Mel Gibson's New 'Passion' Is Robert Downey Jr.

Mel's New 'Passion'  | John Ritter  | News Romance

Mel Gibson's New 'Passion': Robert Downey Jr.

Mel Gibson is more than just a lightning rod for controversy these days. He's a stand-up guy for a good friend.

That's the word from Robert Downey Jr., whom I met last night at the premiere of his new movie, "The Singing Detective."

The Paramount Classics feature, directed by Keith Gordon, provides Downey with a chance to show off his Oscar chops. His bravura performance as Dan Dark, the psoriasis-suffering, curmudgeonly writer with a vivid musical imagination is a tour de force.

"I haven't felt this positively about a movie since 'Chaplin,'" Downey said, recalling the 1992 film for which he received an Oscar nomination.

But Downey wouldn't have had the multi-layered role of the singing detective if not for Gibson.

"Mel put up the money for my insurance bond," Downey told me. In fact, Gibson and Downey have been close pals since they made "Air America" together back in 1990.

"At the time, I was straight, a teetotaler, and I told Mel, 'I'm even straighter than you,'" Downey laughed, recalling the conversation. "But after everything that happened to me, Mel said, 'Now I'm straighter than you, and it only took 10 years.'"

What happened to Downey is public knowledge (drug arrests, sleeping in the neighbor's house, etc.), but believe it or not it's been two years since he's had any kind of public incident. He's never looked better.

He also has a new girlfriend, Susan Levin, who runs Joel Silver's movie company. Robert is more or less stable. But that didn't stop him from making headlines this summer when he was hired, and then fired, by Woody Allen from Woody's new project. The word was Downey couldn't get insurance.

"The reality was I didn't even want the part," he told me. "They said I was supposed to be the lead, but when I got the script there were six leads. They should have looked into the insurance issue first, but instead Woody got a lot of publicity out of hiring me, and then they said let's try and get insurance. I'm happy to be out of it."

These days, Downey is not only acting but recording music. He's working on an album of songs, he says, that are reminiscent of Steely Dan. In fact, when he promotes "The Singing Detective" on "The Wayne Brady Show" next week, Downey will perform Steely Dan's old hit "Reelin' in the Years" with the band.

So what about Mel Gibson and his controversial movie about Jesus, "The Passion?" Has Downey seen it?

"I have," he told me. "And you know my father is Jewish. His name was Elias and he changed it to Downey. I have it tattooed on my ankle." He rolled over his trouser cuff and sure enough, there was the name "Elias." "'The Passion' is not anti-Semitic," he reassured me.

Meantime, I am told that Gibson's company Icon Productions will distribute "The Passion" themselves overseas.

While Icon depends on finding distribution in the U.S., they are set up for it independently in Europe and Australia. So far no American distributor has been found, although several, including Miramax/Disney and 20th Century Fox, have declined the opportunity.

Gibson, by the way, has a strong supporting role in "The Singing Detective." He plays the main character's shrink and is virtually unrecognizable. He wears a fake baldpate and glasses, dresses in a doctor's white lab coat, black pants and shoes with white athletic socks. Don't be surprised if Gibson gets Oscar buzz in the Best Supporting Actor category.

The strength of Downey's performance -- which puts him in league this year with Sean Penn ("21 Grams"), Peter Dinklage ("The Station Agent"), Jack Nicholson ("Something's Gotta Give"), and Johnny Depp ("Pirates of the Caribbean"), among others — could carry Gibson in despite the "Passion" debate.

John Ritter: A Movie Career, Almost

The late, great John Ritter was a huge TV star — but he was almost a big movie star too.

Famed film director Peter Bogdanovich is headed to Los Angeles to speak at Ritter's October 14th memorial service. As it turns out, Bogdanovich was on the set of "8 Simple Rules" the day Ritter fell ill and died. He and Henry Winkler were set to guest-star on the episode, which was never filmed.

Ironically, Bogdanovich says, Ritter had appeared in four of his movies including  "They All Laughed" and "Noises Off."

"He was just wonderful in 'Noises Off' although a lot of people never saw it," Bogdanovich said. "He had brilliant timing."

Ritter and Bogdanovich met when the former auditioned to be in "The Last Picture Show" in 1970.

"He finished second to Tim Bottoms," Bogdanovich recalled. "His father, Tex Ritter, also auditioned. They would have been in it together."

(Tex, John's dad, was a huge star in the 1930s and 1940s as a singing cowboy in Westerns. He died at age 68 in 1974.)

Bogdanovich, by the way, is putting the finishing touches on his big ABC mini-series about the life of another star who died too young: Natalie Wood.

The three-hour epic is based on a book by Suzanne Finstad. The director says efforts to interview Wood's famous husband, Robert Wagner, were unsuccessful, as were offers made to Christopher Walken. Both men were with Wood when she drowned in 1981.

Much of the material in the film about Wood's death comes from publicly available testimony, Bogdanovich said. Wagner can take comfort in the knowledge that unsubstantiated claims made by the captain of the ship he, Wood and Walken were on was not used for the film.

CBS Chief and News Star: Romance No Secret

Today's Page Six in The New York Post declares the romance between CBS chief Les Moonves and news correspondent Julie Chen "out in the open." It's no doubt true that Page Six was the first to report — with a wink or a nod — of their involvement first, a long time ago.

But just to clarify: The pair was in full force on the red carpet at the Emmy Awards two weeks ago. At the Governor's Ball following the show, they held hands as they schmoozed with various stars and journalists. I asked Moonves if this meant the cat was out of the bag.

"Actually we were pretty open back in June at the Tony Awards," he said, "so there's nothing new here."

For the record, Moonves — a popular figure in the media world — told me and he and Chen "are very, very happy."

Well, someone should be in this crazy, mixed-up world.

PS: On Monday this column is celebrating Columbus — the circle, the city, the explorer, the director. See you on Tuesday.