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CNN PEOPLE IN THE NEWS

Profiles of Billy Graham, Mel Gibson

Aired April 10, 2004 - 17:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


HOLLY FIRFER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Holly Firfer at the CNN headquarters in Atlanta. PEOPLE IN THE NEWS next, but first, here's what's happening at this hour. Al-Jazeera TV quotes an Islamic leader who said a 12-hour cease-fire in Fallujah will begin Sunday morning. Meanwhile President Bush vows Iraq will not be ruled by quote "A band of thugs." In his weekly radio address today, the President said efforts to derail democracy in the country will not force a delay in the handover of sovereignty set for June 30th.
The Arabic TV network al-Jazeera is reporting the three Japanese hostages in Iraq will be released within 24 hours. It says the decision was made in response to a call from the Islamic Institute, a Sunni organization, in Iraq.

And at least six people are dead, ten others injured after a propane tank explosion near the U.S./Mexican border. It happened in the Mexican town of Nuevo Progreso. The blast leveled two buildings and officials don't believe it was an act of terrorism.

More headlines in a half an hour. Now, PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BILLY GRAHAM, EVANGELIST: We found ourselves in a world dilemma.

ANNOUNCER: Next, on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS, for nearly seven decades he's spread the good word.

GRAHAM: God loves you. The great message about the love of god.

ANNOUNCER: He's befriended presidents and preached to more than 200 million people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When he looks you in the eye you feel like he's penetrating into your soul.

ANNOUNCER: But his experience in the halls of power has been touched by controversy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's been used, and he came to understand that.

ANNOUNCER: Even at the age of 85, he remains faithful to his mission.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's an authority and a respect that he demands.

ANNOUNCER: From North Carolina farm boy to legendary evangelist, the spiritual journey of Billy Graham.

Then, it's a film that has sparked religious controversy, "The Passion of The Christ," anti-Semitic? A religious masterpiece? Or just another movie?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's insulted all the Jewish people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is a deeply faithful film, and I think it's an attempt to be faithful to Christian scripture.

ANNOUNCER: And the man at the center of it all, an action star who has rediscovered his traditional faith.

MEL GIBSON, DIRECTOR AND ACTOR: I used "The Passion" as a meditation of healing myself.

ANNOUNCER: The actor and director put his money and career on the line with his controversial new film.

GIBSON: That's what art is, sort of throwing it all out there. And if the fur is not flying, you ain't doing nothing.

ANNOUNCER: The personal faith that drives "The Passion" of Mel Gibson. Their stories now on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PAULA ZAHN, HOST: Hi. Welcome to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Paula Zahn. The reverend Billy Graham has been called America's pastor; from presidents to parishioners he is the nation's leading spiritual voice and counselor. As Christians celebrate Easter, a look at the evangelist who has made faith his lifelong crusade. Here's Bruce Burkhardt.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GRAHAM: Lord have mercy upon the sinner.

BRUCE BURKHARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Look up evangelist in the dictionary, and you'll find the word comes from a Greek phrase, meaning "messenger of good news."

GRAHAM: God loves you. He receives you. He will put your name in the book of light.

BURKHARDT: For nearly seven decades, Billy Graham has traveled the world spreading the good word to the masses.

GRAHAM: This crowd has been brought together, I believe, by the spirit of God using all of us working together.

GEORGE BEVERLY SHEA, CRUSADE SOLOIST: His great message is about the love of God. He'll say, "As I leave this city, I want to you remember that god loves you!" You know, very effective. You feel it.

BURKHARDT: He's written 25 books, counseled world leaders, and spread his passion in person to well over 200 million people. Even at age 85, Billy Graham continues to pack stadiums with a loyal and growing flock. But long before he became a spiritual beacon, little Billy Frank Graham was, well, spirited.

WILLIAM MARTIN, BIOGRAPHER: I'm sure that if he had been brought up today, he'd have been diagnosed as hyperactive. They said he was always just running and zooming.

BURKHARDT: Born on a brisk November night in 1918, the future evangelist grew up on his parents' dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina. Billy Frank was the oldest of four kids, two boys and two girls. With a full house, Morrow and Frank Graham deftly reigned in their rambunctious son.

MARTIN: The first revival was Billy Sunday, the great evangelist of that time came through. But he was only five years old. And his father took him and said if you make any noise he'll call your name from the pulpit. And he was terrified.

