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Rock Steady

Undaunted, Chris Rock will try to lift the Oscarcast's viewership and give it some leverage. He's also trying to transform his career

Is this a good enough table? Chris Rock isn’t quite sure. It’s in a relatively secluded corner of the patio of the Polo Lounge, but the spot is striking an uneasy balance between shabby chic and flat-out neglect. A decrepit vine of no particular note climbs the pink cinder-block partition behind him. There seems to be some kind of boisterous party being thrown next door.

Rock had glided through the restaurant and onto the patio in a hurry, his eyes shaded by a tweed cap, a pair of jeans and an Adidas sweatshirt hanging from his slim frame.

The table’s fine, he decides. But he’s right to be picky. This is Old Hollywood, and Rock, a 40-year-old standup comic from Brooklyn just weeks from assuming hosting duties of the 77th Academy Awards, is about to be inducted into the company of Hollywood royalty. Is this where Bob Hope would sit? What about Johnny Carson or Billy Crystal? Whoopi Goldberg or Steve Martin?

He is perhaps the biggest risk the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has taken in a host, yet no first-timer has ever carried as much expectation. Awards-season veterans say no one has generated as much media attention for at least a decade, a positive sign for the Academy, which is looking to Rock to bring home that elusive — yet desirable — young, male audience that could push the show close to a U.S. viewership of 50 million. ABC is charging $1.6 million for a 30-second ad spot this year, about half of which goes to the Academy for Oscar broadcast rights. That money accounts for the lion’s share of the org’s annual budget.

But Rock has his own expectations from Hollywood, and right now they aren’t being met. Because he reached the highest levels of his profession as a young, brash, often scatological comic, it’s easy to overlook the hard work and raw ambition that got him here. And at this point, Rock is a careerist in midlife pushing forward to transcend his funnyman status and garner dramatic roles that could one day put him on the receiving end of an Oscar.

On the verge

Unlike Crystal, Goldberg or Martin, Rock has yet to make the transition that seems to be every comedian’s dream: from one-note standup to A-list leading man. Movies? “I’ve been in a couple, nothing big,” he says, downplaying a 15-year career in which he’s appeared in 22 films, including “Head of State,” which he also wrote and directed, “Pootie Tang” and “New Jack City.”

Time and Entertainment Weekly have called him the funniest man alive, and he’s won three Emmys so far, two for the HBO special “Bring the Pain” and one for “The Chris Rock Show,” his late-night program, also on HBO. Response to his film work has been less generous. He turned in a credible performance opposite Anthony Hopkins in the action comedy “Bad Company.” He’s done well in cameos, such as the role of a wayward 13th apostle in Kevin Smith’s “Dogma.” As for box-office pull, “Bad Company” and “Osmosis Jones” were big-budget flops, but Rock’s smaller-budget films, such as Paul and Chris Weitz’s “Heaven Can Wait” remake, “Down to Earth,” have made money. (Aside from small appearances in blockbusters like “Lethal Weapon 4,” “Down to Earth,” which doubled its $30 million budget with $64 million at the box office, is the highest-grossing film he’s headlined.)

In May he will co-star with Adam Sandler in Paramount’s remake of “The Longest Yard,” which he believes is his funniest film work yet. But at this stage in his career, Rock is looking to make the defining leap that Jamie Foxx took in “Ray,” or Bill Murray had in “Lost in Translation.”

“I just want to get better,” he says. “I’d like to do some better movies, work with some better directors. I’m kinda doing what I want to do, but I want to do it at a higher level.”

Few doubt Rock has the talent and intelligence to pull it off. But will he have the opportunity?

“I think Chris is long overdue for it,” says Mario Van Peebles, who directed Rock in his first, and perhaps best, dramatic role as a crack addict in “New Jack City.”

“If you look at the history of black Americans in cinema and the relationship with comedy — we’ve had to play the court jester,” he says. Like Rock, “Whoopi (Goldberg) and Eddie (Murphy) made the dominant culture laugh.”

But the next step is where it gets hard, and even the most talented performers — think Foxx — need someone to take a leap of faith.

“We can be the best friend to the leading white guy,” Peebles says, “but what about being The Guy?”

That’s no easy task when Hollywood thinks of you in one way and one way only, and some of the greatest comics, with the exception of someone like Robin Williams, never found a way to make the leap. Eddie Murphy is a fantastic character actor and seems content making big-budget comedies. Even after a respectable perf in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Jim Carrey still is struggling for serious-actor acceptance.

Endeavor’s Adam Venit, who became Rock’s agent five months ago, sees his job as finding that breakout role. “He’s got a couple great projects,” Venit says of “Longest Yard” and DreamWorks’ animated “Madagascar,” both of which are set for Memorial Day releases. “When he puts it all together — his humor and the poignancy of his personal experience — he’s going to have a giant hit movie.”

But to get there he’s had to sift through a lot of turkeys.

Take a recent film offer: Rock says his agent called him about a part he’s been offered in Mike Binder’s film “Man About Town,” with Ben Affleck.

“What’s the part?” Rock asked.

“It’s a black comedian,” the agent answered.

“Already it’s a bad idea, right?” says Rock. “Just the fact that they put ‘black’ comedian means they think there’s a difference between one and the other.”

But it gets worse.

“I get the script,” he says. “I read it. The name of the character — and I’m not making this up — is Suckmeoff. I thought maybe it was French. I thought I was reading it wrong. Then I got to the part where they were just calling him ‘Suck.’ ”

Rock is busy courting the directors he believes could help him. He begged Michael Mann to cast him in the Jamie Foxx part as the heroic cabbie in “Collateral,” and wants to work with Woody Allen.

He says his favorite director right now is the guy who helmed “Sideways.” Rock has spoken to him several times, but at the moment can’t recall his name.

He stands up from the table, leans over a wall and scans the glitterati on the patio as if to say, “There must be someone here who can help me out!” Recognizing no one he sits down and it comes to him: Alexander Payne.

“I want to work with Alexander Payne!” he announces.

Coiled in a chair, sitting on his heels, Rock doesn’t look a lot different from his days on “Saturday Night Live,” save for the sprinkling of white hair on his chin. “Most people come up to me and ask how it feels to be the first black host of the Oscars,” he says. “I’ve heard that from smart people!”

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