It would be an understatement to say that 1996 has been a phenomenal year for Cuba Gooding Jr. His scene-stealing performance as cocky, loquacious NFL wide receiver Rod Tidwell in “Jerry Maguire” has already brought him a Golden Globe nomination, a SAG award and an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. The charismatic 29-year-old performer is also this year’s NATO/ShoWest award honoree for best supporting actor.

Critics have also embraced his star turn in the “Maguire.” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called his performance a “brash success.” “Nothing about Mr. Gooding’s earnest roles before is preparation for the hilarity he generates here,” wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times.

Add to all the acclaim the fact that Tidwell’s catchphrase from the movie — “Show me the money” — has been floating around Americans’ daily conversation and almost every newspaper headline and TV commercial since the movie hit box office gold at Christmas. Gooding Jr.’s motto has now entered that popular playground of can’t-get-them-out-of-your-head pop film phrases such as “Go ahead — make my day” and last year’s entry “Whatever!” (“Clueless”).

“It’s been an amazing year — no, make that two years,” says Gooding, on his car-phone as he’s being whisked to the airport. The ebullient star of the moment is on his way to London, Paris and Madrid for the “Jerry Maguire” premiere and rounds of international press interviews. “I can’t say that I expected it to be this big. but I just knew that because I was in a Tom Cruise movie, more people were going to see this picture than anything else I had done in my career.”

Gooding’s “overnight success” story actually goes back to the 1984 L.A. Olympic games, when, at 16, he and his longtime pals Shawn Suttles and Derek Brose (now his personal assistant and the manager of his production com-pany) came up with an eye-popping breakdance routine that was part of the event’s closing ceremonies, right be-hind singer Lionel Richie. (“Jerry Maguire” actually showcases a part of Gooding’s exuberant routine in the high-energy concluding sequences of the picture.) Not surprising, considering the fact that his father is none other than Cuba Gooding Sr., singer for ’70s R&B band the Main Ingredient (“Everybody Plays the Fool”).

“I used to go to North Hollywood High, and all the parents’ kids were in the biz,” recalls Gooding. “I was always signing up for plays. I always thought it was pretty cool to get into acting.”

Gooding says in those days, he and his pals would do almost anything to find a good gig. “One time, we landed a Burger King audition, but they needed a real band, so my friends and I grabbed a bunch of instruments and, with the help of a synthesizer, pretended we were actually playing. They never called us back!”

His enthusiasm for the craft paid off when he started to appear on TV series such as “Hill Street Blues,” and ulti-mately when he caught the attention of John Singleton, who picked him to play the pivotal role of an impression-able 17-year-old in “Boyz N the Hood.”

As Tre Styles, Gooding received much acclaim for his on-target portrayal of an urban African-American teen caught between the daily duties of family life and the seductive pull of gangster society.

“We did over two weeks of rehearsal and research and included a lot of improvisations.,” says Gooding of ‘Boyz.” “I think the film was very important and touched a chord because it showed people a world that they are usually intimidated by and didn’t really understand.”

According to Gooding, after the success of the movie, he was asked to go to a lot of meetings. But the “heat” gradually cooled off, and he soon found himself auditioning again for lesser roles in pictures such as “Gladiator,” “A Few Good Men,” “Judgment Night” and “Losing Isaiah.”

In 1994, Gooding appeared as Paul Hogan’s deaf-mute friend in director Simon Wincer’s “Lightning Jack.” Despite his comic timing and easy charm, the film didn’t perform well at the box office. His going price went down, and when he reportedly received $100,000 less for “Outbreak” than for similar parts in his earlier films, he decided it was time to re-evaluate his career plans.

Flash forward to a “Jerry Maguire” reading for producer James Brooks and director Cameron Crowe, with Robin Williams standing in for Tom Cruise, and the story picks up again. “The guy was on fire,” said Brooks to the New York Times. “We were wildly impressed, and from that moment on, we thought of Cuba as our man of destiny.”

The producers had their qualms about casting Cuba, because they were originally thinking of taller actors like Da-mon Wayans (“The Last Boy Scout”) or Mykelti Williamson (“Forrest Gump”). Gooding simply wasn’t built like a football player. But he wasn’t going to let that get in the way of a golden opportunity. He hit the weights at the gym, and when he came back for a second reading, Gooding showed off his new physique by wearing a very tight T-shirt.

It was during the third reading, after James Brooks asked Gooding if he had any problem with nudity, when he de-livered his piece de resistance. Crowe was trying to deliver reasons for having nude scenes in the picture when Gooding said, “Shut up, fool,” and mooned them. No doubt about it this time — he was Rod Tidwell.

After “Jerry Maguire,” the scripts started to pile up at his door. Gooding says he now receives 40 or more scripts every week. “I think the best thing about the success of the film is the opportunities that arise from it,” he says. “As an actor, you are always hungry for the good scripts, the meetings, the recognition and the acknowledgments from your peers.”

Gooding’s peers seem to agree that from the very start, his intensity and passion for acting never failed to impress. “He has this incredible life force and radiance,” says Karen Black, who appeared with him in the ’92 crime pic “Hitz.” “You work with Cuba one day, and you think he’s an energetic, overstimulated guy. The next day, you think he’s a mild-mannered person. In every film, you think the character that he has created is actually the real Cuba. He’s that good.”

Director Cameron Crowe agrees. “There’s always so much pure joy when it comes to working with Cuba. For ‘Jerry Maguire,’ I needed to find a character who could show me that feeling of locked-up energy, so that when he finally releases it in the movie, it hits a big chord.

“What Cuba gave us was a brilliantly shaded performance, not merely an ‘angry man’ or a ‘happy man.’ People would show up on their days off just to watch him. I think it was at that point when we all realized that his spirit was able to inspire a huge number of people.”

Robert Markowitz, who directed Gooding in the critically acclaimed HBO movie “The Tuskegee Airmen” says there was unquestionably something electric about the actor. “He was surrounded by some of the most talented ac-tors in the business — Laurence Fishbourne, Andre Baugher and Courtney Vance — to name a few, and I felt that he was a definite star. In fact, I was surprised that it hadn’t happened before. He’s the kind of actor that people will want to create parts for. He’s that big a talent.”

Next stop on Gooding’s express train to fame is a part as a high-powered Soho art dealer in the James L. Brooks movie “Old Friends,” where he gets to share the spotlight with Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear. “I would love to continue to do pictures like ‘Jerry Maguire’ and ‘Old Friends.’ Will Smith’s career is also a good inspiration. He had a great role in ‘Independence Day.’ I’ve also admired actors like Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood and Sidney Poitier, who have become directors. It all boils down to making great films, and I’d love to be able to work behind the cameras as well.”

His fans can look forward to seeing a big smile on Gooding’s face come Oscar night, no matter who takes home the golden statuette. “The nomination is my award. That’s why I was thinking of having a press conference after the nominations were announced. I was just going to thank everybody, whether I end up winning or not.”

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