LAST SUNDAY, a little more than 11 years after the obituary for his career was written, Mel Gibson stepped out of a black SUV to a crowd of fans screaming his name. Once persona non grata in Hollywood for making anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic remarks, Mr. Gibson walked the red carpet for his first starring role in a major studio movie in 15 years with “Daddy's Home 2,” Paramount Pictures' sequel to the family-friendly 2015 hit. It opens Friday.
In February, Mr. Gibson attended the Academy Awards as a nominee for best director for the war movie “Hacksaw Ridge.” After seven years without an agent, he signed in January with Creative Artists Agency, a prestigious home for Hollywood talent. And Warner Bros. considered him to direct “Suicide Squad 2,” a big budget superhero sequel that's as mainstream as the movie industry gets.
For Mr. Gibson, the 61-year-old star known for “Braveheart” and “The Passion of the Christ,” it's almost as if the past 11 years never happened.
Such a turnaround was unfathomable in 2006, when the actor's anti-Semitic remarks led his industry to shun him. Superagent Ari Emanuel called for a boycott of the actor.
Several major actors', directors' and producers' reputations have recently cratered following allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Meanwhile, Mr. Gibson— once a pariah—is experiencing a career revitalization. Sunday's premiere followed 11 years of work on the fringes of the mainstream entertainment industry, rebuilding his reputation with what associates describe as a newfound humility and relying on the support of friend Jodie Foster to help secure the “Daddy's Home 2” role.
Talent agents, stars and studio chiefs are trying to discern the half-life of the radioactivity now tainting other disgraced figures—a calculation Mr. Gibson and his associates had to make time and again over the years. A spokesman for Mr. Gibson said the actor wasn't available for comment.
Mr. Gibson's downfall began in 2006, when his Lexus was stopped by a sheriff's deputy for driving 87 miles an hour, nearly double the speed limit. Mr. Gibson, who had an open bottle of tequila in the car and a blood-alcohol rate well above the legal limit, told the deputy: “The Jews are responsible for all of the wars in the world.”
The statements caused an uproar and Mr. Gibson immediately lost projects. At the time, he described the incident as “despicable behavior.” He pleaded no contest to the charge and received probation.
Since his arrival in Hollywood in the 1980s, Mr. Gibson had been a top box-office draw in franchises like “Lethal Weapon.” As a director, he had even more success, winning best-picture and best-director Oscars for 1995's “Braveheart” and creating “The Passion of the Christ,” a 2004 biblical drama that grossed $612 million world-wide.
Following his arrest, Mr. Gibson met with Jewish leaders and apologized. Hollywood would have none of it.
Mr. Gibson disappeared for a long stretch, not popping up until 2010 in “Edge of Darkness.” Any goodwill the movie created was wiped out that July, when a recording leaked of a phone call between Mr. Gibson and his then-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva. On the call, Mr. Gibson says if Ms. Grigorieva were “raped by a pack of n-----s,” she would be to blame.
Mr. Gibson's agent at William Morris Endeavor dropped the actor. He also pleaded no contest to a charge of misdemeanor battery of Ms. Grigorieva and was placed on probation.
“It's one terribly, awful moment in time, said to one person, in the span of one day and doesn't represent what I truly believe or how I've treated people my entire life,” Mr. Gibson said in an interview following the leak.
One year later, Jodie Foster cast him in a movie she was directing, “The Beaver.” The drama, about a depressed man trying to get his life back on track with the help of a beaver puppet, flopped.
Direct-to-video B-movies—Hollywood's equivalent of the bush leagues—were about all the actor could do, since he was too tainted for a major studio to touch. After director Robert Rodriguez cast him in the 2013 sequel “Machete Kills,” studios in the U.S. and abroad said they didn't want a Mel Gibson movie.
“There were a number of countries where the CEOs of the companies were so upset with whatever he said, whether it be about women or Jews, they would just refuse the movie,” said “Machete Kills” producer Sergei Bespalov.
In the U.S., “Machete Kills” ended up going to the small independent studio Open Road Films. It grossed $8 million domestically, less than a third of the original's gross.
But Mr. Gibson's most crucial move in saving his career came last year, when he moved back behind the camera. He directed “Hacksaw Ridge,” the World War II drama about a conscientious objector persecuted for his beliefs.
Mainstream Hollywood studios still wouldn't touch the disgraced star. Producer Bill Mechanic said he cobbled together a $42 million budget from sales to foreign distributors, private financiers and a tax credit from Australia, where the movie was shot.
“Mel was always the right guy,” Mr. Mechanic said. “Especially because the movie was about forgiveness and acceptance.”
In the U.S., independent studio Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. agreed to release “Hacksaw,” but only through a deal where it didn't invest any money. But when the movie succeeded at the box office and earned Mr. Gibson his Oscar nomination, he became palatable to a wider swath of Hollywood.
CAA signed Mr. Gibson in January, after some internal debate. Agents felt confident Mr. Gibson had redeemed himself personally and was once one of Hollywood's most in-demand directors, a person close to the agency said.
For “Daddy's Home 2,” Mr. Gibson hadn't been on Paramount's radar for the role of an estranged grandfather who tries to reconcile his relationship with his son, played by Mark Wahlberg. But the movie's writers, Sean Anders and John Morris, thought Mr. Gibson was perfect for the part: He was believably intimidating, rough around the edges but still able to charm, Mr. Anders said.
Before the duo approached Mr. Gibson, they looked into his rehabilitation efforts. Mr. Anders read an interview with Ms. Foster in which the well-regarded actress vouched for him.
Mr. Gibson has publicly apologized for the outbursts, but most of his career rehabilitation efforts have occurred behind the scenes. Mr. Anders said the outbursts didn't come up with the actor when they discussed his “Daddy's Home 2” hiring. “He knows. We know,” he said.
Paramount executives endorsed the idea in part because of the success of “Hacksaw,” said a person close to the studio.
In “Daddy's Home 2,” Mr. Gibson riffs on his former Hollywood persona as the coarse foil to John Lithgow's goody-twoshoes grandpa. Mr. Gibson's Kurt is a womanizer who tells deadprostitute jokes to children, teaches a young girl to shoot a rifle and offers his grandson the following advice on what to do after kissing a crush: “Smack her on the caboose and tell her what a lucky girl she is.”
BY ERICH SCHWARTZEL AND BEN FRITZ