You wouldn't believe how much time was spent discussing this scene,'' chuckles Brendan Fraser. It's a January afternoon, and the actor has agreed to watch clips from some of his movies at a Manhattan screening room. At the moment he's looking at a sequence from an indie period piece that he's particularly proud of, the acclaimed 1998 film Gods and Monsters. On screen, Fraser is clad only in a towel and being ogled by costar Ian McKellen. Off screen, he's smiling and remembering how surreal it was to shoot the scene with his status as a nascent family-movie star in the back of his mind. ''The big question was how far that towel was allowed to slip down,'' he says. ''I kept on saying: Hey, guys, I've got George of the Jungle coming out!''
Such is the career of Brendan Fraser. One minute he's acting opposite one of the world's foremost thespians in a serious drama, and the next he's promoting a kid-friendly Disney movie about a guy raised by apes. One day he's opening 2001's The Mummy Returns to the tune of a $68 million weekend, proving yet again that he's one of Hollywood's most bankable stars, and the next he's earning critical raves in an adaptation of Graham Greene's The Quiet American. Detractors mock him for the many visual-effects-heavy, family-friendly movies he's made: ''His name on the marquee is a guarantee of mediocrity,'' says one blockbuster producer who hasn't worked with Fraser. Studio executives seem unsure of what to do with him: ''They think of Sean Penn or Josh Brolin or whoever for dramas,'' says writer-director Paul Haggis, who cast Fraser in his Best Picture winner Crash. ''They don't think of Brendan Fraser.'' And fans, such as Scrubs executive producer Bill Lawrence, on whose show Fraser has guest-starred, believe Fraser is getting neither the kudos, nor the roles, he deserves: ''Brendan is undercredited for how talented he is. He's the rare actor who is a classic leading man but can also do a character piece. People rarely have the chops to do both. I always thought he had the goods.'' So if he has the goods, and he's proved that he can bring the dough $2 billion worldwide box office and counting why can't Brendan Fraser get some respect?
Fraser, 40, refers to his early Hollywood days as his ''himbo'' phase. But his career in the '90s was remarkably varied. He roamed from his breakthrough role in the goofy 1992 comedy Encino Man to his acclaimed dramatic turn in School Ties to the admittedly ''himbo''-ish George of the Jungle to 1999's action-horror adventure The Mummy. The last of these movies, in which he buckled his swash as a monster-battling adventurer, was an unexpectedly massive hit, bringing in $155 million. The film would spawn two sequels and gift Fraser with a reputation as someone audiences like to see in big-budget spectacles. That rep seems to be more deserved now than ever. In the last six months he has carried the 3-D movie Journey to the Center of the Earth (which grossed $102 million domestically), the third Mummy film (which not only broke the $100 million mark but also raked in a further quarter of a billion dollars worldwide), and this week's young-adult fantasy Inkheart. Has he made mistakes? Oh, yes. This is a man who followed The Mummy with box office flops like the comedy remake Bedazzled and the bizarre Monkeybone, in which he battled a sex-crazed, animated ape. ''The films he made in between the two Mummy movies really hurt his career,'' says Stephen Sommers, who directed both the original film and the first sequel. ''It got to be: Brendan Fraser, he's great in a Mummy movie, but other than that...'' The actor, who was reportedly paid $10 million for Bedazzled and another $12.5 million for The Mummy Returns, admits his choices around that time were, in part, financially motivated. ''I was looking to start a family,'' he says (over the next few years he would have three children with his wife, Afton).