Joshua Rich
May 16, 2005 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Hollywood’s hottest breakout entertainer of 2005 is a bald, middle-aged writer from Canada who’s spent a quarter century in the business. ”You’re supposed to be 25 when you’re the breakout star, but I’m 52 — they got the numbers switched around somehow,” Paul Haggis says with a characteristic self-effacing guffaw. ”It’s pretty silly.”

Haggis is sitting in his L.A. home office, under a poster for Fellini’s Amarcord, a few feet from the Emmys and Golden Globe he won for thirtysomething. Here, at this very desk, is where he crafted the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Million Dollar Baby. And right over there is the telephone that connects him to Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg nowadays. Three decades into his career, Haggis has finally arrived at his big moment.

Crash, Haggis’ directorial breakthrough (which he wrote with Bobby Moresco), has just opened to raves, earning a strong $9.1 million in its first weekend. Independently produced for $7.5 million, the moody multi-character race-relations drama features Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Ludacris, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, Terrence Howard, Michael Peña, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Brendan Fraser, and Thandie Newton. It was purchased by Lions Gate at last year’s Toronto film festival for about $4 million — a tidy sum considering the five years, two mortgages, and minor heart attack the movie cost its maker. (His health is fine now, save the fact that he recently started firing up those Camel Lights again.) ”He’s a nut, he’s a manic human being,” says Cheadle, whose early attachment as a producer and star helped lure the powerhouse cast, all of whom worked for a scale minimum fee. ”He had a very clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish.”

Of course, it took him a while to figure out what that was. A lousy student, Haggis dabbled in photography and playwriting before reaching California in the ’70s. He gradually built a lucrative career writing and producing for TV, but major success eluded him. His one-season stint on thirtysomething was followed by acclaimed but short-lived shows like Due South and EZ Streets, and today Haggis shivers when considering his most enduring creation: Walker, Texas Ranger. ”I had to do something to erase that,” he says. ”I wanted to find something that scared me. I had written too many things that didn’t ask questions about who I am.”

So around 2000, Haggis turned his back on TV and its steady paychecks and set to work, for free, on two spec scripts: Million Dollar Baby (based on short stories by boxing trainer F.X. Toole that he’d optioned) and Crash (which grew out of his experiences witnessing the L.A. riots and getting carjacked in the early 1990s).

Arranging financing and piquing the interest of heavyweights like Eastwood and Cheadle lasted years. But after multiple starts and stops, both projects got rolling about 18 months ago. And the rewards have left Haggis dumbfounded — Million Dollar Baby won Best Picture and Crash is earning passionate praise, not only from film critics but also from leaders like the Reverend Al Sharpton. ”He just has a unique ear,” says Cheadle, who was attracted to the film’s mix of high tension and biting wit. ”He picks up things that a lot of people don’t want to admit.” Adds Newton: ”He’s not doing this to be sensational. It’s to show life as it is. . .. We all feel the same pain, we all feel the same fear.”

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