February 04, 1985 12:00 PM

There is scarcely any superlative that hasn’t been lavished on Mel Gibson. The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael calls him “passionate, shrewd, relentless.” Gillian Armstrong, who directed Mel and Diane Keaton in Mrs. Soffel, says he’s “intelligent, sensitive, magnetic.” Director Mark Rydell, who paired him with Sissy Spacek in The River, predicts that the 29-year-old Aussie will be “the star of the ’80s.” And Sigourney Weaver, his lover in 1983’s The Year of Living Dangerously, has pronounced Mel “the most gorgeous man I’ve ever met.”

Never mind that in the last year Gibson has had leading roles in three major films (not including Mad Max III, a Road Warrior sequel which wrapped in December). Never mind that any part he wants is practically his for the asking. Never mind that he has become synonymous with a kind of elemental-but-urbane sexuality that turns thinking women into ninnies, or that he commands a reported $1 million plus per picture. The putative star of the decade detests being a public figure, and he would just as soon skip the encomiums. At the crest of his career, he plans to spend the coming year in hibernation, working on a project he won’t discuss. He’ll take refuge with his wife and four kids in their house by the sea, and won’t reenter the fray until, as he’s put it, “I get hungry again.”

Slumped and sullen, the reluctant sex symbol is sitting on the set of Mad Max III, smoking incessantly and working on a six-pack smuggled in by a friend. It has not been a good day. The hot, filthy set in this shabby Sydney suburb teems with extras in antic rags and pulses with the stench of swine imported to augment the squalor. Like its predecessors Max III (directed by Mel’s pal George Miller) is set in a brutal postnuclear future, and it features Gibson as a scurvy road warrior vigilante in leather and sweat. The role has called for him to trudge through blazing sand dunes into a pair of wind machines, and he is distinctly unhappy about it all. “I don’t want to be doing this interview,” he pouts, affecting the air of an injured adolescent. “I don’t even want to be making this film. It’s just a piece of shit. Don’t print that.”

Between takes with co-star Tina Turner (who plays an evil schemer called Auntie Entity), Gibson isolates himself from his confreres. Sitting on a wooden box, he spits into the sand and exudes hostility. His sporadic efforts at small talk take the form of gauche jokes. They fail miserably and he knows it. “I have a very bad habit of saying embarrassing, goofy things. The next day, I could kill myself,” he will say later.

“In L.A. actors and directors are very…defensive, so I try to be funny. They don’t appreciate it one bit. I’m only trying to put them at ease,” he says truculently, “because I’m freaking out as well.”

While Gibson hardly seems a candidate for a padded cell, the fame that settled on him with the success of 1981 ‘s Gillipoli (in which he played a WW I Aussie soldier) seems to be extracting its toll. “It’s all happening too fast,” he has complained. “I’ve got to put the brakes on or I’ll smack into something.” Indeed. He was arrested for driving drunk while Mrs. Soffel was on location in Toronto last May, and he looked distinctly unfocused at last year’s Academy Award ceremonies. Gibson comes across as a man acutely uncomfortable in his own skin. In a recent encounter with an Australian reporter, he alternately tap-danced, mumbled and offered to throw himself on the floor so the woman reporter could walk on him. “Despite my appearance and my inability to come up with verbal communication,” he informed her, “I’m pretty———smart about the [projects] I pick….Tell me if I’m [creepy]. You’re right. I am. Print it.”

The fact that she did “print it” made Mel furious. “If she discredited a 5-year-old mongoloid it wouldn’t mean a lot,” he reasoned with typical ingenuousness. “But if she discredits me and I have an image with the public, that’s real underhanded.”

Being a star, explains Mr. Melaprop, means being “a target….It’s as if you have your pants down around your ankles and your hands tied behind your back…so here is a good opportunity for some parasite to come up and throw darts in your chest. Freedom of the press,” he snorts, lobbing an expressive glob of spittle into the sand.

To hear Mel tell it, he always has been at odds with his surroundings. The sixth of Hutton and Anne Gibson’s 11 children, he was born in Peekskill, N.Y. where the family lived until he was 5. Hutton, a railroad brakeman on the New York Central, was a Roman Catholic who pounded the Ten Commandments into his progeny. When the family moved farther upstate in 1961, Mel found himself “on the outside [because] we lived in a section where they were all a different religion from us.” Injured on the job when Mel was 12, Hutton used his insurance settlement to transplant his clan to Australia, where his mother (an opera singer) was born and where his six sons would be immune from the Vietnam-era draft.

“I had a fairly rough time of it,” Gibson has said of the transition. “The kids made fun of me and called me ‘Yank.’ ” Adopting a Scottish burr to flaunt his foreignness, Mel grew into a chip-on-the-shoulder loner. The Catholic high school he attended was “kind of weird,” in his words. Boys were required to wear boaters with their uniforms, and discipline took the form of vigorous beatings. “I really rebelled.”

