This time, Jackson isn't listening to the Oscar talk

September 02, 1994|By Frank Bruni | Frank Bruni,Knight-Ridder News Service

They're talking Oscar, but Samuel L. Jackson isn't listening. They're talking major stardom, but he's covering his ears.

The veteran stage and screen actor, whose role in Quentin Tarantino's forthcoming "Pulp Fiction" is said to be both award-caliber and career-making, has been down this road before, and it didn't lead where everyone promised it would.

The year was 1991. The movie was Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever." His supporting performance as a desperate crack addict so impressed the judges at the Cannes Film Festival that they gave it a special citation, even though they normally recognize only lead players.

But Oscar didn't call. Oscar didn't even write.

"So although I know people are saying things now, I don't want to think about it," he says. "I'm already building my parachute."

A parachute is probably a good thing to have when your career is flying as high as Mr. Jackson's seems to be right now.

He's in the middle of filming "Die Hard 3" in Manhattan. In this installment of the mega-profitable franchise, due next summer, he gets more screen time than anyone except Bruce Willis.

He's appearing in "Fresh," one of the best movie surprises of the year, as an absentee father trying to forge some kind of connection with his 12-year-old son. He also shows up in "The New Age," a movie directed by Michael Tolkin, who wrote "The Player," that's due in late September.

In November comes "Losing Isaiah," in which Jessica Lange tries to adopt an abandoned black baby. Mr. Jackson is the lawyer who fights her in court.

Between "The New Age" and "Losing Isaiah" lies "Pulp Fiction." A triptych of three related tales involving crime and the city, it won top honors at Cannes this year and gives Mr. Jackson perhaps his meatiest role to date.

"I play a guy who's a contract killer," he explains. "He's a man who's had the power of life and death in his hands for years and years, and for one split second, it's taken from him, and he's totally vulnerable. But he doesn't die, and that changes his mind about the way he's been living."

He could easily play romantic or action leads, but his chameleonic skill, coupled with the limited opportunities for African-American actors, has cast him in the sometimes thankless role of character actor. Few people outside the business instantly know his name. His face, however, has grown increasingly familiar in recent years due to brief appearances in such big hits as "Jurassic Park" and "Patriot Games."

A man with eclectic tastes, Jackson has increasingly little time to indulge them. The movie offers are too plentiful.

"I'm on a short wish list right now of black actors people want, along with Denzel [Washington], Wesley [Snipes], Laurence Fishburne and Forest Whitaker," he says. "And I'm the cheapest on the list."

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