BURKHARDT: It was a later call from the pulpit at a different crusade that would change Billy's life forever. At the urging of one of his father's dairy workers, 16-year-old Billy went to a revival put on by Mordecai Ham, an old school fire and brimstone evangelist. The three-month revival quickly became Billy's main nighttime activity for the autumn of '34.

CLIFF BARROWS, CRUSADE PROGRAM DIRECTOR: He got tired of Ham pointing his finger; he thought he was pointing at him all the time so he joined the choir to get away from him. But one night, when he gave the invitation, Billy went forward, and publicly made his commitment to Jesus Christ.

MARTIN: He didn't decide immediately he was going to be a preacher, but the idea of going to a strong, conservative bible college was appealing.

BURKHARDT: At 18, Billy headed off to Bob Jones College, a fundamentalist bible school, then located in Cleveland, Tennessee. The school's namesake imposed rigid standards.

MARTIN: The only dating that was allowed was a 15-minute visit, no touching, in a parlor with a chaperone.

BURKHARDT: Billy lasted barely a semester. During Christmas break he transferred to the Florida Bible Institute, an unaccredited Christian college near Tampa.

MARTIN: It was at Florida Bible Institute actually where he really became a preacher. One of the features of that school was that the big name revivalists would come there, and they would teach, give lectures.

BURKHARDT: After graduating in 1940, he was ordained a Baptist minister. His next move -- Wheaton College just outside of Chicago, to pursue a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE SPEAKER: While he was a student at Wheaton, he spoke at various churches, and it was quite evident that he was going to be quite a preacher.

GRAHAM: I believe that faith in god is a tremendous thing.

BURKHARDT: Billy Graham had found his calling, and late in his first semester, he also found a girlfriend, Ruth McCue Bell, daughter of medical missionaries, that spent the first 16 years of her life in China. In Ruth, Billy found a partner whose energy matched his own. The couple wed after graduating from Wheaton.

ANNE GRAHAM LOTZ, BILLY GRAHAM'S DAUGHTER: If my father lost his focus my mother would be right there to turn him back. And she's an incredible woman. You wouldn't have Billy Graham without Ruth Graham, and I know that.

BURKHARDT: In 1943, Billy took a job as pastor at the Western Springs Baptist Church near Chicago. He also began part of a Christian radio show called "Songs in the Night."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was 10:15 to 11:00 Sunday nights, and he spoke so wonderfully.

GRAHAM: I don't care who you are. Your intellect alone will never get you into heaven.

BURKHARDT: Billy was an evangelist at heart; he yearned to travel to spread the gospel to large crowds. After a year and a half at the church, Billy moved on to a new job with Youth for Christ.

MARTIN: The great advantage he got from Youth for Christ was that it introduced him to church leaders all over America.

GRAHAM: The word of god shall stand forever. You better come to Christ while you can.

BURKHARDT: Billy Graham was on a roll, setting up youth rallies around the country. His fast and furious sermons earned him the nickname "God's Machine Gun.

MARK NOLL, PROFESSOR OF CHRISTIAN HISTORY, WHEATON COLLEGE: He was hot. He was active in the pulpit. He was moving from side to side, and you knew what the Bible said when he said, "the Bible says."

BURKHARDT: Ahead on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS, spreading the word with sermons, songs, and a whole lot of media hype.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE SPEAKER: The tent was just crawling with reporters and photographers. And Billy didn't know what was going on. Announcer: we now return to "people in the news."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now, the war against Germany is won. BURKHARDT: In the mid-20th century, America was buoyant with post-war euphoria, but heavy with cold war fear, an ideal time for Billy Graham to take the world by storm.

GRAHAM: We find that people are more concerned with things than they are with the things of God.

BURKHARDT: Billy had a calling and there was no room for compromise.

GRAHAM: They're more concerned with pleasure, more concerned with money, more concerned with the things of life than they are the things of Almighty God.

BURKHARDT: In 1949, a group of Los Angeles Christians invited the fiery preacher to hold a revival.

SHEA: I just remember how excited we all were, and how the people came, and there was a huge tent. A canvas cathedral. We had a marvelous time. We were scheduled for a crusade to last for three weeks.

BURKHARDT: But the masses continued to flood in. The tent finally came down after eight rousing weeks of sermon and song.

CHARLES COLSON, FORMER NIXON AIDE: It was a phenomenon fueled by his preaching, fueled by the Holy Spirit, fueled by the need of the moment.

