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Mel Gibson revives comic western ''Maverick''

Joined by Jodi Foster and James Garner, the actor goes through the fire and more to remake the classic

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A lit cigarette bobbing between his lips, Mel Gibson is running lines with costar Graham Greene on the Maverick location—a valley in central California’s Yosemite National Park—when a rumor starts to spread across the set like wildfire: Mel’s house in Malibu is burning down.

It’s a lie. On this late-October morning, the blazes fueled by the Santa Ana winds are actually raging in Laguna Beach, 80 miles from his home.

Director Richard Donner hands Gibson a message from an Australian journalist inquiring about the story. ”Tell him it’s true,” Gibson says firmly. ”And I was killed trying to save my wife and baby.”

”Tell him I was too,” Greene chimes in.

”I’d love to set these people up,” says Gibson, who has been burned by the tabloids down under before. But as he grabs a walkie-talkie to speak to Maverick‘s unit publicist, Gibson changes his mind. ”I was gonna tell you to plant some real dodgy information,” he says. ”But it’s not a good idea.”

Whether Gibson’s idea to revive the 1957-62 ABC Western Maverick on the big screen is a good one won’t be known until the movie, which cost a reported $40 million, opens on May 20 in more than 2,000 theaters. Gibson takes over for James Garner as Bret Maverick, a wisecracking poker ace and reluctant gunslinger on the late-19th-century frontier. Garner, who decades ago successfully sued Warner Bros. to get out of his Maverick contract, costars as upright lawman Zane Cooper. And no less an actress than two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster, in her first adult comedy role, plays Annabelle Bransford, the con woman who comes between them.

While some old television programs, like The Fugitive, have been transformed into recent box office smashes, the formula isn’t foolproof (anyone remember Car 54, Where Are You?). And in the 32 years since Maverick left network television, it hasn’t been widely syndicated. The star power of Gibson and Foster should help attract audiences unfamiliar with the series, though the combination of the easygoing Macho Man and the intense Serious Actress seems an unlikely one-and neither is known for broad-as-a- barn-door Western comedies.

On paper, Maverick may seem like an odd mix of elements-but that didn’t stop Gibson from throwing the dice. ”The film business is a gamble,” he says. ”You set yourself up for a really big tumble.”

Gibson became interested in Maverick in 1991 after his deal to costar with Julia Roberts in the Western drama Renegades fell apart. He and his producing partner, Bruce Davey (Forever Young), hired veteran screenwriter William Goldman (All the President’s Men, Misery), then took his script to Donner, who | had directed Gibson in all three hugely successful Lethal Weapon movies.

Goldman tailored Bret Maverick to Gibson’s roguish persona. But he wrote Cooper (described in the script as ”just an incredible-looking man raw-boned, blue-eyed”) with Paul Newman in mind, envisioning a ’90s version of his own cowboy classic, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with Gibson in the Robert Redford role. When Newman decided to do Robert Benton’s Nobody’s Fool instead, Garner stepped in, much to Donner’s delight. ”Mel and I love to improvise, and I know Paul Newman is very rigid-you shoot the script,” the director says. ”If we had cast somebody rigid in this, we would’ve been against the wall.”

Garner was more than happy to join Donner and Gibson in treating Goldman’s script as nothing more than an outline. ”Dick just throws it all in, then gets out his scissors, and it just comes out great,” he says.

For the female lead, Donner thought he’d lined up Meg Ryan, but she dropped out about two weeks before production was to begin, saying she wanted to spend time with her husband, Dennis Quaid, and child. In jumped Jodie Foster, an actress not accustomed to quick decisions. ”I agonize over everything I do,” Foster admits. ”But this thing came along on, say, a Thursday afternoon, and I said yes by Friday morning. And I was in costume fittings on Sunday.”

Foster had been looking for a comedy since completing the romantic drama Sommersby in 1992. ”I hadn’t worked in a long time, and I was a tiny bit on the depressed side,” she says. ”I needed to be light.” The anarchic tone of the Maverick set perked Foster up immediately. ”With Donner, you get the feeling it’s just haphazard, but he knows what he’s doing better than anybody I’ve ever worked with,” she says.

Donner and Gibson always played fast and loose with the Lethal Weapon scripts, but the high improv level on Maverick is a surprise since it comes from Goldman, a man revered as one of the deans of modern screenwriting. “The script isn’t carved in concrete, and I’m sure Goldman doesn’t expect it to be,” Gibson says. “He’s a good writer, and he’s wise enough to know he gave us a really good blueprint, and we put a few curls on it.” (Goldman did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.)

