FRIENDS AND FAMILY OF MYKELTI Williamson—best known as Tom Hanks's shrimper pal Bubba Blue in Forrest Gump—tend to paint a portrait of the actor as a gentle giant, at least in recent times. Williamson's new wife, Sondra Spriggs of the Animal Planet channel, has said her 6'3", 210 lb. husband "makes me feel extremely safe." And Simon West, Williamson's director on 1997's Con Air, has said, "He always comes across as warm and lovable." Even Williamson's first name speaks of the ethereal. Mykelti (pronounced Michael-tee) means "spirit" in the language of his part-Blackfoot Indian great-grandparents.

Williamson's aura only compounded the shock some felt when the 40-year-old actor was arrested the night of Jan. 5 in Los Angeles on suspicion of stalking Cheryl Chisholm, 33, his ex-wife and mother of his daughter Phoenix, 7, and assaulting her friend, 32-year-old Leroy Edwards. The alleged weapon: a butcher knife. "This one was pretty brutal," says detective Jeff Carnival, one of the investigating officers on the scene. "There was a lot of blood out there." Edwards, an actor, was found lying in the street outside Chisholm's home in the Baldwin Hills area of L.A. with knife wounds in his abdomen and on his hands. He underwent emergency surgery and has since been released.

Chisholm, a real estate agent, told police the assailant was Williamson and that he had been stalking her outside her house earlier that evening. She said Williamson followed her to a store, where he confronted her and grabbed her keys. When she returned home, Chisholm said, Williamson was waiting for her. Carnival says an argument occurred and "it escalated outside—that's where the stabbing took place." The LAPD says Chisholm was with Edwards when the suspect allegedly stabbed him in the stomach.

Within the hour police found Williamson—whose credits include Free Willy (1993), Heat (1995) and Waiting to Exhale (1995)—at his home three miles away in Ladera Heights. Williamson initially refused to allow police to impound his Jeep Cherokee as evidence and, after being put in the back seat of the police cruiser, "started kicking at the windows," Carnival says. Williamson was booked and spent the night in jail but was released the next day after posting $180,000 bail. With his wife of nearly 9 months at his side, he held an impromptu press conference outside his bail bondsman's office. "This has all been a real big misunderstanding, and I will be vindicated," he said.

Actor and pal Stoney Jackson (Angels in the Outfield) says he spoke to Williamson after the arrest. "It's my assumption from what I've heard from him that it was in self-defense," he said of the stabbing. He also suggested that the incident had to do with the custody arrangement Williamson and Chisholm have over their daughter.

Williamson has worked steadily in show business for 20 years. He started acting at age 10, when his mother, Elaine, now an accountant, enrolled him in a church theater group in L.A. By his teens he was a Soul Train dancer, and soon after high school he started to land TV roles. He has said that he kept his nose clean as a youth because if he had misbehaved, his mother "would have knocked me into oblivion."

Williamson conceded in an interview with PEOPLE last May that he and Chisholm, his second wife, had a troubled relationship but maintained that they had negotiated a peace for their child's sake. "When we were together, we couldn't get along," he said of the marriage, which lasted from 1989 to '91. "Now we're like brother and sister. Every now and then we disagree about something as it pertains to Phoenix, but we always figure out a way to make it work."

But Williamson has been known to take matters into his own hands. Stoney Jackson and Williamson were helping Williamson's first wife, Miami Vice actress Olivia Brown, 37, move from her apartment (they divorced in 1985 after 2½ years of marriage) when Brown's ex-boyfriend allegedly showed up, tried to stop her from moving and hit her. "Mykelti was up those stairs so fast you couldn't see him," Jackson has said. "I had to pull him off the guy."

In an incident in 1989, William Braun sued Williamson for assault and battery after his car rear-ended Williamson on a Honda motorbike in L.A. Braun claimed in court papers that Williamson assaulted him, "hitting him with his hands and kicking him on his head and body." Williamson then claimed that Braun attacked him; the suits were settled out of court.

The reason for the alleged attack on Edwards may not be entirely clear until, or even after, Williamson is arraigned Jan. 27. In the meantime his mother can only wait and hope that court proceedings will prove that she was right last May when she told PEOPLE that her son had finally matured when it came to women. "His past relationships were about sexual attraction and the desire to possess," she said. "But this one [Spriggs] is different. Mykelti has brought some maturity to this....He grew up."

CAROL DAY
JULIE JORDAN and JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Julie Jordan,
  • John Hannah.