Actor tough enough to demand leading role

Samuel L. Jackson’s movie career began as a throwback to the days of the old studio system when guys who exuded a sense of contained danger, like Humphrey Bogart and Lee Marvin, were initially labeled “supporting actors.”

Bogart, playing a devious Mexican bandit, got shot by Errol Flynn or lost his arm in a truck accident so George Raft could get the girl.

Lee Marvin had to ride a cheaper motorcycle and threaten Marlon Brando, or toss a pot of hot coffee into Gloria Grahame’s face so Glenn Ford could rescue her from her miserable mink-clad life.

Like Bogart and Marvin, Jackson wasn’t an obvious choice to be heroic or fulfill romantic dreams by putting on a tuxedo. His presence in the frame demanded, “Watch me. Watch me or something bad may happen.” Just as that onscreen power ultimately lifted Bogart and Marvin out of secondary status into stardom, Jackson, after starting out as a character, became a box office name.

Still, there’s a difference in Jackson’s arc. In the modern moviemaking system, stars are not under contract to a single studio. Support or lead, hero or character — these terms no longer matter. Jackson is free to put together a seamless flow of performances from one supercharged role to another, sometimes in support, sometimes in the lead, but never less than riveting.

Jackson’s film career began in 1972, more than 36 years ago. He debuted inauspiciously in “Together for Days” as a minor character listed way down in the credits. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he labored in various small roles. (In “Coming to America” in 1988, he arrived onscreen just to stick up a fast-food joint.) Things began to change after Spike Lee used him in “School Daze” and “Do the Right Thing” in the late 1980s, and Martin Scorsese cast him as Mafioso chief Stacks Edwards in “Goodfellas” in 1990. Audiences began to recognize the face even if they weren’t sure of the name.

Jackson’s breakthrough came the next year with an unforgettable performance as a crack cocaine addict in Lee’s “Jungle Fever.” He stood out so much that the Cannes Film Festival created a special award just for him. Then, in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 “Pulp Fiction,” Jackson and John Travolta made movie history as two hit men. Calmly philosophizing, equally calmly murdering their victims (a day at their office), they were a wacked-out Laurel and Hardy, making one fine mess everywhere they went. Jackson’s “Pulp Fiction” monologues turned him into a hip cultural icon. No audience would ever again not know his name.

Jackson now plays in blockbuster franchises (“Star Wars,” “Die Hard” movies), independent critical successes (“Eve’s Bayou,” “Red Violin”) and campus cult favorites (“Unbreakable,” “Shaft”). He even survived “Snakes on a Plane,” because no joke would ever be on him unless he decided it could be. No matter what he’s called on to do, in support or in lead, he makes it work. Samuel L. Jackson is an American original.

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