Wesley Snipes, the star of the new movie "New Jack City," was in his car here one day in March when a very excited 10-year-old boy recognized him and approached his window.
"Man, you are one great actor," Snipes recalled the child saying. "I know that wasn't really you up there, but you played the heck out of that role."'Thanks to his portrayal of a ruthless Harlem drug lord named Nino Brown, Snipes' street credibility is very high these days. But he has other admirers elsewhere, ranging from the film critic Pauline Kael, who considers him one of the rising talents of his generation, to studio executives impressed that he has become a screen presence powerful enough to propel a low-budget sleeper like "New Jack City" to $22.3 million at the box office in its first three weeks.
Indeed, Snipes now finds himself in the peculiar position of fending off arguments that his portrayal may have been too effective. In newspapers around the country, the raves for the 28-year-old actor's performance have been competing with reports of shooting and looting that erupted outside several theaters after "New Jack City" opened March 8.
Snipes said he was saddened by the violence in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Las Vegas. But he rejected any notion that the movie's story line or use of rap music had incited the black teenagers perceived as the primary audience of the movie.
"It categorically is not the film," he said. "This film is anti-drug, anti-violence and anti-fratricide right across the board. If it was the film, then why don't we have a melee at each of the 800-plus theaters where it's showing?"
Snipes also said a double standard was being used against his film's young black audience, arguing that "it's not news" when a mostly white audience misbehaves and that theater owners should shoulder the blame for most of the outbursts.
"If it was a Grateful Dead or New Kids on the Block concert and you oversold the place and you told people you won't be able to get in and may or may not get your money back, they would burn that damn stadium down," he said.
The fuss over "New Jack City" notwithstanding, Hollywood is convinced that Snipes is poised for an even bigger breakthrough that will consolidate his growing critical reputation and commercial appeal.
This summer, he will star in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever," an interracial drama and love story that, Snipes said, will contain "some real heavy stuff" about relations between blacks and whites.
"It's going to take people for a real ride, like Spike's films always do," Snipes promised.
Speaking of Lee's last film, in which Snipes won praise for his performance as the saxophonist Shadow, he said, "On the last day of `Mo' Better Blues' Spike told me, `Be ready for the next one, because I got something great for you,' and sure enough, it was."
Snipes, who was reared in the Bronx and now lives in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, studied at the High School for the Performing Arts, later majored in theater arts at the State University College at Purchase, N.Y.
As he tells it, he always intended to be a performer but fell into acting almost by chance at the urging of schoolmates.
"I really wanted to be a singer and dancer, and I still have a latent passion for that," he said. "When I see Alvin Ailey or Chuck Davis or Forces of Nature, I'm sitting there saying, `I could have been up there."'
As an actor, Snipes is a very physical performer who is acutely aware of his body and how he uses it, which led to his being cast as an athlete at first.
Though he has appeared in several Broadway productions, he first attracted widespread notice in 1986 as a boxer in "Streets of Gold," played the baseball speedster Willie Mays Hays in "Major League" and a football player in "Wildcats."
When not portraying athletes, Snipes has often been cast as a tough guy, not only in "New Jack City" but also in "King of New York" and the Michael Jackson video "Bad."
In the last case, Snipes recalled with a chuckle, "Michael was petrified" by the tough-guy street persona Snipes projected until the actor reminded him: "Yo man, I don't really do this. I'm an actor. I don't mug people."
Except for three years in Orlando, Fla., Snipes spent his childhood in what he calls "the boogie down Bronx," neighborhoods such as Washington Avenue and 148th Street or 167th and Boston Post Road. He remembers trying to stay on the good side of members of gangs like the Savage Skulls, Black Pearls, Black Spades and Savage Nomads, an experience he now draws upon frequently as an actor.
"It becomes a cakewalk when you're in production and you have to portray a character like that," he said. "The easy things are there right at your fingertips, and it becomes just a matter of technique to embellish them."
For his role as Nino Brown, Snipes, who practices martial arts, summoned not only those memories but also his dancer's background.
"I used the image of a panther as the paradigm for my character," he said. "He's got the ability to be still and calm, conserving his energy. Then, when he lashes out, he lashes out fatally, without remorse."
Snipes expects "Jungle Fever," which he has just finished, to create controversy when it is released.
In his first major role as a middle-class solid citizen, Snipes plays a young black architect who is frustrated by his inability to rise in the white corporate world but nonetheless becomes the lover of his secretary, an Italian-American woman from Bensonhurst.
"It's going to raise a lot of questions that both cultures have to acknowledge and seriously address," he said of the film.
"A long time ago, the Moynihan Report predicted that by the time the 21st century rolled around, we would have two separate American societies, one black and one white. We're seeing that now, and this movie is going to ask why. It's about myths and how people act according to those myths."
At the moment, Snipes is filming "The Water Dance" in Los Angeles, playing one of a group of hospitalized paraplegics and quadriplegics in what he describes as a variation on "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
It is a challenging role for an actor who relies heavily on physical expression, but Snipes said it was precisely the type of work he hoped to do more of.
"I am never going to stop doing action-oriented projects that make me seem like I'm just one of the guys from the 'hood," he said. "Audiences want to see that energy, that physicality, that toughness. But I want to do everything, and I'm blessed to be in the right place at the right time."