December 30, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

This time last year, Jim Carrey was best known — if at all — as the white dude on Fox’s In Living Color. Two box office hits and millions of dollars in movie deals later, the doe-eyed comedian with the Silly Putty face is suddenly Hollywood’s hottest cutup. Boyishly handsome, oddly charismatic, and absolutely fearless about making a total idiot out of himself, Carrey, 32, is hugely popular with adults as well as kids, men as well as women — everyone but those stuffy critics. There have even been bold comparisons to that greatest of all low-concept big-screen morons, the one so beloved by the French.

”There’s been talk that Jerry Lewis would play my father in Ace Ventura 2,” Carrey offers. ”But I’m not sure. I haven’t been talked into it.”

These days, Carrey — who’s nothing if not smart about playing the fool — isn’t talked into any deals but the biggest. With this month’s Dumb and Dumber — in which he and Jeff Daniels costar as a pair of chowderheads who discover a suitcase stuffed with money (they’re so dumb, they actually try to find its owner)— he enters Hollywood’s highest income bracket. Paid a mere $350,000 for Ace (which raked in an alllll-righty sum of $72 million), and a piddling $450,000 for his turn as a zoot-suited, emerald-skinned superhero in last summer’s The Mask (which has so far pulled in $116 million), he finally hit the jackpot with Dumb: $7 million. Much more cash is on the way: at least $5 million to play the Riddler in Batman Forever, and another $7 million to $10 million apiece for sequels to Ace and The Mask. Not bad for a guy whose largest previous role was as an alien himbo in Earth Girls are Easy.

The secret of Carrey’s excess? ”I try to find something different each time out,” he says. ”In Dumb I took the bonding out of my chipped tooth. Kids across America will be smashing their teeth out after this movie.” They’ll have to go even further if they want to match Carrey’s disregard for vanity in comedy: Dumb and Ace Ventura showcase him in the year’s two most willfully ugly hairstyles.

If Carrey is not quite De Niro, he is, in his own way, just as dedicated to his craft. ”He’s like a human sponge, absorbing everything around him,” says longtime buddy Nicolas Cage. ”He’s very passionate about creative stimulant. He loves Salvador Dalí and reads Joseph Campbell books on mythology. He paints and creates sculptures, so he’s always feeding the beast within with creative input.” Cameron Diaz, Carrey’s love interest in The Mask, puts it more succinctly: ”Working with him is like visiting an insane asylum.”

According to Carrey, though, the madness isn’t without method: ”Once the lines are learned,” he says, ”and you know where you’re supposed to move in a scene, that’s when you can go beyond it and create something better. That’s when you’re with God. You’re living your life in front of the camera.”

In other words, that’s when he’s s-s-s-smokin’.

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