Making an Impression

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jamie Foxx handles the pressure quite well. Dressed in a luxurious maroon suede shirt and slim-fitting black pants, also suede, his muscular chest and slightly bowed legs cut an impressive figure of ghetto fabulousness. His smile and wink shine with down-home charm and goofy arrogance as he poses for a photo shoot in the conference room of the Beverly Hills firm that handles his publicity.

Not a bead of sweat or harried look washes across his face. Instead, knowing smirks of his impending success fight yawns. Foxx, perhaps the next hot African American male stand-up comic this side of Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence, appears poised to step to the challenge of running with the big boys.

Though currently on hiatus from co-producing and starring in the WB network's top-rated comedy, "The Jamie Foxx Show," the "single deluxe" comic normally spends four out of five weekdays on the show's set, then hops a plane to do his stand-up act on weekends, and somewhere in between squeezes in time to produce his own R&B; music or read scripts for his next film venture.

He is a study in small-town boy meets big-city fame: a Terrell, Texas-born 20-year-old whose face is on the cover of Vibe magazine and who has just returned from selling out New York's Radio City Music Hall.

"I was like daaaamn. It was packed to the gills. The people were just everywhere, the big screen. The stage was real long and I ran up and down it," Foxx recalls.

To capture the surreal reality, he admits to taking a photograph of his name on the marquee. It's enough to make him awed by the pied-piper power of his funnyman shtick.

"It almost makes me want to ask, 'Do they know who's performing here?' " Foxx says.

Who's performing is a comic-actor-musician on a 57-city comedy tour. "Jamie Foxx: Unleashed" has filled many of the same arenas in which the white-hot Rock appeared last year.

He plays L.A. Friday night, with two shows at Universal Amphitheater.

And like Rock, Foxx is about more than just comedy.

"If I can make everybody in Los Angeles talk about me like they do in Terrell, then I've got a good thing going," he says in his velvety Texas twang.

"Once I get L.A., then let's get Atlanta. Now let's get on TV. We got the black, now let's get the white. That's what I like about the game. Becoming popular at things people don't expect you to do. To be an alien and fit in everywhere. That's the joy of it."

Foxx is a master impressionist specializing in black celebrities such as Bill Cosby, Mike Tyson, Jessie Jackson, Luther Vandross, Prince and Babyface. He can whip crowds into fall-out, giggle frenzies by singing TV theme songs as those pop icons. Several times during the interview he unveils such mimicry. Imagine "The Brady Bunch" theme song if cooed by Prince: "Ahhh, uhnn, uhnn, Brady."

"What I do is draw from everybody. Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Steve Allen with a little political satire on the piano," Foxx says, gazing into the hazy Los Angeles sky from the window.

He also credits Sammy Davis Jr.'s Mr. Bojangles as an influence on his comedic approach.

"I'm the type of person that when I watch things, I don't watch to remember. I watch to let it soak in," he says. "And then a few weeks later, it comes out through your pores. All of a sudden you have these things in your library."

Less raunchy than the notoriously blue, hip-hop-inspired comics of "Def Comedy Jam," Foxx is a self-styled "'R&B; type of guy" who caters to the ladies and their boyfriends with a similar combination of edginess and sexual frankness of modern-day crooners such as Brian McKnight or quartet Dru Hill.

Foxx's urban-flavored yet accessible humor propelled his sitcom, originally the anchor of WB's Wednesday night lineup, to the network's top-rated show in its 1996 debut season. But network executives recently moved the show to Sunday.

"The move to Sunday was for successful reasons," says Bentley Kyle Evans, the show's 31-year-old executive producer. "If a show does extremely well on one night, then the network will move it to another night as a flagship for another night's lineup, to start a whole new night." (Viewership has dropped this season against the tougher competition of Sunday nights.)

On the show, loosely based on the comic's own struggle to stardom, Foxx plays Jamie King, the nephew of Aunt Helen (Ellia English) and Uncle Junior (Garrett Morris), who moves toLos Angeles to work in the family hotel and pursue a career in show-biz. King's battles with the starched accountant Braxton (Christopher R. Duncan) and the sexual pursuit of model-esque hostess Fancy (Garcelle Beauvais) are the center of the sitcom's high jinks. Its success is in large part due to Foxx's ability to create new characters and crystallize everyday situations into comic gems.

"Jamie loves to improvise things. He's constantly throwing out new ideas," Duncan says.

"It's the best job I've ever had. No one's ego-tripping. It feels like stealing. We get paid and have a good time. It's like we're getting away with something," Beauvais says.

