Cuba Gooding Jr.: Armando Gallo/Retna
Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
October 25, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Who knew that four little words could have so much power? In 1996, thanks to an exuberant, scene-stealing performance (”Show me the money!”) as an insecure athlete in ”Jerry Maguire,” Cuba Gooding Jr. launched a catchphrase and earned far more than he had demanded: an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, which he accepted with an ecstatic speech, and — even more prize-worthy — the status of superstar.

Gooding’s next role was in another Oscar-winning movie, ”As Good as It Gets.” But this time, the actor wasn’t included in the awarding. He moved on to the Robin Williams bomb ”What Dreams May Come,” followed by a role opposite Anthony Hopkins in a very bad ”Instinct.” Gooding turned in a hefty dramatic performance in 2000’s ”Men of Honor” and a praised comedic one in 2001’s ”Rat Race,” but few showed up to witness them. So by the time he appeared in 2002’s family romp ”Snow Dogs” and this year’s tepidly received (and, some critics argued, homophobic) ”Boat Trip,” who could blame Oscar watchers for wondering whether Gooding wasn’t getting the chances he deserved, or if he just had the kind of taste that would make a Queer Eye shudder?

Fans can come up for air now, thanks to Gooding’s dramatic title role in Revolution’s ”Radio,” inspired by a real mentally challenged man whose life was changed by a high school football coach. But while Gooding may finally be regaining the respect he deserves, the question lingers: What happened to the superstar?

It’s important to remember that Gooding was awarded the Oscar for a largely comedic role — something rarely recognized by the Academy, and certainly hard to follow up in the ”art” world. (Just look at the post-statue fate of fellow comedic winners Mira Sorvino and Marisa Tomei.) In addition, being funny isn’t always taken seriously. Luckily, critics go to movies for free; audiences turned up for ”Snow Dogs” to the tune of more than $80 million. Says director Brian Levant of snagging Gooding: ”It offered him a substantial lead role and a chance to do physical comedy. [And] he had a longing to make entertainment that played to his kids. He wasn’t going to bring his kids [6-and 9-year-old sons Mason and Spencer] to see ‘Jerry Maguire’ or ‘As Good as It Gets.”’ (”Men of Honor” producer Jerry Bruckheimer agrees: ”Children change everything. Do you think Johnny Depp” — who has a 4-year-old daughter — ”would have done ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ for me five years ago?”)

Like many parents, papa Gooding’s got a mortgage to pay. And perhaps more importantly, if you have a craft, it’s nice to use it. Says Tom Sherak, a partner in Revolution, Gooding’s ”as gifted an actor as there is…and [extraordinary] roles are hard to come by. The thing about actors is, they have to work.” Make that an actor who wants to work often, in comedies and dramas, and the path between his trailer and the cameras isn’t necessarily lined with genies granting three Oscar wishes. It’s a fact that filmmakers understand — Hollywood insiders haven’t questioned Gooding’s skill just because he’s chosen lighter fare. In fact, Gooding’s name was the first mentioned by ”Radio” director Michael Tollin and Revolution execs for the starring role, and, says Tollin, the only concern was whether he was available. ”This is a guy whose career is extremely varied, and I think he was thrilled to have the opportunity to do a serious, dramatic role. You could just see him licking his chops.”

If Gooding’s not chop-licking more often, there could be another reason: As an African American, he’s not the first person cast opposite Julia Roberts or Meryl Streep. ”It’s about race,” says Revolution founder Joe Roth matter-of-factly. ”I don’t think that a guy like Cuba, who loves to work and deserves to work, has much to choose from. Denzel Washington has pulled it off, and that’s kind of a field of one.” He continues: ”[Cuba’s] not necessarily doing [projects slated] for black actors. So that puts him in an odd spot. Great parts come along every three years. His choices are like those of a 40-year-old [actress].” Trust us, that’s not good. Adds one insider: ”A lot of these guys won’t wait for the one piece of material that’s absolutely brilliant. So we’ll have to wait for him. He’s one movie away from another Oscar-winning performance.”

Revolution, Tollin, and Gooding (who wouldn’t comment) are no doubt hoping that movie is ”Radio,” in which he plays the kind of role that Oscar has traditionally relished. And if it’s not, Gooding still has plenty of fans. As Levant says, and other Gooding supporters echo: ”He does romantic comedies and drama and out-and-out kids’ movies. In the old days, people were called versatile for doing things like that.” And if we can let it go that Marlon Brando hung out on ”The Island of Dr. Moreau,” why hold one rocky boat trip against Cuba Gooding Jr.?

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