Dedicated To His Profession - Ving Rhames
   
 



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by
Laurence Washington

God had placed his hand upon Ving Rhames’ life. At least that’s the way the Hollywood tough guy explains his escape from Harlem’s mean streets to the stage of New York’s famous Julliard School of Acting.

"For whatever reason, God decided to use me to do something," Rhames says. "There was this one time where I almost got shot. There was a wrought iron fence next to a Catholic church, and these gang members were chasing me. I remember leaning against the fence, and then the air just left me — I left my body for a minute. Why I didn’t get shot, I don’t know."

Rhames, 43, says as a troubled youth he’s experienced a lot during his tenure on Harlem’s streets. And concedes that he doesn’t have any answers as to why he’s alive today and so many of his friends are not.

"I just have a lot of questions," Rhames says. "Maybe I’m here to bear witness to all of the guys in my neighborhood who didn’t make it."

Despite mixing it up with New York gangs, Rhames was good student in search of a creative outlet. So he entered the New York High School of Performing arts where he discovered a love for acting. Upon graduation, Rhames enrolled in Julliard where he studied classical acting techniques used by icons James Earl Jones and Roscoe Lee Browne.

In 1984 Rhames received his first acting gig, a small part in the Broadway play The Winter Boys. Rhames’ excellent performance paved the way for television cameos and bit parts in "B" movies until he landed a role in Casualties of War (’89) starring Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox.

However, Rhames didn’t really gain the attention of film audiences until 1994 when he played the surreal gangster Marsellus Wallace in Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic Pulp Fiction.

Eight years later, Rhames still isn’t a household name. However, he has a very familiar face — depending on what movie fans recognize him.

"If I’m in the ‘hood," Rhames says, "then I’m recognized as Melvin, a former Crip from Baby Boy."

In New York City, Rhames is best known for his portrayal of controversial boxing promoter Don King, a role that won him a 1998 Golden Globe Award for best actor in a miniseries.

"But there are some places in the world where I’m known as Marsellus Wallace from Pulp Fiction," Rhames says — a role that spawns the same questions wherever he goes.

"What’s with the band-aid on the back of Marsellus’ head?"

"Does the band-aid keep Marsellus’ soul from escaping?"

"Is he the devil?"

"I don’t answer," Rhames says. "I leave it up to their imaginations. I don’t want to spoil their fantasies. And by the way, I do know what’s in the briefcase. But I’m not telling."

Rhames says he enjoys playing desperate characters like Marsellus Wallace, Don King, and Wesley Snipes’ boxing nemesis, George "Iceman" Chambers in Undisputed.

"That’s because they’re more interesting than the good guys," Rhames says. "What we call the good guy in America, a lot of people think are dull. Villains are more interesting. That’s one of the things I like about Undisputed, the characters are flawed."

Rhames says he’s still committed to doing the temporarily shelved film about ex-heavyweight champ Sonny Liston, a boxer the media perceived as a villain.

"To me it’s not a film about boxing," Rhames says, "it’s about putting a camera inside a black man during the ‘60s and showing the world and what black men go through.

"Liston was in and out of jail and controlled by the mob. It’s really a character study of someone who happens to be a boxer."

While Rhames is trying to get Liston kick started again, he’s currently filming Envy with comedian Jack Black in which he plays a gay detective.

"And I do it very well," Rhames says. "Unfortunately we stereotype what gay is. What is gay? What is black? There is no definitive answer. So I just play a gay human being."

Rhames has agreed to take the title role of Lt. Theo Kojak, in a re-envisioning of the classic police drama for USA Network. The late Telly Savalas originated the lollipop-sucking TV crime fighter role. He’s currently starring with Kurt Russell in Dark Blue where he plays a LAPD captain trying to solve a murder and root out corrupt several days before the Rodney King beating.

And of course Mission Impossible 3 is on the horizon for the summer of 2004.

"Now that’s Tom Cruise’s vehicle," Rhames says. " If they what to pay me $4.5 million to do what I did in the last film, just sit in a van, that’s alright with me."

Rhames laughs and says, they can use him even less, because he’s not a greedy actor.

"They can leave me in a van and give Tom Cruise more screen time. I’m not an angry black man. I’m easy to get along with."

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