Foxx's comedic talent has not always been greeted with praise. Last year, the local Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter of the NAACP criticized Foxx's show and seven other sitcoms with predominantly African American casts for what it called stereotypical portrayals. But in last month's NAACP Image Award ceremony, Foxx was mildly vindicated with a nomination for outstanding actor in a comedy series by the NAACP's national office, contradicting the local chapter's sentiment. For all the good fortune and moments of controversy, Foxx remains rooted in good-ol'-boy tenderness. Born Eric Bishop in Terrell, a small town 26 miles southeast of Dallas, Foxx was raised by his adoptive grandmother, who had adopted Foxx's mother when she was a child. Technically, his mother is his half-sister and his uncle, his half-brother. He looks back fondly on his childhood, with its strict family discipline and close-knit locals.

"I came up in a time when the community raised you. Mess up and Ms. Scott'll whip your ass and when you get back home, you get another whipping. Everybody kind of controlled everybody," Foxx says.

"We were in the Bible Belt, man, women couldn't wear pants. Couldn't be caught dancing. I remember I was moon-walking one time: 'Man, I'ma tell Rev. McClendon,' " Foxx says, slipping into a tattletale tone.

Little Eric's first foray into entertainment was the piano at age 6 at his grandmother's urging. Modeling himself after Lionel Richie ("If my curl was hanging long enough and my shades were big enough, I could pass for him at a distance"), Eric studied classical piano and earned a scholarship to attend United States International University in San Diego.

After graduation, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue an R&B; singing career. But to pay the bills, he worked as a janitor and a shoe salesman at Thom McAnn in Fox Hills Mall.

"Come summertime when everybody's broke and trying to get those two-for-one specials, I was The Man," Foxx says. "But eventually I said, 'Look, if I'm gonna do this, I'm going to let go of the strings and get out there and do it for real.' "

In 1990, friends urged him to take the stage at the Comedy Store's Original Room, where he "killed" and finally began to take comedy seriously. To get more gigs, he quickly changed his name to the catchier, unisex Jamie Foxx. (When club promoters choose a night's lineup, they would select some women to break up themonotony of successive male comics, so Foxx figured the name would earn him some extra gigs.)

"He only had like three or four jokes stretched into an entire act," says Marcus King, Foxx's manager, who first met Foxx in 1991. "I thought that if this kid ever gets some more material and grows as comic, then he'll really kill."

Foxx did just that and landed his first job in a recurring role on Charles Dutton's Fox sitcom, "Roc." But his big break came on Keenen Ivory Wayans' sketch-comedy show, "In Living Color," or as Foxx describes it, " 'Saturday Night Live' on nitroglycerin." In drag, he played Ugly Wanda, a finger-snapping version of Flip Wilson's Geraldine who chased Tommy Davidson with the proposition: "I'll rock our world."

In 1994, Foxx taped an HBO special, "Straight From the Foxhole," and recorded a serious solo album of slow jams he wrote, "Peep This," which reached No. 12 on the Billboard charts.

His film credits include his first starring role in last year's "Booty Call," in which alongside Davidson he searched for condoms on a hellish double date one late night in New York. But echoing the local NAACP's criticisms of his sitcom, Bill Cosby in a Newsweek interview denounced the film as detrimental to the imagery of blacks on film.

"Believe it or not, I agree with some of the stuff he said," Foxx says, who admits it wasn't his best work. "But he has to realize, you have to start somewhere. Even Bill Cosby had the Cosby kids [cartoon] show and [Dumb Donald] was talking like, 'You lo-be, I b-be.' "

But Foxx has shown some range as a supportive friend in Janeane Garofalo's 1996 vehicle, "The Truth About Cats and Dogs," and as an upstart boxing manager who battles Samuel L. Jackson and Damon Wayans in "The Great White Hype."

His star continues to rise with a role as a thoughtful strip club deejay in Ice Cube's directorial debut, "The Players Club," scheduled for an April 8 release. Foxx plans to release "Unleashed" as a concert movie with an accompanying R&B; and rap music soundtrack. He talks about comics who have, in his words, "fallen off like a loose button," after touring the "chitlin circuit" of comedy clubs. He admits to worrying about that himself, but not for too long.

"It's like, you'd rather just keep rising to the top. To be somewhere up there, to be Andre Agassi," Foxx says. "To be not considered No. 1 right now but at any time be able to beat the person who's No. 1. You always want to be the underdog."

BE THERE

Jamie Foxx performs with Yvette Wilson Friday at 8:15 p.m. and again at 11:45 p.m. at Universal Amphitheater, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City (818) 777-3931; Ticketmaster (213) 480-3232; $48-$25.50.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Saturday March 28, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 12 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction Wrong age--Comedian Jamie Foxx is 30. His age was listed incorrectly in Thursday's Calendar Weekend. Also, in addition to being nominated as outstanding actor in a comedy series by the NAACP's national office, he went on to win the award.
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