HE IS our greatest Hollywood star, able to appear in any film he wants and powerful enough to make any movie he wants.
But Mel Gibson also is one of Tinseltown's most enigmatic and misunderstood men who guards his privacy and lets few into his inner circle.
Down Under he is known as the handsome, charismatic actor who arrived in Australia in 1968 as a 12-year-old, No.6 in the 11-strong Gibson brood.
In 1979 he hit the big time as Max Rockatansky in Mad Max, went on to be a rising young actor in Gallipoli before firmly establishing his career with The Year of Living Dangerously.
In the 1980s he was Australia's star in Hollywood in the lucrative Lethal Weapon series, then, in 1995, his Braveheart took the Oscars for best film and best director.
Away from the cameras there have been stories about Gibson the devout Catholic who attends Latin mass, who has spent millions building his own church and who has battled the booze.
More recently he has been at the centre of controversy with his movie The Passion of The Christ condemned for being anti-Semitic.
But few Australians can say they really know what makes Gibson tick and it's the same story in the US.
In Hollywood Gibson is known as that most desirable of movie industry commodities, a "bankable" star who commands $30 million a film but brings with him a guarantee the production will make money.
Increasingly he also is being recognised as a producer and director and through his company Icon Productions he has emerged as a powerbroker able to finance and produce his own movies.
That is what he did with The Passion of The Christ which last year became an international hit, netting Gibson personally $678 million, the title in Forbes magazine as "the most powerful celebrity in the world", and elevating him into billionaire status.
While Gibson's private companies do not disclose their income, it is known he is Australia's richest actor/producer.
But all those numbers and all that hype still don't really explain who Mel Gibson is. What about the 49-year-old man who has been married to wife Robyn for 24 years, the father of six sons and a daughter, the devout Catholic who has sharply criticised stem-cell research funding and then given away millions of dollars for medical aid.
Gibson will not talk about these other parts of his life he leaves it to others to help fill in that private side.
One of those "others" is charity worker Cris Embleton who remembers the day the Gibsons walked into her life.
It started with a phone call to the Embleton family home in Valencia, California the Australian woman on the other end of the line would not say who she was, but wanted details about Embleton's charity organisation, Healing The Children.
The call was all but forgotten until a few days later when Embleton received a small postcard with a cheque for $70,000, signed by Robyn Gibson.
Mel Gibson's wife had been that woman on the phone and that call in 2000 kick-started a continuing relationship between Healing The Children and Mel Gibson and his family.
Since then the Gibsons have given more than $17 million to the charity to provide lifesaving medical help to needy children worldwide. Gibson has never spoken about the donations.
Embleton says Gibson gives because he "has an enormous sense about people's pain".
"He's a real human being," she says. "Australia can be proud of your son."
She says Gibson's largesse has directly helped 30 children have critical surgery.
Among those who owe their lives to Gibson are two conjoined infants from Guatemala City whose life-altering operation was paid for by a $2 million cheque from the Gibsons. And when one of those children was close to death after post-operative complications, it was the Gibsons who postponed a trip to Australia and dispatched their private aircraft to fly the ailing child from Central America to Los Angeles to save her life.
"They happen to be our angels," Embleton says. "They're beautiful people."
She says the Gibsons have avoided publicity over their philanthropy, changing the topic when she tries to thank them and refusing to appear in any promotions for the organisation. Instead, she says, Mel, Robyn and their children quietly provide support whenever they can, from nursing a healing baby to accompanying doctors on international missions of mercy and even helping with the housework at the Embleton home when an extra set of hands are needed.
Embleton's association with the Gibsons has allowed her some insight into this most private of families and she says that, despite their enormous wealth and Mel Gibson's stature, the Gibsons are simply a "regular family".
"I think the family is as regular as they come," she says. "I just don't get the sense at all that they are celebrities. I actually think Mel is kind of a shy person."
Carefully kept away from the spotlight, the Gibson children are treated like any other children with Mel doing his best to give them a normal upbringing.
He has not sheltered them from the world. There has been no life of luxury limousines or unlimited credit card shopping sprees. Instead, the children grew up performing chores, earning pocket money and learning the value of hard work.
"If you asked Robyn and Mel what their greatest role was, it would be as a mum and dad," Embleton says.
While the Gibsons' contribution to Healing The Children is known, exactly how much Gibson has given to other charities is unclear. Some unverified estimates put the philanthropy as high as $50 million.
All that Embleton knows is that her organisation's $17 million is "just small potatoes"' compared with Gibson's other charitable contributions. Where the other funds go will probably never be known. Certainly, Gibson is not telling.
A few days after speaking with Embleton, and a world away from Healing The Children, another side of Mel Gibson emerged that of the businessman.
The insight comes in the offices of movie heavyweight Fox when a senior executive agrees to speak about the Mel Gibson he knows.
Co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, Jim Gianopulos, has known Gibson for years as a friend and a business partner through the joint production deal Fox has with Gibson's Icon Productions.
And like Embleton, Gianopulos describes Gibson as intelligent, driven and focused all characteristics that served the Australian well when he promoted, produced and directed The Passion.
Gibson bankrolled the production with $40 million of his own money, and faced the critics who called his film anti-Semitic.
"The film was not without controversy, there's no question some people took issue with it," Gianopulos says. "It started with the vision of a very strong person. He took the risk creatively, financially and personally. He felt strongly about it, and financially and artistically it succeeded."
That success of The Passion cannot be underestimated. It has given Gibson the businessman unprecedented power, money and influence in Hollywood.
By finding his own finance for the movie and producing it with his own company, Gibson has put himself outside the traditional studio system, and the enormous profits from The Passion now give him the funds and clout to make virtually any film he wants.
In many ways the movie was the culmination of Gibson's transformation from a top-rung actor into the upper echelons of the movie-making business.
One film industry veteran, former Fox chairman and now Revolution Studios partner Tom Sherak, says: "If Mel Gibson had a movie he wanted to get made, he probably will. He has taken himself out of the creative end and put himself into the business end and turned the business end into a very profitable career where, if he never wanted to act again, he wouldn't have to.
"Spielberg owns a company and makes movies whenever he wants, and that is what Mel Gibson will do. He has reached that point that allows him to because of all that success.
"That's given him the authority. He is also a very likeable chap, he comes across as the guy next door and exudes confidence."
In the 10 months since the release of The Passion Hollywood has been abuzz with rumours that Gibson has been shunned by the industry's Jewish powerbrokers. There's also been talk that Gibson has been black-listed from studios and banned from meetings and dinners.
It's hard to know how true the rumours are, certainly the fact the film has been virtually ignored in every major award since its release suggests there could be something to the reports.
But Sherak, who is Jewish, provides some perspective on the fallout. He says while he didn't like the subject matter of The Passion, he thought the story "had merit visually".
"You have to give him credit for persevering," he says. "He is strong-willed, he is determined. He is not a pushover, not only in his beliefs but in the way he runs his life."
And Sherak is not convinced that there is any negative impact on Gibson's future prospects as an actor, producer or director because of The Passion.
"I don't know that it will affect his career," he says. "This business is about making money."
And with $780 million in worldwide box office receipts and millions more in DVD sales, The Passion makes it hard for studios to close their doors, if Gibson even bothers to come knocking.
See, when Decent people give money they don't go around telling everyone.
Celebrities will give money or just time, and sometimes they get paid for charity work and they have to let EVERYBODY know. So everyone thinks they're an amazing person and they get a big pat on the back.
Which is not the whole point of charity.