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Comedy Star of the Year

Chris Rock box office/ filmography

To the uninitiated, it may appear as though Chris Rock is the industry’s latest overnight success story thanks to a recent hit film and a highly watched HBO series and specials. And it is because of that heightened visibility that the actor-comedian-writer will be honored as ShoWest’s 2001 Comedy Star of the Year today in Las Vegas.

But Rock has been plying his trade for over 15 years, and in doing so has logged a nonstop succession of high-profile acting and comedy gigs since his memorable film debut in “Beverly Hills Cop II” in 1987. And with three films set for release this year following in the wake of “Down to Earth,” his momentum appears unstoppable.

“Chris is not only a fresh and brilliant comedic performer, but also a talented writer and producer,” says Robert Sunshine, chairman of Sunshine Group Worldwide, which orchestrates ShoWest. “He is poised to remain one of our generation’s strongest comedic voices.”

The award also thrusts Rock into a topnotch peer group: ShoWest’s class of 2001 includes Nicolas Cage, Sandra Bullock and Russell Crowe.

It was Rock’s starring turn in the romantic comedy “Down to Earth” for Paramount Pictures — which bagged more than $20 million in its opening weekend — that put Rock in the spotlight and on the ShoWest honor roll.

Co-written by Rock, the film is a loosely based remake of the Warren Beatty starring “Heaven Can Wait” (which was also a remake) with Rock playing a struggling comedian who dies as the result of a mix-up in heaven. To redress the mistake temporarily, Rock is placed into the body of a rich white man whose wife and her lover are plotting to kill him. The film also stars Regina King, Eugene Levy and Chazz Palminteri. Like Beatty on “Heaven,” Rock also co-penned “Down to Earth.”

“This just seemed like a movie I could do,” says Rock. “It seemed absolutely perfect for me. In some ways the scenario works better if the person comes back in a different race. Putting a black man in the role just ups the ante.”

The ShoWest award will join Rock’s crowded mantle, which sports three Emmy and two Grammy awards. It marks the latest accolade for the 35-year-old Brooklyn-born Rock, who started as a standup comedian on New York’s club circuit.

But unlike some comedians-turned-actors who abandon what got them there in the first place, Rock has not forgotten his roots: His recent HBO special, “Bigger & Blacker,” taped at Gotham’s famous Apollo Theater, showed Rock clearly hitting his comedic stride. The DreamWorks Records concert album of the same name has sold more than 200,000 copies since its release and earned Rock a Grammy last year for best spoken comedy album.

Cable and comedy have been especially good for Rock’s career. His emergence on the national stage can be traced to his tour-de-force HBO special, “Bring the Pain,” which was honored with two 1997 Emmys for writing and outstanding special.

The timing of the special allowed Rock to tap into the divisiveness in the black community over the O.J. Simpson verdict, an internationally discussed topic that helped the comedian’s remarks resonate beyond his core followers.

Rock has been compared to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, comedians whose stock-in-trade is their insightful candor and ability to think on their feet. Rock demonstrated those skills on “The Chris Rock Show,” which became one of HBO’s highest-rated and most talked about series.

The latenight series became notable for its unpredictability and often outspoken guests, whom Rock is not afraid to vilify occasionally, despite their stature in the community. Rock has verbally sparred with such guests as the Rev. Al Sharpton, Puff Daddy, Johnnie Cochran, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Ed Bradley, while interspersing comedy bits and live music performances.

The eponymous show earned Rock an Emmy for writing in a variety or musical show, in addition to picking up several nominations. Rock recently ended the series’ five-year run.

If conquering the TV, film and recording industries weren’t enough, Rock added author to his resume with his debut book, “Rock This,” which spent time on both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists after its release in 1997. The book was more observational and reflective than autobiographical.

Rock grew up in the Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He had two idols: boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and comedian Eddie Murphy. Honing his comedic skills on the comedy club circuit, he soon realized a long-held dream when he joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1989.

During his three-year “SNL” tenure, Rock created several memorable characters such as Nat X of “The Nat X Show” and Onski from “I’m Chillin’.” Rock also made several guest appearances on Fox’s “In Living Color,” during the heyday of the series.

ROCK IN PICTURES

Pic, Distrib, Year B.O. (in millions of dollars)
Dr. Dolittle, Fox, ’98
144
Lethal Weapon 4, WB, ’98
130
New Jack City, WB, ’91
48
Down to Earth, Par, ’01
34*
Beverly Hills Ninja, Sony, ’97
32
Dogma, Lions Gate, ’99
31
Nurse Betty, USA, ’00
25
CB4, U, ’93
18
Panther, Gramercy, ’95
7
Total B.O.
469

*B.O through Feb. 25

Source: ACINielsen EDI

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