03/09/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
WHEN DAVE CHAPPELLE WAS A KID IN WASHINGTON, he says in one of his comedy routines, his family had no money for Halloween costumes. Instead, he recalls, "we wrote what we were supposed to be on our T-shirts: Ghost. Cowboy. Witch."
It's a joke—but his Capitol Hill neighborhood wasn't great, and his parents, both teachers, encouraged their son's imagination. Meeting Eddie Murphy on the set of The Nutty Professor in 1996 (Chappelle played an abusive stand-up comic), the 24-year-old newcomer says the star told him, "You can see pictures in your head. You can write movies." So he did. His first effort, the comedy Half Baked, which Chappelle co-wrote and stars in, opened J. recently. After films like Con Air, his own HBO Comedy Half Hour and spots on Late Show with David Letterman, Chappelle doesn't need to say who he is on a T-shirt.
Despite his chosen profession, he grew up trying not to stand out. Alienated by neighborhood violence, Chappelle had few friends and stuck close to his parents, practicing his humor on them. Chappelle's father, William, 59, is a retired voice teacher; mother Yvonne Seon, 60, is an ordained Unitarian minister who teaches African-American studies at a Maryland college. (They divorced in 1978 but remain friends.) By junior high, Chappelle was trying out in D.C. comedy clubs; at 18 he moved to New York City, honing his routines about black Santas and police sketches of African-American suspects. Chappelle, who lives in Manhattan with his year-old American Eskimo dog, Monk, savors success—but doesn't act surprised: "I knew I could do it. I just had to start."