08/19/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT
Trouble has a way of following Ice-T around. Ten years after he sparked a national debate with his 1992 song "Cop Killer," the rapper-actor is back in the headlines this summer: Aspiring actress Linda Marie Sanchez has hit him with a paternity suit. So when his pal Sean E. Sean looks out the window of Ice-T's Manhattan penthouse apartment and gives him more bad news—"Yo! They're towin' the car!"—the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star isn't fazed. "I'll be right back," he says as he goes to check out the scene. Five minutes later he's back; the illegally parked 2000 Ferrari Modena wasn't towed. "The guy couldn't figure out how to hook it up," Ice-T says with a grin.
He may not get off the hook so easily with Sanchez, 28, who wants 17 percent of his adjusted gross income as child support for 9-month-old Kevin. "It's a lot of lies," says Ice-T, who declines to comment further. But "Ice-T isn't worried about anything," says Sean, a former backup singer for his pal. "Ice is feeling good."
That may be because, as the 44-year-old rap star puts it, "everything I've ever wanted to do in life, I've done it. I wanted to be a rapper—did it. Movies, did it. Be on television, did it. Did it, had it, bought it, wrecked it."
Indeed, even before his turn on the hit SVU, the gangsta rap pioneer had churned out eight albums and appeared in more than 50 films, ranging from 1991's New Jack City to 200 l's 3000 Miles to Graceland. Yet for all his self-promotional jive, "there's an incredibly playful side to him that's quite endearing," says his SVU costar Richard Belzer.
Ice-T takes his current stardom in stride. "It's funny," admits the writer of "Cop Killer," "that now I'm on television playing the police. It's like, 'What the f—-?' But it's cool." It's also just one more anomaly in a life full of contradictions and scarred by tragedy. Born Tracy Marrow in Newark, N.J, the only child of Alice, a home-maker, and Solomon, a conveyor-belt repairman, he recalls, "My mother died of a heart attack when I was in the third grade, and my father got killed when I was in the seventh grade." He says he never learned the cause of his father's death, but, as a result, "I was really hard at a young age." Then 13, he was sent to L.A. to live with his father's sister, a social worker. "My aunt was not a good lady. She was like, 'I'm taking care of you 'cause I got to,' " he says. "I left there when I was 17 and haven't dealt with a relative since."
By then he had a pregnant girlfriend, a 10th grader at L.A.'s Crenshaw High School, where Ice-T had graduated a half semester early in 1976. To support his new family, he trained to be an auto mechanic. "But I was only making $250 a month," he says, so he left L.A. to serve in the Army for four years, which kept him apart from his daughter, LeTesha, now 25, whom he sees occasionally. He returned home to a life of crime. "I had my hands in everything," he says. "I pimped. I robbed drug dealers." He also made music. While most of his friends "went to jail or got killed," he says, rap "saved my life."
Performing in L.A. clubs in the early '80s, Ice-T (whose stage name was inspired by his idol, black author Robert Maupin Beck, a.k.a. Iceberg Slim) released his first major-label album, Rhyme Pays, in 1987; it went gold. A year earlier he'd begun dating Darlene Ortiz, and in 1991 he had a son with her, Ice Tracy, now 10. Though the couple split up in 2000 ("Sometimes people just drift apart"), they remain friends. Ortiz and their son live in Ice-T's $2.5 million contemporary home in L.A. "Everything's cool there," he says.
Things got uncomfortably hot, however, with the 1992 controversy over "Cop Killer." Ice-T's label, Sire, cut the song from subsequent album pressings, and the rapper and the company parted ways in 1993. Undaunted, Ice-T released his next album, Home Invasion, on his own label in 1994. A year later he scored his first TV gig, as a drug kingpin on FOX's New York Undercover, whose executive producer (Law & Order franchise chief Dick Wolf) tapped him to play a sex-crimes cop on SVU in 2000. "He's grown enormously as an actor," says Wolf, "and he's the coolest person I've ever met." Ice-T says, with a laugh, "People ask me, 'How did you learn to act?' and I say, 'Standing in front of a judge.' All acting is lying."
But acting isn't everything. "I've got my music I'm doing," says Ice-T, whose new group is called Sex Money & Gunz, and in September he begins hosting a new TLC series called Beyond Tough. "I interview people with extreme jobs—tunnel workers, window cleaners on the Sears tower," he says. "I play a tough guy on TV, but these people do it for real." He also has a new girlfriend, swimsuit model Nicole "Coco" Austin. Marriage? Maybe someday, he says. But mortality weighs more heavily on Ice-T's mind. "I just don't feel like I'm gonna be around long," he says. "I've been feeling like this for the past 25 years. I have more friends that are dead than are alive."
His friends on SVU say they have taken the measure of the real Ice-T. "He's known as such a bad boy," says costar Mariska Hargitay, "but the truth is, he's one of the gentlest spirits I've ever met." She adds, "Maybe that darkness is what got him to where he is now." As for his pals in prison, "They call me up from the joint: To, you cool, that was a good show, you guys busted that perp!' " he says with a shake of his head. "Now they're in jail, they got life, they're watching me play the cop, and they like it."
Michael A. Lipton
Mark Dagostino in New York City