BURKHARDT: Graham's message hit a chord, but there was one other reason for the strong turnout, courtesy of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

MARTIN: One Saturday evening he came in and the tent was crawling with reporters and photographers and Billy didn't know what was going on, and a reporter said, "what's happening here," and a reporter showed him a piece of paper like something that had been torn off of a teletype machine or something and it had two words, "Puff Graham."

BURKHARDT: With the phrase "Puff Graham," Hearst was instructing reporters to sing Graham's praises. The resulting media coverage thrust the evangelist into a whole different orbit.

MARTIN: Just before the crusade started Russia had exploded an atomic bomb. So no longer was the United States the only atomic power. That was scary to people. Billy preached against communism, he preached a strong moral message.

NOLL: Billy graham was an anti-communist, I think, because so many Americans of his background, of his sort, of his religion were anti-communist. What was unusual is the fervor and the urgency with which he could combine his anti-communist principles as a support for the proclamation of the Christian gospel.

GRAHAM: Christians above all others should be concerned with social problems and social injustices.

BURKHARDT: As a spiritual leader, Graham believed he had God's blessing. As a preacher with a social agenda, he courted political figures, including the President of the United States.

MARTIN: He wrote letters imploring President Truman to send a word of greeting or to do something, to put the presidential seal on what he was doing.

BURKHARDT: In 1950, Billy Graham and three of his aides put on their Sunday best and met with President Truman at the White House. The conversation was brief. The President, good humored.

MARTIN: They started to leave and Billy said, "Could we have a word of prayer?" and the President said, "Well, I guess it can't hurt."

BURKHARDT: Afterwards, reporters mobbed the four visitors. Unaccustomed to White House protocol, Billy described every detail of the meeting. He even mentioned that they prayed with the President.

MARTIN: And the reporters said, "Well, would you pray again, right here for us?" And it's something we wouldn't do that now. We didn't do it for advertising purpose but we knelt there and prayed on the White House lawn.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And that picture was in the newspapers the next day, and it angered the president. When Billy Graham came back to hold a crusade in Washington, President Truman said, "I don't want to talk to him. He's just interested in publicity."

BURKHARDT: For Billy Graham that incident was a life lesson in the nuances of power. 1952, he urged General Eisenhower to run for president. When the general took office, Billy made himself available as an unofficial adviser.

MARTIN: He became rapidly a friendly voice, a friendly contact, and at least on a few occasions with Dwight Eisenhower, a friendly adviser on matters of state, as well as in matters of religion. That's also when he got to know the Vice President, Richard Nixon.

Billy graham became to be seen as the most famous preacher in America, and also as the spokesman for Evangelical Christianity.

BURKHARDT: By 195 4, the evangelical spokesman began to spread his message overseas, his first stop, Great Britain.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From that time, Graham begins to moderate his political opinions. He begins to be more cautious about what he says politically and about social events. He begins to sharpen the focus upon his Christian message, even as he takes it further and further abroad in the world.

GRAHAM: We've come here at the invitation of these churches to help lead you in a crusade to win into Jesus Christ, and to help promote the Kingdom of God in Britain. BURKHARDT: In the States, Billy spent a summer preaching in New York, Madison Square Garden to Yankee stadium, to Times Square, the meetings drew massive crowds, inviting criticism from his own fold.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There were conservative Protestants who wrote him off as a theological modernist. Graham has never been a theological modernist, but he has been willing to cooperate with a broad range of churches.

BURKHARDT: If Billy's ministry established Christian common ground...

GRAHAM: This is your hour with god.

BURKHARDT: ...it also kept the globetrotting preacher away from his most beloved congregation, his wife and their five children.

LOTZ: Being raised by a single parent and giving your father up when he spends more time with a secretary or a news reporter than he does with me, that hurts. He was our daddy, and we knew he preached and he went and served Jesus, so I was glad to let him go, because of that.

BURKHARDT: Ahead on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS, the seductive halls of power, and a controversial Oval Office conversation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president of the United States sitting behind that desk, and a certain awe goes with it, and even Billy Graham is influenced by that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: Welcome back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.

GRAHAM: The Old Testament looks forward to him. The New Testament looks back to him, but the center of the Scriptures is Christ.

BURKHARDT: By the early 1960s, Billy graham was a man in full, a servant of god, a man of the people and de facto chaplain for Washington's elite. At his first meeting with Lyndon Johnson, the two country boys bonded.

