From the top, Snipes takes to the skies

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Laurence Fishburne and Samuel L. Jackson get the critical notice, but it's cool cat Wesley Snipes who rules the box office.

Not that he's hurt for raves. Since breaking out three years ago in "New Jack City," Mr. Snipes has taken on consistently larger and more varied roles. Figure in his looks and charisma, and he's what the movie industry likes to call "bankable."

He's also to the 1990s what Sidney Poitier was two decades ago: The African-American star of his generation.

As Mr. Snipes walks through the door, the first thing you notice is his shaved head. He's dressed all in black and is wearing granny-style sunglasses. There are silver hoop earrings in both ears.

Even after he was making big money, Mr. Snipes, 32, continued to live in the Bronx where he grew up -- for a while. His New York address today is more uptown.

"Yeah, man, I still roll through the old neighborhood [in the Bronx] andcheck it out, but most of my pals, the guys, are either dead or gone," he says. "I go back to Public School 169, where I went, and work with the kids. We do theater games, things to raise the self-esteem."

Mr. Snipes' latest flick, a sky- diving action film called "Drop Zone," opened last Friday. Bad-guy Gary Busey kidnaps a computer wizard to learn the identities of the country's undercover agents. Mr. Snipes is a U.S. marshal who takes to the skies above Washington.

He frowns at the suggestion that his career has shifted from "serious" actor to action star.

"I don't do nothing twice," Mr. Snipes says. "All my roles are different -- at least I try to make them different. I've made 15 movies and only four of them were action movies; yet the ones everyone remembers are the action things."

"Demolition Man," "Boiling Point," "Passenger 57" and "Drop Zone" are noisy affairs. Mr. Snipes, who played a drug kingpin in "New Jack City," has been criticized for the violence in his films. He's often reminded that he has

a responsibility to young blacks.

"I'm not comfortable with being a role model and I'm not sure I am," he says. "But I am comfortable with being responsible. I've made movies that could rub the kids the wrong way, but most of my roles have been positive images. I was a paraplegic in 'Waterdance' but no one saw that one. I had a quiet role in 'Sugar Hill' but you have to remind people that they saw it."

Insurance companies refused to insure "Drop Zone" if Mr. Snipes was going to be jumping from planes. That didn't stop him; he learned to sky-dive anyway -- off camera. In the movie, a stuntman takes the fall.

"I got an order from the producers stating that I was restricted from flying," he says. "Somehow, I never got that order. I had to jump. My character would have been inept if he couldn't jump. I would have felt that. The audience would have felt that. There's no way to hide while you're in front of that camera."

Mr. Snipes feels that his roles, particularly the U.S. marshal he plays in "Drop Zone," are not actually heroes. "I don't come out trying to be an Adonis or a muscle man. I'm not as macho as the other action guys. In this movie, the guy I play is particularly softer. He gets beat up."

Born in Orlando, Fla., Mr. Snipes grew up in a single-parent home in the South Bronx. At New York's High School for the Performing Arts, he studied to be a dancer, but also took acting classes. His first real show-biz job was working in a traveling puppet show called Struttin' Street Stuff.

He enrolled in the theater arts program at the State University of New York at Purchase and has done Shakespeare. On Broadway, he did the Vietnam drama "The Boys in Winter" and "Execution of Justice." His first film was the 1986 Goldie Hawn football comedy "Wildcats." Spike Lee noticed him in the Michael Jackson video "Bad," and cast him in "Mo' Better Blues" and "Jungle Fever."

He particularly likes his 1992 comedy hit "White Men Can't Jump" "because I did half the writing. I made up the lines as we went along."

Mr. Snipes, who is divorced and has a 5-year-old son, is reteaming with "White Men" co-star Woody Harrelson next year in "The Money Train." "We play two guys who have grown up like brothers and we're going to rob a train in New York. It's a heist movie. You get hooked into how we're going to pull it off."

Next, he'll be seen as a drag queen, opposite Patrick Swayze, in "Wong Foo, Thank You Julie Newmar." Mr. Snipes has no qualms about appearing in a dress. "People will have a good time," he says. "Patrick looks great in a dress. I don't look so hot. People will get over their biases and bigotry about transvestites, but that's, of course, only after they give up their money to see the movie."

His own production of "Black Panthers" goes before the cameras sometime next year. Asked if it'll be controversial, Mr. Snipes slyly pointed out, "It'll be both controversial and commercial."

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