THE YEAR'S MOST UNLIKELY OSCAR nominee is having himself a typical afternoon break at home in his rocking chair. "Hey, Willie," says Billy Bob Thornton to his 3-year-old son. "Do your Elvis imitation!"

The dark-eyed boy climbs down off his daddy's lap, lowers his bottom lip and snarls, "Thank-Q. Thank-Q very much." Thornton—unshaven and wearing an Arkansas 1994 NCAA Championship T-shirt—howls with laughter. Then, placing his other son, Harry, 2, on the couch, he grabs the cigarettes lying next to a Bible and walks toward the back door, stopping to untie a string securing the childproof gate. "We use some old bootlaces of mine to lock this," he says, stepping onto the porch of his three-bedroom Pacific Palisades home. "We're still white trash around here."

Maybe so, but the 41-year-old actor with the tattooed arms and the hard-luck past has gone from obscurity to celebrity in just a few months. His movie Sling Blade, a disturbing tale of a slow-witted man who returns to his small town after 25 years in an asylum, has been hailed by critics and praised by Thornton's peers. Robert Duvall calls Thornton, who wrote and directed the film (which also stars John Ritter and country singer Dwight Yoakam), "the hillbilly Orson Welles." And last month the Arkansas native was nominated for Oscars in the Best Actor and Screenplay categories. Sure, he'd like to beat out Tom Cruise and that guy who wrote The English Patient, but, says Thornton, that's mostly because "it would make my mother and my wife and kids proud."

Thornton has been living with Karl Childers, the Sling Blade character, for 10 years now. In 1987 he was a struggling actor, depressed and bored on the set of the HBO movie The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains, when inspiration struck. "Val Kilmer had a real part, and I was envious that I only had five lines," says Thornton. "My life was going by, and nothing was happening." So he started making faces in the dressing-room mirror. His voice deepened, maybe like that odd man he remembered who lived behind someone's house, in a shed. His lower lip covered his upper one, kind of like people he knew at the nursing home where he had worked in the '70s. Karl had arrived. And while Thornton spent the next decade perfecting the character, the seeds for his career-making role were sowed.

In fact, Karl has revamped Thornton's entire life. "I get all these people calling and wishing me good luck," says Thornton, still stunned by the attention. "Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood, Mary Steenburgen, Mario Thomas." As he ticks off the names, a limo is outside, waiting to take him and his wife, Pietra, to yet another Hollywood awards ceremony.

Thornton has come a long way from Alpine (pop. 100) and Malvern (pop. 9,256). His father, Billy Ray, a high school basketball coach and history teacher, died of lung cancer when Billy Bob was 18. His mother, Virginia, now 63—"the main person who encouraged me to become whatever I wanted to be," he says—was a homemaker and a psychic who once predicted that Thornton would work with Burt Reynolds. (It came true when he did three episodes of CBS's Evening Shade starting in 1990.) "She gave me an appreciation of my southern gothic roots," Thornton says. Today she lives in Little Rock, as does his brother John David, now 28 and a med student. Another brother, Jimmy Don, a musician and writer, died of heart problems in 1988, at 30. "Jimmy was more talented than I'll ever hope to be," says Thornton. "Anytime something good happens for me, I feel guilty and wish it were me who died instead."

After graduating from high school, where he'd gotten involved in theater, Thornton went to work—hauling hay, toiling at a screen-door factory. In 1975, at 20, he says, "I went bowling one night and ended up married. It was one of those deals." The two-year marriage produced a daughter, Amanda, now 17. He had no involvement in her upbringing, and they are not close. "I want to get things more on track with her," he says now.

In 1977, after taking some classes at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark., he and pal Tom Epperson headed for New York City to become, respectively, a rock star and a novelist.

They lasted 10 hours.

"The Holland Tunnel terrified us," says Epperson. "Greenwich Village terrified us. Steam coming out of the grates and the subway rattling underneath—that really terrified us. We wrent back to Arkansas in disgrace."

The pair would try again, driving to L.A. in 1981 with $500. They wrote scripts and worked odd jobs. During a particularly bad stretch in 1984, Thornton lived on nothing but potatoes. "I knew a few people, but I was too ashamed to ask them for money," he says. "I went through a couple of weeks where I really didn't eat anything." The frightening result: nearly fatal heart failure brought on by malnutrition. At the hospital, the doctor on duty, who happened to be from Arkansas, allowed him to stay, uninsured, for a week. Soon Thornton was home, healthy—and still destitute.

Bit parts followed, as did a brief marriage to an actress he won't name ("a bad situation"). Then, in 1987, after the character had come vividly to life for him on that HBO movie set, Thornton worked Karl up as part of a one-man show, renting space and inviting casting directors. Sling Blade was still years away, but Thornton's acting foreshadowed roles on TV's The Outsiders and Evening Shade.

In 1991, Shade executive producers Harry Thomason and Linda Blood-worth-Thomason invited Thornton to a Clinton presidential fund-raiser in L.A. and hired him for their new CBS series Hearts Afire. Then-Governor Clinton was quick to congratulate him. "He told me he was proud to see people from Arkansas doing well," remembers Thornton. Maybe the actor's presidential shoulder-rubbing will come in handy for his upcoming role as a campaign strategist modeled after James Carville in the film version of Primary Colors.

Meanwhile Thornton and Epperson had written a movie, One False Move, a graphically violent tale of a drug deal gone bad. During the filming in 1990, Thornton, one of the leads, fell in love with costar Cynda Williams, who became wife No. 3. Their union lasted less than a year, but they remain close. "We always were good friends, and it was easy to just keep on doing that," says Thornton, who says of his serial marriages, "I was always impulsive."

Those days are apparently over. In 1992 he met Pietra Cherniak, now 26, outside an Italian restaurant in West Hollywood. "He said, 'I guess there's not a snowball's chance in hell I could get your phone number,' " she remembers. "At first I didn't understand him—he had a big southern drawl." She took his number instead. They went on a date and fell in love. A year later they were married.

Now, with Hollywood finally at his feet, Thornton dreams of Arkansas. "I long for simplicity," he says. "It wasn't hard to play Karl—there is a real innocence about him that I wish I had more of. When I am Karl, I feel good about myself." Judging from Sling Blade's success, he has every reason.

GEORGE KALOGERAKIS
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN and CHAMP CLARK in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Vicki Sheff-Cahan,
  • Champ Clark.