MARTIN: It was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting and it turned into five hours, and they traded stories and went swimming naked, and Billy said, they didn't have swimsuits. You just went as you were.

BURKHARDT: After President Johnson left office, Billy continued to frequent the White House. He'd visit the man he called his old Quaker friend. Graham actively supported Richard Nixon in his earlier presidential race against John Kennedy. But where the evangelist saw friendship, President Nixon saw political cache.

MARTIN: There are White House notes, memoranda, where it's clear they were using him in any way to bring support, his people. He was being used and he came to understand that, and that changed his relationship. He drew away from politics.

BURKHARDT: Relations with future administrations would be different, less political, more pastoral. Billy Graham set up a cautious space between his ministry and the Oval Office, all the while reaching out to bridge other divides.

NOLL: From the mid '60s and on to the 1970s, Graham became interested in preaching behind what was then called the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Of course, there had to be a lot of bureaucracy to go through. One of the layers of bureaucracy was in the Catholic Church itself, by that time, one of the key players in that Catholic bureaucracy was Karol Wojtyla who later was chosen as Pope John Paul II.

GRAHAM: From the first time I ever saw him and seen him several times, talked with him, he put his hand on mine, and he said, "We are brothers."

COLSON: He's reached out across the confessional divides. He took a lot of heat when he did it but he's right to do it and many of us have followed that lead.

BURKHARDT: In 1982, the evangelist accepted an invitation to Moscow to speak at a state-sponsored summit of religious leaders. Critics said the Kremlin sanctioned the event and invited Graham simply to provide grist for Soviet propaganda.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't believe you could get Billy Graham to do something that he didn't believe was what God wanted. I think Billy takes the kind of punishment he gets and criticism he gets in stride.

GRAHAM: God said, "If you break my moral law you're going to suffer and die."

BURKHARDT: In the late '80s and early '90s, he preached in Communist China and even in North Korea twice.

GRAHAM: God loves you.

BURKHARDT: All the while, Billy Graham kept up a vigorous presence at home.

GRAHAM: Shall we pray?

MARTIN: Before launching the first Gulf War, President Bush at the time invited Billy Graham to the White House and then asked him to lead a prayer service the next day with the army brass.

BURKHARDT: Three days after the September 11 attacks, the second President Bush called on graham to speak at the National Cathedral.

GRAHAM: We especially come together in this service to confess our need of God.

BURKHARDT: Graham provided soothing words of unity at the interfaith service, but months later, the evangelist's past rapport with President Nixon would come back to haunt him. In 2002 the National Archives released a taped Oval Office conversation laced with anti-Semitic slurs where President Nixon ranted about what he saw as Jewish media control, Graham joined in.

(BEGIN AUDIOTAPE)

GRAHAM: This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain.

NIXON: You believe that?

GRAHAM: Yes, sir.

NIXON: Oh boy. I can't ever say that, but I believe it.

GRAHAM: No. But if you get elected a second time, we might be able to do something.

(END AUDIOTAPE)

COLSON: I've been in those meetings. Nixon was a very dominant personality. He could do those and he's the President of the United States sitting behind that desk, and a certain awe goes with it, and even Billy Graham is influenced by that.

BURKHARDT: Graham's comments sparked outrage. Jewish leaders expressed horror that a role model with high access would tolerate, let alone actually make such statements.

MARTIN: And he shouldn't have gone along with it, but it was much more a statement against a liberal politics and what they saw at anti-patriotic and the decline of popular culture, but he did implicate Jews involved in that.

BURKHARDT: In a written apology, Billy claimed no recollection of the exchange, and said the recording did not reflect his true views. Despite the controversy, Billy received enduring support, especially from ministry insiders who had been with the evangelist all along.

MARTIN: Those people stayed with him 25, 40, 50 years.

BURKHARDT: After six decades in the pulpit, Billy Graham can still captivate audiences, but age is starting to take a toll.

GRAHAM: Excuse me, I am going to sit down. I apologize.

BURKHARDT: The evangelist has dealt with a host of health difficulties. 15 years ago Billy developed Parkinson's disease. He's suffered digestive problems and recently broke his hip.

LOTZ: As my father has grown older and had the health difficulties he's not been as energetic in the pulpit.

BURKHARDT: Over the past years Billy's son, Franklin has taken administrative control of the ministry. When the time comes, he'll take his father's place on the platform.

