There’s only one Hollywood trapping hidden among the pieces of significant furniture in actor Leon’s Beverly Hills bachelor flat: a green Jamaican Bobsled Team deck chair from last fall’s hit movie “Cool Runnings.”
Leon carried that film as the affable Derice Bannock, the real-life thwarted Jamaican sprinter who became captain of the Caribbean island’s first bobsled team in 1988; the late John Candy also starred as a burned-out athlete turned team coach.
A magnetic presence, Leon, 31, who has long since dropped his surname of Robinson, describes himself as a “low-light kind of guy,” as he adjusts the living room wattage to make note-taking possible.
But it doesn’t take a spotlight to figure out why Leon’s star is--in the words of Robert Townsend, who directed him in “The Five Heartbeats” in 1991--"on the climb.”
Last year, Leon appeared in not only “Cool Runnings,” but also in “Cliffhanger,” as the ruthless bad guy Kinette. And now, he moves from the snow to the basketball court in the fast-and-loose drama “Above the Rim,” about a high school basketball star torn between pursuing his sport in college and the easy money of a street gang. The film, directed by Jeff Pollack, co-starring Duane Martin (“White Men Can’t Jump”) and rapper-actor Tupac Shakur (“Poetic Justice”), opens today.
Pollack, who co-produced the movie with partner Benny Medina, admits Leon’s role as the shellshocked Shep, a fallen basketball star with a tragic secret, had been originally pitched with Denzel Washington in mind, but changed his mind after seeing “Cool Runnings.” “I was so pleased to see his work,” Pollack says. “He was pretty much of a slam dunk (for the role).”
Part of the reason is Leon’s own basketball background. He grew up pounding the blacktop in the Bronx and played for Loyola Marymount on a basketball scholarship before he decided to focus on acting. (Co-star Martin was a star player for New York University in the late ‘80s).
“A basketball movie was definitely in the cards for me,” Leon says. “There’s always something you can add when you’re in the know. Jeff Pollack wrote the script (with Barry Michael Cooper), but he’d ask me about things because I was in the know.”
Test audiences helped shape his part too. “There was a much longer scene near the end, where I died,” he reports. “The test audience said, ‘No way. You got to live .’ And then they did a test marketing with me living, and the audience cheered. I’m flattered by it, as long as it works.”
Townsend, who cast Leon as heartthrob singer J. T. in “The Five Heartbeats” because of his affable sex appeal, views “Above the Rim” as another way to keep up momentum in the actor’s career. “He’s getting to show his range, and I think that is what actors live for,” Townsend says. “To be a tough gunning force (against) Stallone in ‘Cliffhanger,’ kicking butt, that’s one thing. Then in ‘Cool Runnings,’ he’s an island hero. Now in ‘Above the Rim,’ he’s the mystery character in the puzzle.”
The ball playing in the film is set to a hip score, with music from artists like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Shakur and peopled with gritty street personalities. Leon’s controversial co-star Tupac Shakur has had well-publicized run-ins with the law recently, but his co-star tries to deflect any negative publicity.
“If Tupac was getting press about his acting in this movie or about his success as a rapper, I would love it,” Leon says. “But it’s not. What’s happened is a lot of stuff about his lawsuits . . . some of which happened while on the shoot, some of which did not. For this film to be overshadowed with the negative stuff would be a shame.”
For his part, Leon, son of a schoolteacher and a transit authority executive, seems to have always been aware of his star potential.
“There were always signs. It was weird,” he says with a slight Bronx accent. “Contrary to what I was being told, that it was going to be very hard for me, ‘an actor of color,’ I flew to New York and auditioned for a movie. I got it immediately, before even leaving the room. That was for ‘All the Right Moves’ (1983), with Tom Cruise.
“Of course I said, ‘Excuse me,’ went to the bathroom, and yelled out the window. Then I went back in and was like, ‘Yeah, so what are you guys thinking about?’ Playing it cool.”
Then he met Garry Marshall for “The Flamingo Kid” (1984) and played small roles in “Streetwalkin’ ” and “Colors,” directed by Dennis Hopper. He even starred opposite Madonna, in her “Like a Prayer” video.
“In a perfect world, I would love for my roles to be bigger than me,” he says. “I would love to be identified by the roles I’ve played as opposed to me, the personality. I’ve seen people who start out as very good actors and now are no more than celebrities--their image has become more important than the roles they play.
“If I walk down the street for the rest of my life and people are yelling out ‘Derice’ or ‘Shep,’ ” he continues, “that’s fine with me, because those are the characters that I want to make an impression on people.”
* THE REVIEW: ‘Above the Rim’ bounces between melodrama and a sports flick. F6