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Savoring life in the slow lane

Chris Tucker rode 'Rush Hour' to fame but is selective about roles, including one on the world stage.

August 12, 2007|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

You can hear the weariness in his voice, but also sense his steely resolve, as comedian Chris Tucker tries to separate himself from the character with whom he's most closely identified -- James Carter, the wisecracking, helium-voiced LAPD detective who bounces off martial arts whiz Jackie Chan in the "Rush Hour" movies.

"I'm definitely ready to move on," Tucker says over a lunch of chopped salad at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills. "When I did the first movie in '98, that was basically where I was as a comedian: the James Carter character. I always wanted to make a movie like that. I knew he was the perfect vehicle for my comedy. But I definitely want to do something different next and show a different side of me that people haven't seen. When I did the first movie, I thought that was it. I just wanted to do a good job."

But "Rush Hour" ignited a blockbuster franchise for New Line Cinema, and in the process, it turned Tucker into a $20-million-a-picture man.

That landed him in the Hollywood stratosphere alongside top earners Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Tom Hanks, and there were predictions that he'd be the next Eddie Murphy. A certain momentum builds when enough people see your movies to bring in more than half a billion dollars worldwide.

Distancing yourself from a vehicle like that isn't the usual response. But instead of parlaying his popularity into a crush of new projects, the tall, lean stand-up with the motor-mouth delivery largely dropped from sight after the second movie hit six years ago. Now, with "Rush Hour 3," for which he's taking home a hefty $25 million, in the theaters, he's mapping his steps toward something new -- and facing questions about whether his fans will follow him as he trades his James Carter persona for other roles, some of which have nothing at all to do with entertainment.

Tucker was reluctant to do "Rush Hour 3," he admitted, "because they wanted me to sign on without a script. I'm not going to sign on to a movie without something because I know if I don't see a script and put my input into it, that can be dangerous."

As for whether the self-imposed hiatus between his last two films hurt his chance to follow Murphy's path, Tucker could not care less. "I don't want to be Eddie Murphy. I want to be like me. I don't want to be a carbon copy of anybody because Eddie Murphy is great because he's Eddie Murphy. Richard Pryor is great because he was Richard Pryor. My journey is different. I'm different from Eddie Murphy. He definitely inspired me, but I didn't want to become him because I knew I couldn't become him. I knew I could only become Chris Tucker."

Becoming Chris Tucker meant using his newfound fame and fortune to set up the Chris Tucker Foundation, with a determination to fight poverty in the U.S. and in Africa. He traveled to Africa in 2001, to do "Rush Hour" publicity, and the next year, MTV sent him back, this time with U2 singer Bono and then-Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, for a documentary on how U.S. money would help African countries plagued with AIDS, unsanitary living conditions and hunger. Along the way, he met with kings and presidents from sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East.

The visits were life-changing, said Tucker's sister Tammye Stocks, who acts as administrator of his foundation, based in the Atlanta suburb of Stockbridge. Seeing people without access to clean water and medicine, "He didn't believe it," she said. "He said, 'They don't really have anything over there.' I'm thinking when he went there and saw people dying and not having anything and not having parents, that really made him want to help out. . . . For Chris to see kids in Africa lacking the basic necessities really got to him."

"I was in Africa long before Oprah opened up a school," Tucker said. "A lot of people didn't know about what I was doing because I didn't publicize the stuff."

Currently, his charity, which has been up and running for about 2 1/2 years, helps the needy in Boys and Girls Clubs in Atlanta, but his longer-term hope is to provide clean water to villages in Ghana and to fund projects that help fight AIDS in Africa.

Brett Ratner, who directed Tucker in all three "Rush Hour" films as well as the earlier film "Money Talks," said it's testimony to Tucker's charity work that he now calls world leaders his friends.

"I thought I was the one who was worldly, sophisticated, well-traveled and educated with life experiences and friends," Ratner said. "But this guy, he's mingled with some of the great leaders [of our time]."

If Tucker's career languished during that time, it doesn't bother him at all, the actor said. "I guess I wasn't ready to make movie after movie. I was reading a lot of stuff. A lot of [scripts] came my way and nothing sparked my interest. So I continued to travel. I was also writing my own projects. I wasn't really stressing on doing any movies. I was really busy. I was traveling to 14 different countries in Africa. I was busy being a celebrity."

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