FRANKLIN GRAHAM, BILLY GRAHAM'S SON: It's a privilege to be able to welcome to the platform tonight. Daddy?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Billy is such a universally esteemed figure, known in America worldwide, so I can easily understand how the presidents over the years have wanted Billy to pray with him, to talk to them.

BURKHARDT: Today, Billy Graham can reflect on all the sermons he's preached, all the lives he's touched. He's a man who stayed true to his message of faith, hope and love.

LOTZ: He's never forgotten his upbringing, never forgotten who he is, and there's a beautiful humility about him that I think is a hallmark of someone who truly walks with God.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: Though is he still recovering from a broken hip, Billy Graham plans to lead two crusades this summer, one in Kansas City, another in Los Angeles.

ANNOUNCER: When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS returns, the risky movie that's paid off for Mel Gibson.

MEL GIBSON, ACTOR AND DIRECTOR: This film actually blames humanity on the death of Jesus.

ANNOUNCER: Why one of Hollywood's biggest stars puts his faith on the line. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FIRFER: Hello. I'm Holly Firfer at the CNN headquarters in Atlanta. More PEOPLE IN THE NEWS in a moment. But first, these headlines.

Across Iraq an Islamic leader tells al-Jazeera TV a 12-hour cease-fire in Fallujah is scheduled to begin Sunday morning. This comes as marines try to maintain a shaky truce there, but are reportedly still taking fire from insurgents. Meanwhile, U.S. troops have punched through the city of Kut.

An Arabic network station reports three Japanese who were kidnapped in Iraq this week will be released within 24 hours. Al- Jazeera says the decision follows a call from the Islamic Institute, a Sunni organization in Iraq. The three hostages include a journalist, a nongovernmental organization worker and an aide worker.

And a man believed to be an American hostage is being shown on al-Jazeera and Australian TV. The man sitting in the back seat of a car told reporters his convoy had been attacked. Hostage takers say they'll treat him harshly if American troops do not leave Fallujah. Those are the headlines. PEOPLE IN THE NEWS profiles Mel Gibson and Billy Graham and resumes right now. ZAHN: Welcome back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. Mel Gibson's blockbuster, the "Passion of the Christ" is certainly stirring a lot of emotion and a lot of excitement at the box office. It is now the biggest independent film ever and as of Easter weekend it has made more than $330 million in the U.S. alone. For Gibson, what began as a huge risk has become an unimaginable success. The crowning achievement for an actor and filmmaker who likes to go his own way. Here's Sharon Collins.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

SHARON COLLINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For two decades, Mel Gibson has defined the word superstar. He's the sexiest man alive. An Academy Award winning director and producer. An actor whose films have taken in billions at the box office.

GIBSON: I feel like a hundred bucks.

LEAH ROZEN, FILM CRITIC, PEOPLE MAGAZINE: He is an actor with a lot of range but no matter what role he's playing, you like the guy.

COLLINS: From "Mad Max" to "Maverick."

GIBSON: Do you really want to jump? Do you want to?

COLLINS: "Lethal Weapon" to "Braveheart." He's "What Women Want."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I wanted him.

COLLINS: And what men want to be.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're like a genius. You know that?

GIBSON: What can I tell you, buddy? I'm blessed.

COLLINS: But there's more to Gibson than Hollywood fame. He's married with seven children and a conservative Catholic out of the mainstream.

GIBSON: I probably sound like some egotist saying the Roman church is wrong but I believe it is, at the moment, since Vatican II.

COLLINS: Gibson's faith is on full display in his latest film. "The Passion of the Christ" is Gibson's retelling of the last 12 hours of Jesus' life. It's been surrounded by controversy, most notably over how Gibson portrays Jews and their involvement in the crucifixion of Christ.

RABBI MARVIN HIER, SIMON WIESENTHAL CENTER: He is a person that is highly regarded as an actor and as a director. But in this area, he's crossed the line. He's insulted all of the Jewish people. Jews who watch this film will be horrified.

MICHAEL MEDVED, FILM CRITIC: This movie is not Auschwitz. We have real dangers and enemies in the world as Jews. Mel Gibson isn't one of them.

COLLINS: "The Passion of the Christ" received mixed reviews upon his release, with many critics focusing on the extreme violence in the film.

