Carl Franklin lived a lot of life before deciding he wanted to direct.

Married and divorced twice, a single father, and a journeyman actor for years, he enrolled in the American Film Institute's master's program in 1986, at age 37, to learn how to work behind the camera."I felt that by that time I had stories to tell, that there was a reason for me to do it," says Franklin, who first got serious notice with his 1992 film, "One False Move." Franklin didn't have any real directing experience, but he took to it very easily.

School began a month after his mother's death in August 1986, and his experiences during her eight-month battle with cancer 12 years ago were a key reason Franklin warmed to the prospect of making "One True Thing."

The film, No. 2 at the box office in its debut weekend, is about a daughter who relinquishes her job as a magazine writer in New York to move home and care for her terminally ill mother.

When his longtime collaborator, producer Jesse Beaton, brought him a screenplay adapted from the Anna Quindlen novel, he found it a deeply penetrating story.

Like the young woman in the story - played to an Oscar-buzz pitch by Renee Zellweger - he underestimated his mother because she was a housewife without a higher education.

"I'd always been very condescending in some respects and taken her for granted, and her knowledge for granted, and never really valued it as I came to value it later - when unfortunately she wasn't around anymore," says Franklin, who attended the University of California at Berkeley as an undergraduate.

Unlike the Zellweger character, Franklin didn't return home to care for his mom. His brothers were around for their mother in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Franklin - who was raising his kids and preparing for classes in Los Angeles - frequently visited.

"That doesn't totally assuage any guilt you might feel about not having participated enough," he says, although he was with his mother when she died.

"There's still some unsettled things for me because I wasn't there all the time like my brothers were. . . . I was pretty spoiled in a lot of ways."

And now Franklin - who has a 32-year-old stepdaughter, 22-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter - is seeing the transactions between parent and adult children from the other end.

Franklin emerged as a skillful director only six years ago, with the independent film "One False Move." Made on a shoestring budget of $2.2 million and starring Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams and Bill Paxton, it made numerous critics' annual top 10 lists. He followed with "Devil in a Blue Dress," adapted from a Walter Mosley novel and starring Denzel Washington, receiving further critical praise.

In his films, he has neatly interwoven racial, regional and class differences - and now gender and generational ones. Franklin feels that of the movies he's done so far, "the style has been best served by making them fairly realistic."

"What people have always responded to in Carl's work is not the edginess but the humanity," Beaton, his partner, says. "Carl has a real sensitivity to the emotional lives of people."

Franklin's move from actor to director took at least 13 years.

Fans of TV's "The A-Team" may best remember his acting days, when he played a recurring nemesis named Capt. Crane in 1984. He popped up in various TV series from the mid-1970s into the late '80s, including "Streets of San Francisco," "Cannon," "Barnaby Jones," "Lou Grant," "MacGyver," even "Alf." And he was a regular on three short-lived series.

He directed three forgettable B-films for Roger Corman in 1989 and 1990, including an action movie made in the Philippines that co-starred a guy whose current claim to fame is owning a bar in a New York City subway station.

Finally, with "One False Move," Franklin won widespread, positive notices.

The film, about three cocaine dealers who flee to a tiny town in Arkansas, received little promotion. But critical drooling and word-of-mouth made the movie a success.

Because the film wasn't "ethnicity-specific" - to use Franklin's term - people wrongly assumed he was white. Most black directors can be "ghettoized" in the movie industry and reduced to making only boyz-in-the-hood or so-called "black" projects, but Franklin was offered a wide range of material and was not pigeonholed based on skin color.

Still, he says, "My experiences are a little atypical."

And that's why he's loath to characterize as a breakthrough the fact that several black directors this year have managed to make films without being relegated to stereotypical material - Forrest Whitaker ("Hope Floats"); Anton Fuqua ("The Replacement Killers"); F. Gary Gray ("The Negotiator") and himself.

"I know a lot of black directors would not agree with that," he says. "And so I'm a little hesitant to talk in generalities simply because there are other voices saying other things."

Although it's significant that four or five black directors in one were allowed to do a broad range of movies, Franklin says he's cautious when he talks about trends.

Then he laughs and says: "I don't even want to talk about a trend to the extent that I'm going to make another movie."