WHEN NICOLAS CAGE ARRIVED AT THE Gold River Resort in Laughlin, Nev., in September 1994 to film Leaving Las Vegas, the staff expected to wheel out the big-star treatment. Instead, they found themselves playing host to Ben Sanderson, Cage's doomed, alcoholic Vegas character. "He was really bizarre," says casino manager Brad Over-field of Cage, who checked into the hotel as Sanderson and immediately phoned the front desk to order a bottle of vodka and some cranberry juice. "A lot of people thought he had to be drunk or on drugs because he was so intense."

When it comes to method acting, Cage is 200 proof. His marriage to actress Patricia Arquette last April may have mellowed him somewhat. Yet throughout his 14-year movie career, he has engaged in crazy stunts, as he has called them, that have gotten him closer to his characters and contributed to his off-kilter mystique. To feel the pain of a Vietnam vet he played in 1984's Birdy, he had his wisdom teeth extracted without Novocain; to play a rapacious literary agent in 1989's Vampire's Kiss, he ate a live cockroach onscreen. This approach has carried him through parts ranging from lovelorn baker Ronny Cammareri in 1987's Moonstruck to an Elvis-style ghoul in 1990's Wild at Heart. In 1992's Honeymoon in Vegas, he played a loopy detective who gambles away his intended bride—and managed to upset costar Sarah Jessica Parker during filming by "making these insane bets on roulette," says director Andrew Bergman.

The bets have finally paid off for Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Though the story is distressing—alcoholic is determined to drink himself to death, meets prostitute, falls in love, keeps drinking—the "riotous energy of [Cage's] outward charm," in the words of The New York Times's Janet Maslin, made it the breakthrough performance of his career. Cage, 32, already has a Golden Globe for the role, and last week he earned his first Oscar nomination—for Best Actor. "There's an inevitability that someone as talented as Nic becomes a big star," says producer Craig Baumgarten (Jade, Hook).

It also seems logical that someone born Nicholas Coppola—the nephew of director Francis Ford Coppola and actress Talia Shire—would at least have a shot at stardom. Cage is the youngest of three sons of Joy Vogelsang, a modern dancer, and August Coppola (Francis and Talia's brother), a literature professor. During Cage's childhood, Vogelsang was frequently hospitalized with chronic depression, leaving August to run the household in Long Beach, Calif. Scholarly and eccentric ("It was very natural that you were given reading lists," says Shire), he once served up crayons and paper plates for Thanksgiving dinner and had his children draw imaginary feasts.

At age 6, Cage describes himself as retreating into "an imaginary world where I could go to and be these other characters"—most inspired by superhero comic books. With his brothers Christopher (now an L.A. film director) and Marc (a New York City deejay), he would "make little monster movies" in the backyard, says his grandmother Louise Vogelsang.

Following his parents' divorce when he was 12, Cage lived with his father, who shuttled him between their L.A. home and his Coppola relatives in Northern California, near his job at San Francisco State University.

Though Cage was enrolled in Beverly Hills High School, he was not well-off. "I remember he had trouble paying for a pair of dress shoes to wear with his madrigal singers' costume," says his former music teacher Joel Pressman. Perhaps because he felt out of place, Cage turned rebel. Once, buying an old Camaro, he decided to smash it up instead of spiff it up. "He would floor it, and he'd run into trash cans and have them flying off the roof," says school friend Tony Darren. "Just anything to create some kind of havoc."

At 14, Cage went with a friend of Shire's to an acting class in L.A., where he "got up and blew the class away," she says. After taking a summer course at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, he "became the focal point of every scene" in high school productions, says Pressman. Cage left in his junior year after passing his equivalency exam to act in movies—but even in that world he was volatile. One day, while shooting 1983's Rumble Fish, his uncle Francis, the director, had him do 42 takes of a brief scene in which he glanced at his watch. Frustrated, he shed his surname shortly afterward, dropped the "h" in his first name and became "Cage" as a tribute to Luke Cage, a Marvel Comics superhero, and John Cage, the avant-garde composer.

As Cage developed his résumé he stayed a bit nuts. After he changed his name, he had an eight-inch top-hatted lizard tattooed on his back and palled around with party boy Johnny Depp. Even Cage's homes have offbeat personalities: He has an 11-room house in the Hollywood Hills, built in the style of a German castle, and a sort of Addams Family Victorian, once owned by est founder Werner Erhard, in San Francisco's Pacific Heights.

Cage claims he began to mellow following the birth of his son Weston, 5, with former girlfriend Kristina Fulton. "I used to feel like an irritant, or almost like an anarchist," he told Interview. But no more, he has said: "Now I feel myself slowing down into a worry-wart." He and Fulton, 38, split during the 1991 filming of Honeymoon in Vegas, but Cage sees Weston regularly—and has said he drew on the boy's "beauty and fragility" for the heartbreaking Ben Sanderson role, filmed in 1994. "When I was doing Ben, I asked, 'What is most heartbreaking? The behavior of a 4-year-old boy.' " Still, shooting Leaving Las Vegas in 28 days took its toll. By the time the movie wrapped, Cage had broken up with his fiancée of two years, model Kristen Zang, 21.

More recently, Cage's life has taken an unexpected turn toward romantic comedy. Last March, he ran into actress Patricia Arquette, 27, at Canter's Deli in L.A.—eight years after they had a brief fling in Mexico. Soon after, she called him up. "Listen, I'm gonna ask you something," she told Rolling Stone, and proposed marriage. He accepted. "There was no doubt in my mind that this woman was my equal," Cage has said. "We're both from the same tribe."

Two weeks later, Cage, in a dark suit, and Arquette, in a leopard-print jacket, drove to a rocky cliff in Carmel overlooking the Pacific Ocean. They were married in a 10-minute ceremony, witnessed only by the town's former police chief and a pod of sea otters. "He was real quiet," says minister Kathee McFarland. "Patty giggled a lot." After posing for pictures, they sped away in a blue Ferrari convertible. For Cage, who has said he likes to blur the line between his roles and reality, the moment was perfect. He was being wild at heart. And genuinely moonstruck.

CIRTIS RIST
CAROLYN RAMSAY and JEFF SCHNAUFER in Los Angeles, DANELLE MORTON in Laughlin and PENELOPE ROWLANDS in San Francisco

  • Contributors:
  • Carolyn Ramsay,
  • Jeff Schnaufer,
  • Danelle Morton,
  • Penelope Rowlands.