And so we were introduced to the ticking time bomb of fury that is Mel Gibson, at least on screen, in "Mad Max."
"It's that rat circus out there, I'm beginning to enjoy it. Look, any longer out on that road and I'm one of them, a terminal psychotic, except that I've got this bronze badge that says that I'm one of the good guys."
Released 35 years ago this week (on April 12, 1979), George Miller's film about a near-future cop who turns vigilante when a biker gang kills his partner and his family, made an international star out of Gibson, made Miller an A-list director, and helped put the new wave of Australian cinema on the world map. It also launched a franchise that continues to this day; next year, Miller will finally release the long-gestating "Mad Max: Fury Road," with Tom Hardy taking over as Max.
While the original "Mad Max" has been an action favorite for decades, there are still some things you may not know about it -- the sources of Miller's inspiration, the truth behind Gibson's oft-told audition story, the not-entirely-legal methods used to keep the budget low, or the crazy and dangerous stunts that endangered cast and crew alike. Read on to learn the truth behind "Mad Max" lore, and remember: "Speed's just a question of money. How fast you wanna go?"
1. Before he became a film director, George Miller was an emergency room doctor. It was largely through his medical earnings that he was able to finance "Mad Max."
2. Miller's ER work, much of which was spent tending to car accident victims, was also one of the chief inspirations for the movie's vehicular mayhem.
3. The main character, Max Rockatansky, is apparently named after Carl von Rokitansky, a 19th-century Viennese physician who developed the modern autopsy procedure.
4. Another inspiration was the 1975 movie "A Boy and His Dog," starring Don Johnson as an anti-hero in a post-apocalyptic landscape marked by fierce competition over scarce resources.
5. Yet another influence was 1974's "Stone," an Australian movie that blended the motorcycle-gang movie with the murder mystery. Hugh Keays-Byrne, Roger Ward, and Vincent Gil, who all played bikers in "Stone," would go on to play similar roles in "Mad Max."
6. Mel Gibson and Steve Bisley, who would play police partners Max and Goose, had worked together before, co-starring in surfer tale "Summer City." In that film, Bisley played the lead and Gibson the sidekick.
7. Gibson used to tell the story of his audition for "Mad Max," saying he went along with Bisley but was too bruised and bloodied from a brawl the night before to read himself; fortunately, he recalled, the casting director was interested in offbeat faces, perhaps for the villainous roles, and asked Gibson to come back in three weeks, and when the actor did, his matinee-idol good looks had returned, winning him the lead role. The film's other principals, however, have dismissed Gibson's recollection as a tall tale, insisting that his leading-man charisma was apparent from the first day.
8. Judy Davis -– like Bisley and Gibson, a then-little-known student at Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art -- auditioned to play Max's wife, but the filmmakers thought she was too strong and cast Rosie Bailey instead. Davis would go on to have her big break in 1979's "My Brilliant Career."
9. The production had to be pushed back a month because Gibson's NIDA instructors wouldn't let him leave school early. The day of his graduation, in October 1977, he flew from Sydney to the set in Melbourne.
10. The shoot was plagued with leg-smashing accidents. One that occurred just four days before production resulted in Bailey breaking both legs, forcing Miller to replace her at the last minute with soap actress Joanne Samuel.
11. Also suffering a broken leg was legendary Australian stuntman Grant Page. Nonetheless, he was able to perform one of the early stunts in the film, the breathtaking jump of the Interceptor into the Nightrider's camper, with his leg in a cast.
12. The Nightrider's van, destroyed in that initial chase, was Miller's own vehicle.
13. Sheila Florance, who played May, broke her leg tripping over a rabbit hole. With her leg in a cast, she returned to the set the next day to shoot her remaining scenes.
14. Real-life bikers from local gangs played many of the motorcyclists in the film. Fittingly, one of the gangs was called the Vigilantes.
15. One stunt involved the use of a naval booster rocket, which sent the car careening toward the camera at 150 miles an hour, then veering off course for half a mile before coming to a halt in a ditch. Nonetheless, Miller's crew managed to capture the stunt on film during the one possible take.
16. Miller and crew found creative ways to stretch their limited budget. For instance, art director Jon Dowding said he stole the props and signage used in the milk bar scene early in the morning of the day the scene was shot there, then returned everything at night.
17. In another cost-cutting move, the leather uniforms worn by the police officers were all actually vinyl, except for those worn by Gibson and Bisley.
18. Because of the characters' outrageous costumes and reconditioned police cars, the actors got stopped a lot by real Melbourne police. They began to carry studio letterhead with them, explaining that they were filming a movie. The "get-out-of-jail free card" that Goose hands a biker was an in-joke reference to these excuse letters.
19. At the end of the movie, Max cuffs Johnny to a vehicle about to explode in a gas fire and gives him a hacksaw, suggesting that he could cut through his ankle a lot faster than cutting through the cuffs. Australian filmmakers Leigh Whannell and James Wan have cited this scene as the inspiration for their "Saw" series of horror films.
20. The budget of "Mad Max" has been estimated at $350,000 to $400,000.
21. The movie went on to earn about $100 million worldwide. The filmmakers claimed it was the most profitable movie ever made, in terms of the return-on-investment percentage, until "The Blair Witch Project" came along 20 years later.
22. In fact, the only place it wasn't a huge hit was the United States, where it grossed about $8 million. Perhaps not coincidentally, the American print dubbed over all the speaking parts with American-accented actors and changed some of the Aussie slang to American idioms. It was rumored that Gibson (who, of course, was born in America) dubbed his own part, but the film's U.S. distributor has denied that rumor.
23. The film was banned in New Zealand because the incineration of Goose echoed a recent real-life gang incident in that country. Sweden banned the film over its extreme violence. Those bans were both eventually lifted.
24. Max's police car ended up in the hands of production mechanic Murray Smith after the film wrapped. When it came time to make "The Road Warrior," Miller had to buy the vehicle back from him.
25. Miller went on to direct "The Road Warrior" in 1981 and "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" in 1985. In the last 20 years, he's been better known for kids' films (the "Babe" movies and the "Happy Feet" cartoons), but then, he's been trying for more than a decade to get back to the Outback for a fourth "Mad Max." That movie, "Fury Road," is due next May.
Photo: American International Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection