According to director Penny Marshall, Vance was a one-of-a-kind actor. Before filming began, "he was building sets," she says. "He drove us to location. He was just wonderful." He even coached Houston, who plays his wife. "Courtney would tell me what he was going to do, and I'd feed off of him," she says. "He's an encourager."
His professionalism has won 36-year-old Vance the admiration of costars. "He's a consummate actor," says Annabeth Gish, who appeared with Vance in 1996's dark comedy The Last Supper. "The key to him is his intensity." But it's Vance's offscreen life which recently landed him in the news. Four months ago, he ran into longtime acquaintance Angela Bassett (Waiting to Exhale), 38, at a play in Los Angeles. They began talking, went out on a few dates and quickly fell into a serious relationship. "We're like old friends who all of a sudden looked up and said, 'Hmmm...,' " he says. "Gradually it dawned on us that we like each other." They must. In December they announced their engagement. He skimps on details, but he does reveal that he made his proposal "down on one knee—the normal way."
For most of his life, Vance has been far above the norm. Growing up in Detroit, he and his older sister Cecilie (38, now a FedEx manager in Maryland) were banned from watching TV and put to bed at 8:30 every night by their parents, Leslie, a retired librarian, and Conroy, then a benefits administrator with Chrysler. "The focus," says Vance, "had to stay on school." It paid off: He won a scholarship to Detroit Country Day School, where he was captain of his basketball, track and football teams, and in 1978 he entered Harvard, majoring in history. To meet people, he auditioned for school plays. "I was lonely," he says. "But after I got into it, I found I had an affinity for it. I felt I'd found my gift."
Preferring not to "go to New York and wait tables" after graduation, Vance attended Yale Drama School. In 1986, during his final year, he starred opposite James Earl Jones in a Yale Repertory Theater production of August Wilson's Fences. The next year he was asked to re-create the role on Broadway. "It was a tremendous introduction to New York," says the actor, who received a Tony nomination. One night, he recalls, "Katharine Hepburn climbed five flights of stairs to shake my hand."
In 1990, as he was about to go onstage in another play, tragedy struck. Vance was told his father had committed suicide. "It devastated our family," he says quietly. He coped by turning to prayer, and on Christmas Eve 1995 he was baptized at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, which he had visited to prepare for Preacher's Wife. "This role came to me at this particular time in my life for a reason," he says. "There's a higher power at work. He'll reveal to you what He wants you to do."
To focus on his film career, Vance moved to L.A. in 1993 and landed roles in such films as Panther (1995) and the Michelle Pfeiffer hit Dangerous Minds (1995). Holding out for films "that say something," he has turned down parts as drug dealers and criminals—a policy that seems to be paying off. "You don't get through this life without difficulties and coming to crossroads," says Vance, sitting in his Topanga, Calif., home with its view of the nearby hills and his extensive folk art collection. "It's all about what you do at those crossroads."
KAREN BRAILSFORD in Topanga