<EM>The Man</EM> The Man

At long last, America's curiosity about what a Samuel L. Jackson-Eugene Levy film would be like can be sated. That's right, the man known as Mace Windu aka John Shaft aka Pulp Fiction's proverb-spouting Jules Winnfield is making laughs with no less than the American Pie dad in The Man (opening today). The 48 HRS.-esque action-comedy presents Jackson as Derrick Vann, a Federal Agent who, in the midst of trying to clear the name of his disgraced dead partner, crosses paths with Andy Fiddler, Levy's mild-mannered dental-supply salesman. The very odd couple then must work together to thwart some arms dealers — and maybe learn a thing or two about each other along the way. It's a movie worth catching, if only to see Levy call Jackson "my bitch" in front of the bad guys, then give his punim a playful smack.

"I was totally glad to do a comedy," says Jackson. "I don't actually do as many comedies as I'd like to. And having the opportunity to do one with an accomplished comedic actor is even a bigger plus. When the audience sees Gene and me together and how we mesh, it's kind of fun."

The Man was an educational experience for Jackson, who as an actor is used to putting the fear of all things holy in people, and not so much making them guffaw. But as he learned, there is a time and a place for everything. "Comedy is difficult, only because a lot of times people want to make things funny that don't necessarily have to be funny. My approach was always to be very honest: If it's funny, it's funny, and if it's not, don't try to make it funny." Case in point: "There are times when we're in [Vann's souped-up Cadillac], having a conversation about something serious — because Andy says things to Vann that nobody else says — and those aren't times for laugh-out-loud comedy. They would try to get Gene to say things or use silly phrases to make the conversation funny, and I'm totally opposed to that. Every moment doesn't have to be a fall-on-the-ground-laughing moment."

Jackson reflects on his beginnings — his first notable role was in 1988's School Daze, followed soon after by Do the Right Thing — saying, "Every summer was like Spike Lee film camp. Jungle Fever [for which he won best supporting actor at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival] is the one that got me into Hollywood, made people start saying, 'Who's this guy?' A lot of people thought that Spike got this junkie and paid him in crack and sent him out on the street [when filming wrapped]! One thing that nobody can teach you in this business is being in the right place at the right time, which is what really happened for me."

Now, one Oscar nod, three Golden Globe nominations and one little Star Wars trilogy later, Jackson is, in fact, "the man" among his peers. He can be seen next opposite Julianne Moore in Freedomland (due for a Christmas release). And while two of his film excursions flirt with small-screen follow-ups — both S.W.A.T. and Coach Carter are being eyed for TV — and one merits sequel consideration ("They're talking about doing another The Incredibles," he says), Jackson actually wouldn't mind someday taking another walk on the wacky side with Levy.

"I'm trying to get the Turkish authorities to come after Andy [for unwittingly buying a stolen rug in the original], so that we can go shoot in an exotic location somewhere," Jackson quips. "Hopefully this movie will make enough money that they'll want to do something else."