Diesel's rise has been fast and furious

Former bouncer is now a $20 million man in Hollywood

April 15, 2003|By Mal Vincent | Mal Vincent,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Vin Diesel is talking about George W. Bush.

"He should change his name to George W. Diesel. He's gotten tough," the Diesel named Vin was saying. "When you put the pride of America at stake, you can push just about any agenda. But the president could have learned a few things if he'd been a bouncer at New York bars, like me.

"I learned that you can calm the situation with a verbal tone and a demeanor. The best acting I've done was in calming rough situations when there were two of us against 10 at the door of a bar. They'll back off."

Back in those days, Diesel was making $100 a night. Things have changed. He's now getting $20 million to make the sequel to XXX, last summer's hit action film. He played Xander Cage, an ex-car thief recruited to stop a gang of Russian thugs by using jet-powered snowboards, snowmobiles and a loud soundtrack.

In the summer of 2001, it was the low-budgeted The Fast and the Furious that made him a star. Made for a modest amount, it took in $145 million at the box office. Diesel didn't get top billing, but he, as his director said, "stole everything but the camera."

His latest film, A Man Apart, was made more than two years ago, before he was either fast or furious at the box office.

"It's a dark film. I play this guy with a code of his own. You could call it an action film."

When the character's wife is murdered during an assassination attempt on him, he sets out to take revenge on the drug czar behind it. The movie was originally called Diablo, after the villain, but then Diesel became a star and it was changed to A Man Apart.

Like many movies, it taps into audience fantasies about taking the law into one's own hands. Diesel doesn't think those times are past.

"I think A Man Apart is pertinent today. A man can be turned into a fiend when his family is attacked. It's basic. Morals may be in question, but audiences like to see the guy on the screen take charge and skip the courts and all the appeals. The guy on the screen makes the neighborhood safer for those in the audience who are less macho."

Despite his advice on President Bush's moniker, Diesel is not even the actor's real name. He was born Mark Vincent in New York City, the son of an astrologist mother in Greenwich Village. He is half-black, half-Italian and says he never knew his biological father.

His stepfather, with whom he is particularly close, was a drama teacher. Diesel didn't start acting until age 7 and then only because he was caught breaking into a theater with his gang. The woman who caught them told them she wouldn't call the police if they would return and take acting lessons.

"I always, always thought I would become a movie star," he says. "I thought I was a movie star a long time ago. It was just the rest of the world that hadn't discovered it yet."

During the run of XXX, the movie poster pictured Diesel's muscled back and arms as he glanced over his shoulder.

"It was selling the picture, not me. That poster was more a declaration of war. It was like telling the fans that this person may be bald and tattooed, but he's a star. It was like saying, `I'm a new star, even though you might not know me yet.'

"I may not be pretty and I may not be smart, but I'm cool - real cool."

Don't let the "smart" comment fool you. Evidence shows he is a great deal smarter than the characters he plays. He studied English and creative writing at Hunter College in New York but dropped out in his junior year to try Hollywood. He didn't do well.

Returning to New York, he changed his name to Vin Diesel and tried to raise $3,000 to make his own film. He "bought" a computer with money he didn't have on the theory that he could keep it for a month before returning it. That month, he wrote the script for Multi-Facial, a film in which he also directed and starred. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995.

Steven Spielberg saw it and subsequently created for him the role of a doomed soldier in Saving Private Ryan. Meanwhile, Diesel made his directorial debut with a low-budget film called Strays, in which he also wrote and starred. It was shown at the Sundance Festival in 1997.

As an actor, he scored as a crooked stockbroker in Boiler Room and as the voice of the titular character in the animated film The Iron Giant.

He hit the screen again with the cult film Pitch Black, in which he played Riddick, a futuristic ex-con with strange eyes.

"The contact lenses for that part were the toughest thing I've faced in movies. After 10 hours filming, on the first day, they had to take me to the hospital. They had to have a special optometrist fly in to get the contacts out of my eyes. It was painful. So much for the macho stuff."

Nonetheless, he has agreed to film the sequel, The Chronicle of Riddick, to reprise the role of the convict who can see in the dark and battles monsters on a planet that exists in permanent midnight.

He will not, though, appear in Too Fast, Too Furious, the sequel to the auto-racing film that made him a star. He asked $30 million to do the film - $28 million more than what he got for the first one. Hollywood noticed his fastness and was a little furious.

"It wasn't the money," he says. "It was the fact that the script wasn't ready."

But Diesel is ready for superstardom. Hollywood has hailed him as the much-needed action successor to the aging Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Diesel, though, is not content with just his action label. He's in negotiations to woo Nicole Kidman in a remake of the classic musical Guys and Dolls. He also yearns to make a romantic comedy. He'd most like to remake his favorite, It Happened One Night, with himself in the role created by Clark Gable.

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