It blew our minds when Will Smith went from novelty rapper to early-'90s sitcom star and then, miraculously, transformed himself into a big-budget Hollywood action hero. So it shouldn't have been a surprise that the Fresh Prince made a smooth transition to romantic leading man. Last weekend, Smith's Hitch took in more than $43 million, the highest opening gross ever for a romantic comedy. ''He's got what Tom Hanks has,'' says Andy Tennant, who directed Hitch. ''That vulnerability, charm, and humor. But he's sexy, and accessible to both men and women. There are very few movie stars that have all of it going on.''
That's not stopping some other tough guys from attempting their own touchy-feely turns. After running aground with The Chronicles of Riddick, burly Vin Diesel takes a cue from Arnold Schwarzenegger's Kindergarten Cop days, trying his hand at babysitting and comedy in next month's The Pacifier. Even Smith's extraterrestrial-busting Men in Black partner, Tommy Lee Jones, plays nanny to giggling cheerleaders in Feb. 25's Man of the House.
But it's Dwayne ''The Rock'' Johnson who's making the boldest choice of all the macho men: He goes gay in March 4's Be Cool. ''For me, it was an opportunity to play a role where, number one, I could be fearless and take on the challenge,'' he says. ''I thought it was cool to play someone who was not only gay but a proud gay man.'' Now that's one career move even Arnold never attempted.
(Additional reporting by Jami Attenberg and Liane Bonin)