Finding His Depth

updated 08/26/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/26/2002 01:00AM

Struggling-actor stories may be a dime a dozen in Hollywood, but in the early '80s even that price tag would have been too high for Miguel Nuñez Jr. Leaving his hometown of Wilson, N.C., with three bologna sandwiches and a $127 paycheck from his job at a tobacco plant, Nuñez hopped a bus to Los Angeles. "I thought I would get here and it would be the Emerald City," he says. "When I looked out the window and it wasn't bright lights, that was the first time I realized the seriousness of what I had done."

Broke and alone, Nuñez spent the next three weeks sleeping everywhere from a rat-infested movie theater to park benches. But his Yellow Brick Road has since smoothed out. After playing a witch doctor in Scooby-Doo and starring as a cross-dressing basketball player in Juwanna Mann earlier this summer, Nuñez, 38, is now appearing opposite his buddy Eddie Murphy in the space-age comedy The Adventures of Pluto Nash. "He has great improvisational skills," says Nash director Ron Underwood, "and this great spirit." Both came in handy in 1980 during the two months he was living on welfare and spending nights at L.A.'s Union Rescue Mission—the place where Nuñez now volunteers and runs the mission's Thanksgiving food drive. "I used the system for what it was intended," he says, "just a stepping-stone for where I wanted to be."

As a youngster growing up in rural Wilson, that place was Hollywood. "Even when I was little bitty, I would tell people, 'I'm going to be a movie star," he recalls. "They'd say, 'You gonna be nothing. You don't know anything.' And I didn't. I never watched television. Never been to the movies. I just cannot tell anyone where it came from."

His mother's life provides some clues. Raised by his maternal grandparents, James, a pastor, and Cleo, a home-maker (both are deceased), Nuñez is the second of eight children born to songwriter Betty Newsome, 57, who wrote the 1966 James Brown hit "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." Though named after his father, he was told nothing more about him, and he saw his mother—who was on the road trying to make it in showbiz—only sporadically. "I was a single mom," says Newsome, who lives in New York City and is now on good terms with Nuñez. "I did the best I could." Adds Nuñez: "My mom was a young woman. She ran away to New York when she was 17. I understand what she went through."

Despite his family's tight circumstances—seven brothers shared one room-Nuñez says he has only fond memories of his childhood. "We played in the woods," he says. "We'd jump on the train and just ride. I thought it was heaven." After graduating from high school Nuñez took a job in the local tobacco plant before quitting to head west. Thanks to welfare and, later, a government-assisted job as a physical therapy assistant, he was able to get back on his feet—and into acting. Seven months after arriving in L.A., he saw a crowd gathered in a parking lot for an open audition for a restaurant commercial. Borrowing a résumé from a fellow hopeful, "I whited his name out, put my name on it and got in line," he says. "And I got the lead."

That gig landed him an agent, but he continued in day jobs, working as a ticket telemarketer for the L.A. Lakers. His performance there led to a friendship with team owner Jerry Buss, who introduced Nuñez to a group of celeb pals. At the same time, Nuñez's acting career began to take off with roles in the '87 TV drama Tour of Duty and '92's Lethal Weapon 3. In 1994 his love life perked up as well when he met med-school student Yulanda Simon, 30, at a jazz club. "I grabbed her hand and said, 'You are going to be my wife,' " he recalls. "She thought I was crazy."

Four months later she said "I do," and the couple now share a San Fernando Valley home with their two daughters, Mia, 7, and Micole, 3, whom Nuñez often brings to the Union Rescue Mission. Visiting with the residents there, "he's very encouraging," says mission administrator Liz Mooradian. "He shakes hands, he sits and talks." And offers hope. "Even when my stomach hurt because I was so hungry," he says, "I had no doubt in my mind that I would be where I am today."

Michelle Tauber
Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles

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