel, the traditionalist Catholic church he founded. (Most of the seats were empty: Gibson required congregants to apply for admission a few weeks earlier and denied admittance to many.)

Not that all's mellow in Mel's world: He recently made headlines when he appeared to call a TV interviewer an unprintable word (Gibson's publicist says the insult was instead playfully directed at him). "I have a short fuse," Gibson told French journalists on Feb. 3. "I'm trying to work on it." Even more significantly, he has vowed to quit the smoking habit that has gripped him since he first took a puff at age 9. "It's been torture," he says. His reasons, though, are simple: "I have a 3-month-old daughter," Gibson told Jay Leno last month, "and I want to play tennis with her."

  • Contributors:
  • With Pearl Barraclough/Los Angeles,
  • Elizabeth Leonard/Los Angeles.