Mel Gibson, who reportedly made anti-Semitic remarks during a drunken driving arrest five years ago, is now producing a film about the life of Jewish hero Judah Maccabee.
Gibson's publicist, Alan Nierob, said that Gibson is working on a deal with Warner Bros to develop the film through his company, Icon Productions. What Gibson's exact role will be - whether he might direct or even star in the film - hasn't been determined.
"Warner Bros would like him to direct," Nierob said. "He is the first choice for the studio to direct it, but until there's a deal in place and a script that's finished, it will be his choice as to whether to direct it or not."
Joe Eszterhas of Basic Instinct and Flashdance fame is writing the script. No timetable is in place for it to be completed and for production to begin.
But Gibson's involvement with bringing Maccabee's story to the screen in any form has angered some Jewish leaders. Maccabee, who's acclaimed as one of the greatest warriors in Jewish history, helped inspire the celebration of Hanukkah.
"We would have hoped that Warner Bros could have found someone better than Mel Gibson to direct or perhaps even star in a film on the life of the Jewish historical icon Judah Maccabee," Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement.
"As a hero of the Jewish people and a universal hero in the struggle for religious liberty, Judah Maccabee deserves better."
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said: "Casting him (Gibson) as a director or perhaps as the star of (a film about) Judah Maccabee is like casting (Bernard) Madoff to be the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, or a white supremacist as trying to portray Martin Luther King Jr. It's simply an insult to Jews."
The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants said: "Holocaust survivors are aghast that a major Hollywood studio would join with Mel Gibson in this venture and view it as an affront to all victims of anti-Semitism, intolerance, and sexism."
Nierob declined to respond to the backlash from Jewish leaders. Warner Bros had not responded by Friday afternoon to a request for comment on the project itself or the negative reaction it has drawn.
Gibson, the Oscar-winning director of Braveheart, has defended himself against accusations of anti-Semitism ever since his 2006 drunken driving arrest, in which a deputy's report revealed Gibson made Jewish and sexist slurs while in custody.
Last month, he reached a US$750,000 (NZ$908,000) settlement with his ex-girlfriend, Russian musician Oksana Grigorieva, and agreed to continue providing housing and financial support for their young daughter to resolve a bitter legal fight that followed sexist, racist rants attributed to the actor.
His last project was The Beaver, a drama in which he starred opposite director Jodie Foster as a man who sinks into such a deep depression, he can only communicate through a beaver hand puppet.
Gibson earned strong reviews for his performance but the film itself only made about $6.4 million worldwide.