The movies were a welcome escape, but he wasn’t bent on becoming public property. Early on he had harbored fantasies of going into journalism. During high school he worked in a bottling factory mixing “all kinds of crap” into orange juice and decided that industrial alchemy might be his calling. It wasn’t until one of his sisters fortuitously applied for him to the National Institute of Dramatic Art that he drifted into acting. Anne and Hutton (who was helping support the family as a contestant on TV game shows) mounted no objections (“They were culturally minded,” Mel reports) and Gibson himself had no alternative agenda. Acting was “one of those things I was in training for before I knew I wanted to do it,” he says now.

Although Mel was in no hurry to make his mark (“I didn’t really give a hoot when I went on audition. I thought, ‘What’s the rush,’ you know?”), success seized him by the scruff of the neck. His first film role—as a beach bum in a “cheap, nasty flick” called Summer City—came along while he was still in drama school. The role required only that he “surf and act dumb, which was all I could handle,” he remembers. Friends claim that he preferred to play eccentrics, but casting directors were quick to type the supernally handsome youth as a romantic lead.

In 1976 he was cast opposite Judy (A Passage to India) Davis in a NIDA production of Romeo and Juliet. While he impressed tutor Richard Wherrett as “a star in the making,” he proved a social disaster offstage. “He was very shy,” Wherrett says. “After their first rehearsal, I took the cast for a ‘get to know you’ drink. We sat down at the bar with our schooners of beer, and Mel, who was terribly nervous, knocked his all over me. I was saturated and he was mortified.”

The pace quickened when he graduated, and Mel the Unready found himself cast as the lead in 1979’s Mad Max after answering a cattle call. Though he had only a handful of lines in the film (a $300,000 production that eventually grossed $100 million), he exhibited the galvanizing screen presence that would help him prevail in indifferent films like Tim—a 1979 Australian effort in which he played a retarded handyman—and The Bounty (released last year to a round of boos from critics).

Since 1981, when Gallipoli brought stardom, the bashful, defensive Gibson has found himself squirming in the limelight, batting away questions about preferences in music (classical) vital statistics (5’10”, 160 pounds) and favorite foods (hot curries). While he can wax comparatively eloquent on selected topics (the Catholic church, he says, “is not what it used to be”), he seems stumped by questions that call for any degree of introspection. Asked whether he was happy with his performance in The Bounty, he rambles, “Yeah, well, you know, I mean, Jeez, you’re never all the way happy with what you do, but I wouldn’t change it because I did it…know what I mean?”

But the man who can be his own worst enemy has stumbled not only over his own words, but on his image as well. Women have been known to go half-mad at the sight of him, and he is clearly uncomfortable with the notion of being a sex object. Last year a New York studio publicist brought Mel, unannounced, to an informal gathering in a friend’s Greenwich Village apartment. Within 20 minutes Mel was surrounded by a thicket of otherwise dignified urbanites who had deserted their male companions to gaze into his azure eyes. Looking like a rabbit cornered by a pack of hounds, Gibson promptly fled. But he cannot always escape the Melomania. Even in Australia, where his devotees are less aggressive, he has been forced to drop out of plays due to the rain of flashbulbs interrupting his performance.

If there is anywhere that Gibson seems at ease, it is in the embrace of his family. He married Robyn Moore, 28, a onetime nurse’s aide, five years ago. Their daughter Hannah, now 5, was born while he was on location in Egypt for Gallipoli; listening on the phone as Robyn gave birth in Sydney, Mel cried. Robyn has been called Mel’s “Rock of Gibraltar.” Says Mel dryly, “She’s prettier than that.” Although Robyn and their expanded brood (including twins Edward and Christian, 2½, and Will, 7 months) often travel with Mel (“I say, ‘Come with me, come with me’ “), their life together centers on their sprawling beachside retreat—a converted boardinghouse whose loo doors are still marked His and Hers—in the Sydney suburb of Coogee. The inner walls have been gutted. “It’s like a football field, where the kids just run up and down,” Mel says with a gesture of mock despair.

During his sabbaticals there, Gibson “sleeps and changes nappies” or takes the family on picnic expeditions to the beach. More than that, he will not say. Reluctant to discuss his kids, he explains, “I’ve got a red light that goes on inside me….I don’t even like to say I go to the beach. If you don’t say what you are doing, nobody knows where you’re coming from. I don’t have hobbies or anything apart from what’s up there [pointing to an imaginary screen]. It works better that way.”

Perhaps. But the world is hungry for heroes, and no one knows it better than this unwilling Adonis. Lunchtime on the Mad Max set is over, and he is due for another round of abuse. Rising from a table littered with the remains of his poached-trout repast, he shoves his hands into the black leather folds of his costume and says resignedly, “It’s time to cast my pearls before the swine.” And then the sexiest man alive slouches away, alone.