JIM CAVIEZEL, ACTOR, "THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST": Many look at this and say this is gratuitous violence. But we don't see it that way. It's a sacrifice. The greatest sacrifice.

COLLINS: Audiences have flocked to the movie. It's grossed over $300 million. Gibson told the Roman Catholic Network Eternal Word Television it's a controversial subject he had to tackle

GIBSON: Because I'm passionate about it, and because that's what art is, and that's what making art is about. It's about sort of throwing it all out there. I think--and if the fur is not flying, you ain't doing nothing.

COLLINS: A creed Gibson has lived by his entire life. Mel Gibson is known as one of Australia's most famous exports. But he was born in upstate New York.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His father was a railroad man and the family fell on incredibly hard times, when his father had an injury. But the saving grace for the family came in 1968, when Hutton Gibson, who was very, very smart won $25,000 on "Jeopardy."

COLLINS: The windfall helped Gibson's father move the family to Australia when Mel was 12, in part so his sons would avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. The children were brought up as strict Catholics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mel in his life has been heavily influenced by his father. His father was very unhappy with what he considered the modernization of the Catholic Church in the 1960s. So Mel has now, after a few wild years, embraced the same kind of very, very conservative Catholicism that his father believed in.

COLLINS: Gibson considered joining the priesthood as a youth, but instead found his way into acting. He attended Australia's National Institute Of Dramatic Art after his sister sent in an application.

GIBSON: She just wanted to get me out of the house.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did she really?

COLLINS: In 1979, 23-year-old Mel Gibson landed the lead in the Australian action film "Mad Max." The film was not a huge box office hit. However, the sequel, "The Road Warrior," was.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mel Gibson was just totally cool in "Road Warrior."

GIBSON: You want to get out of here? You talk to me. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was obviously the sort of fabulous, tough guy with a little bit of a kind of sneering sense of humor and it proved a real potent combination.

COLLINS: In 1985, "People" magazine named Gibson its first Sexiest Man Alive.

GIBSON: The Sexiest Man Alive. Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What did you think?

GIBSON: Well, it's true, of course. And, I was just very relieved to read that I wasn't the sexiest man dead.

COLLINS: He may have been sexy, but he wasn't available. In 1980, he married Robin Moore, a nurse.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of the ways Mel shows her respect is by not talking about her. He'll talk about changing the baby's diapers and being a dad and all of that stuff but he really respects her right to privacy.

COLLINS: But in the mid 1980s, Gibson was also known as Mad Mel with a reputation for drinking and causing trouble. While filming the movie, "The Bounty," Gibson was involved a bar fight forcing the director to temporarily shoot Gibson from one side. And in 1984, he was arrested for drunken driving while filming "Mrs. Soffell" in Toronto.

JESS CAGLE, SENIOR EDITOR, "PEOPLE" MAGAZINE: These days, all you read about is Mel is such a Catholic; Mel is making a movie about Christ, etcetera. But it was not that long ago when Mel's reputation was really, you know, despite the wife and children, a guy who really liked to go out and tie one on. And that's what he was known for.

COLLINS: In 1985, after making four films in little more than a year, Gibson realized he needed a break.

GIBSON: I wasn't channeling the energy properly. It was too much in the race and I didn't have enough Petrol, but I was going for the finish line anyway. And I think you just got to make a pit stop every now and then. Don't you love these crappy analogies?

Come on, you got to get up and catch bad guys.

COLLINS: After a year off in Australia, Gibson returned to Hollywood with a bang, in the movie "Lethal Weapon."

GIBSON: He's got a gun.

COLLINS: The film became the biggest hit of his young career. Mel Gibson was a full-fledged star.

GIBSON: There's no way to prepare for it. I think you do yourself a disservice by trying to sort of rail out against it because you're only doing damage to yourself. You might as well lay back and enjoy it.

COLLINS: When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues, Mel meets Oscar.

GIBSON: Yes, this is a pretty cool night. As experiences go, it's better than an appendectomy.

COLLINS: And later, Gibson's passion ignites controversy.

GIBSON: He's an anti-Semite. He's an anti-Semite. He's an anti-Semite. He's an anti-Semite, but I'm not. But they like to say that in the newspapers.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: We now return to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.

GIBSON: It's surprising you haven't heard about me, you know, because I got a bad reputation. I mean sometimes I just go nuts like now.

