07/01/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT
IT'S AMAZING THE DOPE DEALERS AREN'T out today," says actor Samuel L. Jackson, surveying Harlem's 143rd Street from the sloop of the four-story brownstone he owns. Hopping into his jeep for a tour of the drug-scarred neighborhood, he points out the local landmarks featured in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, in which he plays Gator, the crack-head brother of architect Flipper (Wesley Snipes). Over there is the dingy corner where a prostitute solicits Flipper to get $5 for a fix. And over here is the boarded-up Casino Renaissance Theater, transformed by Lee into an infernal crack palace.
Although Jackson, 42, and his wife, stage actress LaTanya Richardson, 40, have shielded their potpourri-scented home behind an iron fence and send daughter Zoe, 9, to a private school on the posh Upper East Side, tragedies are close by. "I've had friends who have sold everything—their clothes, even their condominiums—and smoked them all away," says the lean, 6'3" Jackson. "I remembered all the desperation of those people when I was thinking about Gator."
The inspiration was clearly sufficient. Jackson's rack-thin Gator literally shakes, rattles and rolls with crack fever and so dazzled the Cannes judges in May that they created a new award, Best Supporting Actor, just for him. Already critics are murmuring about a possible Academy Award next year.
For Jackson, the recognition is a validation of 20 years of bad-guy bit parts on TV and in such films as 1988's Coming to America and last year's GoodFellas. Whenever Jackson railed against the typecasting he faced, wife LaTanya advised patience. "She made me see that Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney made whole careers out of being villains," says Jackson.
In his sitting room overlooking the garden, Jackson recalls discovering boyhood heroes Sidney Poitier and Errol Flyrm at the two theaters open to blacks in Chattanooga, where he was raised by his mother, Elizabeth, and her parents (his absentee dad lived in Kansas City, Mo.). His mom, a former clothing buyer, wanted Sam to be a pediatrician. But at Atlanta's Morehouse College, he mined the drama department at sister school Spelman College, where he met La-Tanya, and dabbled in radical politics. He and LaTanya joined a local black theater, which he calls "our 'hate whities' theater, complete with conga drums, Baraka poems and takeoffs on the Supremes called the Supremacists."
During his junior year in 1969, Jackson and other students held several school trustees, including Martin Luther King Sr., hostage to protest the lack of a black studies program and of black trustees. Jackson was temporarily expelled—he graduated in 1972—but counts a victory. "All the things we wanted got done when we were gone."
Jackson's first big break was hyping Crystal Hamburgers for the Southern fast-food chain. Since heading to New York City in 1976 (he and LaTanya married in 1980), Jackson has moved from low budget to high budget and back again, spending two years as Bill Cosby's TV stand-in and appearing in the original production of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson. Jackson says white directors have limited his career. "I've been told that I wasn't African enough or not an exotic Negro," he says, recalling how he was turned away from a part in Roots. "What does that mean?"
Fellow Morehouse grad Spike Lee, who was studying filmmaking at NYU when he met the actor, has given Jackson diverse roles in four of his five films, including hip deejay Mister Senor Love Daddy in Do the Right Thing. Says Lee: "Talented people like Sam need a vehicle to show what they can do." Nowadays, Jackson gets sporadic calls from Lee: "Malcolm. September. Be ready," to remind him he'll have a part—still undetermined—in Lee's Malcolm X, which stars Denzel Washington
Meanwhile, Jackson is filing for unemployment and looking for work. He says that even if Hollywood comes courting, Harlem will always be his base. "It's black. I'm used to it, and it's a comfort zone for me," he says, even though the occasional gunfire forces him to make the streets off-limits to Zoe. "So for now, I'm going to sit in my backyard and just chill."
SUE CARSWELL in Harlem