Samuel L. Jackson has just finished filming a scene with his Kiss of Death costar David Caruso on the steps of the U.S. courthouse in lower Manhattan when a stranger approaches. ''Excuse me,'' she says, shielding her eyes from the sun. ''I told my husband I saw you here yesterday, but I can't remember your name. What's your first name?''
''It's Sam,'' he says a bit warily.
''Do you have a card?''
Jackson laughs. ''Actors don't have cards.'' Then he corrects himself. ''Only unemployed actors have cards.''
Unemployment is not a problem for Sam Jackson. Ever since his haunting portrayal of a crack addict in 1991's Jungle Fever won him the Cannes film festival's best supporting actor prize the first given in 10 years Jackson, 46, has been one of the most in-demand talents in Hollywood. He's appeared in more than a dozen films in the past three years, ranging from acclaimed indies (Fresh) to monster smashes (Jurassic Park). But it's his fire-and-brimstone performance as Jules, a scripture-spewing professional killer in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, that could make Samuel L. Jackson a household name.
Perhaps it already should be one, but Jackson tends to vanish into his roles. In Pulp, for example, he hides behind muttonchops and Jheri Kurled hair. ''The wig was Quentin's idea. He likes blaxploitation movies, and that's his ode to the '70s,'' says Jackson. ''The sideburns and mustache were mine. It's a combination of flash with an old-time Baptist preacher. I wanted to have a period look and not be in the period. Like I was trapped in a time warp.''
As Tarantino explains it, Jules' look was discovered by mistake: ''I like Afros, all right? If I was a black guy, I'd wear an Afro. So I told Sam, 'I want you to have a small Afro.' But the makeup woman didn't know the difference between a Jheri Kurl and an Afro and showed up with different wigs. Sam put on this Jheri Kurl wig and it was like, 'That's it! That's Jules!'''
Coming off the heat of Pulp, which could earn Jackson his first Oscar nomination, the actor has three more movies lined up for release next year:
In the film noir remake Kiss of Death (opening in February), he costars as a cop who sends Caruso undercover to bring down a crime lord played by Nicolas Cage. ''I worked with Sam on (the 1993 comedy) Amos & Andrew, and he seemed like a totally different guy on (the set of) Kiss of Death,'' says Cage. ''He looked different. He acted different. It was magnificent.''
In the drama Losing Isaiah (opening in March), Jackson plays an attorney who represents Halle Berry in a child-custody case against Jessica Lange (whose lawyer is played by LaTanya Richardson, Jackson's wife). The highlight, Jackson says, was making his closing argument: ''I watched Perry Mason do that every week. I always wanted to do it.''
In Die Hard: With a Vengeance (opening in May), Jackson reteams with Pulp's Bruce Willis to foil an explosives expert (Jeremy Irons) run amok in New York City. ''Bombers seem to be in vogue this year,'' says Jackson. ''People could get a little tired of watching stuff blow up. But they never do, do they?''
Such cinematic omnipresence doesn't leave Jackson much vacation time; he only had two days off between Isaiah and Kiss, and three days between Kiss and Die Hard. But that's fine with him. ''Sam would rather work than do anything else,'' says Richardson, his companion of 24 years (they live in Los Angeles with daughter Zoe, 12). ''That's his exercise. That and golf.''