COLLINS: In 1989, Mel Gibson proved once again he was an explosive force at the box office. "Lethal Weapon II" was a bigger hit than the original and the four-part series would take in nearly a billion dollars worldwide.

ROZEN: "Lethal Weapon" made Mel Gibson an international box office star. I mean it made him huge. It showed he could really -- in action pictures, he could do it. He could be romantic. It also showed that he could really do the sense of humor thing.

GIBSON: And we're bad. You're black. I'm mad.

COLLINS: Gibson is known for making it fun on the set, pulling pranks such as putting a frozen rat in Julia Robert's trailer when they made the movie, "Conspiracy Theory."

JULIA ROBERTS, ACTRESS: More than once that day.

GIBSON: No, it was the same one, but several times. It was a recycled rat.

ROBERTS: I kept hiding it and he kept finding it and giving it back to me in different ways.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mel Gibson!

COLLINS: Gibson's career was white hot. But off screen, his party boy image was starting to cool down. Gibson had gotten the nickname, Mad Mel, in the 1980s due in large part to his drinking. That rowdy reputation would change when his wife pressured him to stop.

CAGLE: When Mel decided to change his life, and quit drinking, that is when he really went back to the Catholicism of his youth. And I think that that spirituality is what has filled him up once the alcohol stopped filling him up.

COLLINS: Gibson has never been known for his political correctness and his choice of words has gotten him into trouble. In 1991, he made comments about homosexuals to the Spanish newspaper, "El Pais," which offended gay groups. Gibson later said his quotes were misinterpreted. And in the 1995 "Playboy" interview, he raised eyebrows when he expressed his belief in creationism, his dislike of feminists and expounded on conspiracy theories, involving Rhodes scholars, several presidents and the Federal Reserve.

CAGLE: Mel has stirred up some controversy before. He said some dumb things like, you know, a seemingly homophobic remark at one point, which he regrets. But in general he doesn't mind a fight.

COLLINS: Gibson risked more criticism when he began branching out his career. In 1990, he left behind the big budget action flicks and tried his hand at Shakespeare, tackling the role of hamlet.

GIBSON: To be or not to be, that is the question.

ROZEN: It wasn't an entirely successful Hamlet but he was impressive in the role. I mean, you didn't go, whoa, is that embarrassing? What was he thinking? You said, worthwhile interpretation.

COLLINS: Gibson also went behind the camera. He made his directorial debut in "The Man Without a Face." He starred in the film as well.

GIBSON: Everyone does sooner or later.

It's a most fulfilling way of expressing yourself that I have found to date because you have to conceive of a whole story and a way to tell it and a way show it, you know, with image, with film, which really, I guess, tests your metal.

Hold!

COLLINS: Gibson's next directorial challenge was one of epic proportions, "Braveheart." The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning five, including Best Picture and a Best Director statue for Gibson.

GIBSON: I feel like, you know, the Doublemint twins, you know. It's...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations.

GIBSON: ... my wildest expectations come true for this evening.

ROZEN: I think "Braveheart" enabled him to show that he could be a director of a film that was commercially successful and that he could make the movie he wanted to make.

COLLINS: But when PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues, the controversy over Gibson's latest film and how he portrays Jews in "The Passion of The Christ."

MEDVED: I think "The Passion of The Christ" has been unfairly attacked as some kind of the anti-Semitic creed, as some kind of hate- filled cinematic document. It is none of that.

HIER: The main theme is that basically, it was the Jews that did Jesus in.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: Welcome back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): After winning two Academy Awards for 1995's "Braveheart," Mel Gibson turned his attention back to acting. Gibson's most recent smash was a movie that hit close to home, "Signs."

GIBSON: Are you hurt?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think God did it.

ROZEN: In "Signs," he's playing a dark -- it's a dark and troubled character. He's playing a reverend who has lost his faith following the death of his wife. It's one of these tales of sort of salvation and I think Gibson is very much attracted to this kind of material.

COLLINS: Gibson has said he went through a spiritual crisis of his own about 13 years ago. In an interview with the Roman Catholic Network, Eternal Word Television, he described how he turned to the story of Christ's crucifixion for help.

GIBSON: Like most of us, I mean you get to a point in your life where you're pretty wounded by everything that goes on around you, by your own transgressions, by other people's -- you know, I mean just life as a -- it's kind of a scarring thing. So, I used "The Passion" as a meditation of healing myself.

