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Billy Bob Thornton: Tinseltown's new It Bob

We look at the actor’s recent success with ”Sling Blade” and upcoming projects such as ”Primary Colors”

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Billy Bob Thornton may have lost the Best Actor Oscar to Geoffrey Rush, but there’s no question who’s shining these days. The Sling Blade writer-director is suddenly Tinseltown’s new It Bob. ”I don’t know that there’s Billy Bob mania,” says his agent, Todd Harris, ”but he’s getting offered some very high-profile roles.” (For one thing, the actor will star in the upcoming thriller A Simple Plan.)

Certainly Blade‘s success has led Thornton to some substantial projects. He has landed roles in the upcoming movies The Winner, Primary Colors, and Oliver Stone‘s U-Turn. However, Thornton is using his flavor-of-the-moment status to indulge himself with a series of frothier post-award gigs as well.

Later this month, Thornton will direct a video for the neo-hippie rock band Widespread Panic, shooting the clip for their single ”Aunt Avis.” ”We’ve known him for a long time,” says the band’s frontman, John Bell. ”We’ve been screaming for years, ‘We’ve got to get Billy Bob to do a video.”’ Thornton will also make a few well-placed cameos: one this summer in the industry-insider flick An Alan Smithee Film, and one in that April 30 episode of Ellen in which something or other happens. Explains Mark Driscoll, one of the show’s executive producers: ”[Ellen] was doing the Sling Blade impression on the show, and she said, ‘Well, I want to do it right.’ And suddenly he was there doing it for her.”

By summer’s end, however, Thornton will head back to auteur-land. That’s when he’ll finish writing and begin shooting the second film in his three-picture Miramax deal. (Sling Blade was the first.) Although details have yet to be released, it is not, as has been widely reported, East End, the story of a white musician in an all-black ’70s band.

So how does one explain the appeal of this goateed country boy? ”Billy Bob does the human experience without going to the moon or on a spaceship journey,” offers Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein. ”He’s a working-class man with a working-class mentality.” Then again, Widespread Panic’s Bell sums it up best: ”He’s a good fella.”

With additional reporting by Chris Nutter