LOS ANGELES, Dec. 6 - Mel Gibson, whose "The Passion of the Christ" was assailed by critics as an anti-Semitic passion play - and whose father has been on record as a Holocaust denier - has a new project under way: a nonfiction miniseries about the Holocaust.
Mr. Gibson's television production company is developing a four-hour miniseries for ABC based on the self-published memoir of Flory A. Van Beek, a Dutch Jew whose gentile neighbors hid her from the Nazis but who lost several relatives in concentration camps.
It is not expected that Mr. Gibson will act in the miniseries, nor is it certain yet that his name, rather than his company's, will be publicly attached to the final product, according to several people involved in developing it. Nor is it guaranteed yet that the project will be completed and broadcast.
But Quinn Taylor, ABC's senior vice president in charge of movies for television, acknowledged that the attention-getting value of having Mr. Gibson attached to a Holocaust project was a factor.
"Controversy's publicity, and vice versa," Mr. Taylor said.
ABC brought in Mr. Gibson's company, Con Artists Productions, after an independent producer, Daniel Sladek, pitched the network on Ms. Van Beek's story. With her husband, Felix, Ms. Van Beek survived the sinking of a passenger ship by a German mine, followed by three years in hiding during the German occupation of Holland, before emigrating to the United States in 1948.
The network chose Mr. Gibson's company when it learned of Ms. Van Beek's tale shortly after ABC had rejected a separate pitch by Con Artists' president, Nancy Cotton, for another Holocaust-related subject, Mr. Taylor said.
"This has the middle, the love story, that the other one didn't have," he explained.
Mr. Sladek said ABC's calculation in engaging Mr. Gibson was to win the largest possible audience. "I think that what ABC wants out of this is to build the biggest billboard imaginable in order to get everyone logically interested to tune in and watch this," he said.
Ms. Van Beek's book, "Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death" (Seven Locks Press, 1998) is a wide-eyed account of her and her husband's abbreviated courtship; their attempt to sail to safety in Chile; the sinking of their ship, and their rescue and recuperation in England; their return to Holland in 1940; and their suffering in hiding as the deportations of Jews began. They were liberated by Canadian troops, but only 5,200 of Holland's 140,000 Jews survived the war, according to Mr. Sladek's research.
Mr. Gibson, who is currently filming "Apocalypto," an adventure set before the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Central America, could not be reached. His spokesman, Alan Nierob, did not return repeated phone calls today. Ms. Cotton did not return repeated telephone calls to her office over several weeks.
Mr. Gibson's father, Hutton Gibson, has repeatedly denied that the Holocaust happened, saying before the release of "Passion of the Christ," for example, that accounts of the Holocaust were mostly "fiction" and asserting that there were more Jews in Europe after World War II than before. Mel Gibson has declined to disassociate himself clearly from his father's views, according to Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Melrose Park, Pa., and the author of an annual study of Holocaust denial.
"For him to be associated with this movie is cause for concern," Mr. Medoff said. "He needs to come clean that he repudiates Holocaust denial, and that he understands the Holocaust was not just another atrocity that occurred in World War II along with other atrocities."
Reached at his home in West Virginia today, Hutton Gibson declined to discuss his views on the Holocaust. As to his son's project, he said, "I have no idea what he's doing, and frankly, it's none of my business."
Mr. Sladek, 40, whose own father survived the Holocaust as a child hiding in Slovakia and is a friend of the Van Beeks, said Mr. Gibson's involvement could help attract a larger Christian audience for the project. The Van Beeks were sheltered by three different families of Dutch Christians.
"It is a tremendous nod to the non-Jewish partisans, the citizens of Holland, who helped this couple along the way again and again and again, without any reason other than being human, doing the right thing," he said. "It's a great bow to the compassionate Christians, the non-Jewish community. And there's a definite link to that community, through Con Artists, because of 'Passion.' "
Mr. Taylor, who likened "Flory" to ABC's critically acclaimed 2001 miniseries, "Anne Frank," cautioned that Mr. Gibson's level of involvement would not be determined until the miniseries is completed - which at this stage of any project is still a long shot - and he has seen it. "If it happens to be produced by Mel's company, it doesn't mean he's going to be out there flogging it like he did 'Passion of the Christ,' " Mr. Taylor said.
The producers, who include Jaffe/Braunstein Films, recently signed a writer, Cynthia Saunders, the creator of the series "Profiler," but a script is not expected until spring.
Reached at her home in Newport Beach, Ms. Van Beek, who said she was in her early 80's, said she had not seen Mr. Gibson's last movie because it seemed "too traumatic."
"I don't know him, all I know is he's a staunch Catholic, and the people who saved our lives are Catholic," she said. "I respect everybody's beliefs."
"I know his father doesn't believe in the Holocaust - but maybe when there's money involved, maybe they don't care," she added. "His father will probably say this is not real, this is a novel."