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This is not an era of movie anti-heroes, but Mel Gibson has joined the superstar ranks playing protagonists with shady backgrounds.

In his new picture, "Tequila Sunrise," the tough-but-gentle Gibson portrays Dale McKussic, a drug broker, user and pusher trying to go straight while staying one step ahead of the law.At a time when drugs are ravaging American society, with politicians crying out that illegal drug abuse is the nation's No. 1 social problem, Gibson finds himself trying to win sympathy for McKussic, who deals drugs for a living.

McKussic is the classic example of a man in the middle.

His two closest pals are a rough-edged Los Angeles Police Department narc and high school buddy (Kurt Russell) and a Mexican kingpin drug supplier (Raul Julia).

Essentially, Gibson plays an unsavory guy, as he did in the role of the relentless narc in "Lethal Weapon" and as the avenging hero of "Road Warrior."

The long-haired, blue-eyed Gibson, born in America but reared in Australia, has found a niche among Hollywood leading men that has producers sending him scripts before they are farmed out to other stars in his category.

Nervous, shy and introverted, Gibson was uncomfortable in a Los Angeles luxury hotel suite the other day while Warner Bros. publicists ran him through his paces.

"Maybe McKussic's background is shady," he said, lighting a cigarette, "but he doesn't lie and by his own lights he's an honorable guy. Oh, yeah, and he gets the girl."

The girl in this instance is a restaurateur, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who sleeps with McKussic as well as his high school buddy.

"Tequila Sunrise" is the sort of gritty, violent, sweaty picture into which Gibson increasingly finds himself cast. But he sees more substance in this role than any he has played thus far.

"There's a Cyrano de Bergerac quality to McKussic," he said. "The character is subtle. He keeps a low profile. Actually, he is a flawed hero who is trying to change his life, but everyone around him - friends and enemies - are trying to cash in on him.

"It's another macho role for me and I don't object to that. I play those parts because they interest me. But I'm not kidding myself about male chauvinism. Women rule the roost. They always have and they know it."

Gibson allowed himself a crooked grin and sipped a soft drink.

"Whenever I accept a role, I try to understand the men I play before I ask the audience to understand them," he said.

"I'm getting to feel more at ease with every part I play. More comfortable. If I feel that way on camera, then I believe the audience will be more at ease with them. The relationship I establish with the role is the key to realism.

"The more laid back an actor is, the more believable he is. The closer I get to the character, the clearer the focus. Experience counts. I've made maybe a dozen pictures and it gets better every time."

Gibson's next screen assignment is "Lethal Weapon II," in which he will co-star again with Danny Glover. Once more he will play the driven, Vietnam veteran cop.

"Sequels are dangerous and iffy," Gibson said. "But there's no reason why they can't be as good or better than the first installment. I mean, look at `Godfather II.' It was every bit as good as the original.

"`Mad Max, The Road Warrior' was better than the first picture and I was a better actor in it. But the third `Mad Max' wasn't as good. It isn't easy to do something in the same vein three times."

Of his new-found popularity with producers, as well as audiences, Gibson is grateful but not impressed. While he is now earning several million dollars per picture, he understands that careers take sharp turns in Hollywood.