COLLINS: Gibson says it was that spiritual experience that motivated him to make his latest movie, a retelling of the last 12 hours of Jesus' life in "The Passion of The Christ."

Gibson is a Catholic but has expressed his displeasure with the Roman Catholic Church, especially since the reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s. He has even built his own church in California where mass is performed in traditional Latin.

LARRY KING, HOST: You don't like the new church? The mass in English? The...

GIBSON: No.

KING: Why not?

GIBSON: It's missing some stuff.

KING: Like?

GIBSON: It's missing some very important things. I don't believe the trance substantiation occurs anymore. I mean if there's not rules, if there's not an absolute, then it's not worth much.

COLLINS: Gibson's film has been the subject of much discussion since Gibson announced the project in September 2002. He first raised eyebrows by financing the movie with $30 million of his own money and then by having his actors speak in only Latin and Aramaic.

However, curiosity soon turned to controversy. In March 2003, the "New York Times" magazine interviewed Gibson's father, Hutton. Like his son, the elder Gibson is a devout Catholic who finds fault with the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II. But in the interview, Hutton Gibson also stated that the second Vatican Council was -- quote -- "A Masonic plot backed by the Jews." He also questioned whether six million Jews were actually killed in the Holocaust.

MEDVED: The terrible thing about bringing Mel Gibson's 85-year- old father, Hutton Gibson, into this dispute is you put Mel in a completely untenable position. Either he rejects and attacks his own dad, which no one wants to do, or he is guilty by association of some of his father's more outrageous and unconventional ideas.

COLLINS: The controversy grew when a group of scholars concerned about the direction of "The Passion" obtained an early version of the script without Gibson's permission. The group then raised concerns the film would be anti-Semitic, angering the filmmaker.

GIBSON: They submitted a 26-page document from a script that they read of how I was to change my film. This is not communist Russia. This is not China. This is the United States of America. How could they do that? How can they do that and get away with it?

CAGLE: He risked being seen as an anti-Semite himself by, you know, attacking them back in public. He just will not tolerate anybody picking on him or saying that he's wrong without good cause.

COLLINS: Gibson himself has repeatedly denied he or his film are anti-Semitic.

GIBSON: I don't want to lynch any Jews. I mean it's like -- it's not what I'm about. I love them. I pray for them. I pray sincerely that every man, woman and child of the Jewish people ends up with his name written in the book of life.

COLLINS: Before the film was released, Gibson held screenings for handpicked audiences, mostly consisting of Catholics and evangelical Christian groups.

ROZEN: The whole marketing campaign, publicity campaign, for this Mel movie has obviously been controversial. I mean he's been showing it to very select audiences, not including those who have criticized the movie without ever seeing it. And yet, mostly Mel Gibson man, his people, have not given them a chance to see the movie.

COLLINS: The marketing campaign paid off. "The Passion of The Christ" is now the highest grossing R-rating film in history, pulling in over $300 million at the box office. That's nearly 10 times the amount Gibson put up to finance the film.

There were protests outside some theaters when the film first opened. And the several Jewish leaders who have seen "The Passion" are angry about how they say Jews are portrayed in the film and the conclusions that may be drawn about who killed Christ.

HIER: The disciples of Jesus, they come across as moderates. The Romans, sensitive. The Jews, all cruel on the -- it's almost like demon-like characters. So, the audience will conclude who did this inhumanity to Jesus. And they'll conclude it was the Jews.

MEDVED: The real victims of this stupid controversy are going to be people like my children and Jewish people around the country because the attacks on the movie are producing far more anti-Semitic reactions than anything in the movie itself.

COLLINS: Despite criticism, Gibson says his film stays true to the gospel and its message.

GIBSON: This film collectively blames humanity on the death of Jesus. Now, there are no exemptions there. All right? I'm first on the line for culpability. I did it. Christ died for all men, for all times.

COLLINS: A personal statement of faith from a Hollywood icon who has risked his reputation to follow his passion.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: "The Passion" opened this week in Italy where it was filmed and it is playing out of a whopping 650 screens, nearly a third of all the screens in Italy.

That's it for this edition of PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. Coming up next week, Christopher Reeve, a tragic accident shattered his life but not his will. A look at how Hollywood's superman is pushing the boundaries of science.

I'm Paula Zahn. Thanks so much for being with us. Please stay with CNN for the latest on what's happening now.

ANNOUNCER: For more celebrity news, pick up a copy of "People" magazine this week.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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