Back before the cameras at Yosemite, Gibson is busy putting one of those curls on Maverick‘s script. As he and Greene pass a campfire, Gibson tosses in an anachronistic reference. “Fire’s cool,” he utters, a la Butt-head. “Heh heh, heh heh.”

Four days later, a cloud of smoke from a new round of fires in the Woodland Hills section of L.A. is visible from Warner Bros.’ Burbank lot, where Maverick has moved for its final weeks. The crew has constructed a campfire scene on stage 27A, complete with sand, boulders, trees, a small stream, and a painted red-sky backdrop. “This looks like Bonanza,” Gibson says in awe. “And I feel like the Alpo guy (Lorne Greene).”

Foster strides onto the set. “I haven’t been on a stage in 15 years. All my movies are shot on location,” she says. “This feels so corporate. There are golf carts outside. This feels like when I was a kid doing TV shows.” Not to mention a 1973 Disney comedy called One Little Indian, in which she costarred with Garner. An extra tells them that he just saw it on TV. “I was hoping they burned that thing,” Garner says.

Foster’s memory isn’t much better. “I was 9. I was totally unconscious. I remember (Garner) being a really nice guy, and that’s pretty much it,” she says.

Much has changed since Garner first worked with Foster, and, in his eyes, not necessarily for the better. He squirms as a sound man attaches a wireless mike to his lower back. “It’s like a suppository,” he moans. “Why don’t you just shove it up there? A lot of guys would like that.”

Gibson makes use of another modern invention-the cellular phone-when word hits the set that his Malibu home is in the line of fire. For real this time. Press calls start coming in again. “Don’t tell them the house has been evacuated,” he calmly instructs the unit publicist. “People will be coming by in tears.”

Work stops early so Gibson can be with his wife, Robyn, and their five children, who have moved to another house he owns farther north on the coast. The producers cancel the next day’s filming. “Nobody could shoot-we were hung up on Mel,” says Donner. “It was not a nice shutdown.” When Gibson returns to Malibu, he discovers the fire never reached his property.

The only smoke on the Maverick soundstage four weeks later comes from the cigars of Donner, Gibson, and James Coburn, who plays a contestant in the film’s climactic poker showdown. Coburn puffs on a long stogie in the scene; Donner and Gibson, whose character doesn’t smoke in the movie, join him for the fun of it. Before the cameras roll, crass clown Gibson sits down, belches, blows a few smoke rings, then hides his cigar in an ashtray under the table.

Foster, who kiddingly calls Gibson “the king of tastefulness,” watches the scene from the sidelines. “People are going to wonder why there’s a fire coming from between your legs,” she tells her costar, and the crew explodes with laughter.

“That’s subtext,” Gibson one-ups her.

One last fire needed to be put out after Maverick wrapped. The first rough cut shown to test audiences ran 2 hours and 32 minutes. No surprise since Goldman’s script was a hefty 160 pages-not counting all those curls added on the set.

“We knew we were terribly long. This movie shouldn’t run more than two hours,” Donner says. “It’s entertainment. We’re not trying to upgrade anyone’s intellectual level.”

Working with Gibson and editor Stuart Baird, Donner chopped 30 minutes. “The audience told you where it had to come out,” Donner says. “As soon as you saw bottoms moving around in chairs, or people rushing out for popcorn, or the bathrooms getting full, that moment had to go.”

The biggest chunk Donner excised was a subplot reuniting Gibson with Linda Hunt, his costar from 1983’s The Year of Living Dangerously. In Maverick Hunt played a magician who saves Bret from a hangman’s noose, nurses him back to health, and gives him money to enter the poker game. “When we looked at it, it was like another movie,” says Gibson of the sequence, which runs nearly 20 pages in the script and conjures up memories of Goldman’s Princess Bride more than Butch Cassidy. “On its own, it had some balls. But it didn’t seem to work with the rest of the film.”

“The worst part of it was telling Linda,” says Donner, who, with Gibson, telephoned the actress in Paris, where she’s shooting Robert Altman’s Pret-a- Porter. “It broke our hearts. She’s such a trouper. How do you tell somebody that, you know?” (Hunt was not available for comment.)

To plug this rather large plot hole, Donner and Gibson did two days of reshoots. The new and improved Maverick has reportedly scored well with test audiences. A good omen, since the movie will duke it out with the comedy-Westerns City Slickers II and The Cowboy Way, both opening in early June.

But don’t ask Gibson if he likes the film. “I’m so sick of looking at it that I’m the worst person to ask,” he says. And if Maverick doesn’t set the box office on fire, that’s fine with him. “Ultimately it doesn’t matter too much,” he says, laughing. “Because we had a blast, and I already got paid.”