December 13, 1996
By KATHLEEN SAMPEY --
NEW YORK -- It could well be the role that launches him from "who-dom" to stardom.
But unlike the character he plays in the new movie "Jerry Maguire," Cuba Gooding Jr. isn't counting on anything.
"It's so hard to predict," he says of where his latest role might lead. "If I'm accurate, it's out of luck. And if I'm inaccurate, I'll feel like an idiot for guessing in the first place."
Besides, he's experienced the hype once before: Gooding was the Hot New Thing after winning raves for his role as "Tre" in 1991's "Boyz in the Hood," and was singled out for his outstanding performance opposite Dustin Hoffman in "Outbreak" in 1995.
This time, he gets star billing just behind Tom Cruise for the role of Rod Tidwell, a blustery, thin-skinned football player who demands that his agent "show me the money" while negotiating his new contract.
In real life, Gooding is the married father of two small boys, Spencer, 2, and Mason, one month. He says he became a born-again Christian at age 13.
Now 28, he reflects that everything he does is "a direct stem from God's plan."
"I'm a sinner and I fall to some of the enticing sins of the world," he says. "But my relationship with God has guided me."
Slightly hoarse from numerous interviews, Gooding sits down in a restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel for his first meal of the day at 4:30 p.m.
Dressed in a dark-blue, pinstriped suit and yellow-print tie, Gooding exudes the cordiality and reserve of a minister when he declares, "All the benefits that I've received already make me feel undeserving of the blessings God has bestowed on me."
Methodically slicing into a lobster-with-bacon sandwch, he continues, "The Old Testament is something you observe. The New Testament is something you learn from." It also contains his favorite quotation, which he can't immediately reference, but which he recites every night before bed: "I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me."
As for the temptations that might be viewed as inherent to being a rich and famous actor, Gooding insists that they are not exclusive to the entertainment industry.
As he sees it, potential transgressions constantly lurk in the way people rear their children, talk to their neighbors or deal with their employers.
"You don't think there's strip bars and things that tempt people in their everyday lives?" he asks.
If there's any temptation for him to fall by the wayside, Gooding says it lies in wanting to "sin upside the head" of some egotistical actors he's encountered in his career.
Relax. Tom Cruise isn't among them.
Gooding also appeared with Cruise in "A Few Good Men" in 1992 and found the actor "didn't push disrespect. He relaxes around you and allows you to be yourself. Some superstars push you to act their way."
But Gooding isn't a complete newcomer to the scene. His father was the lead singer for the Main Ingredient, whose 1972 hit "Everybody Plays the Fool," had the family living in luxury. They moved from the Bronx to Southern California where his parents eventually split up. He was only 6 at the time.
Then it was a bumpy road as his mother, Shirley, headed a household of three children.
Gooding became interested in acting after playing "Pappy" in a high school production of "Li'l Abner."
A friend's mother was an agent and saw the play. She offered to represent Gooding and immediately began sending him on auditions for commercials and television shows.
His break came in a 1982 episode of "Hill Street Blues," in which he played a neighborhood thug. After the director admonished him several times for missing his mark, Gooding says it dawned on him that that was what the tape on the floor was for. He knew he needed to get serious.
A few years later, with some acting workshops under his belt, he landed "Boyz in the Hood."
"I think I watched 'Boyz in the Hood' six times before I liked the movie," he says. "It's hard to watch yourself on film. You're thinking about the mannerisms, about what works, how you look."
Screening his films is not pleasant, he says. "All I know is that I have a headache when it starts, my stomach gets a little queasy in the middle, and I have a headache walking out."
Next up is a film called "Old Friends," with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt.
When he's not playing ice hockey or listening to R&B music at top volume in his car, Gooding, with his wife, Sara, is fully committed to one goal.
"To raise my boys into men," he declares. "That's going to be a job. But I'm ready."