Larry Fishburne's breakout role -- The actor talks about playing the father figure in ''Boyz N the Hood''

Decked out in a vibrant flowered dashiki and matching pants, Larry Fishburne slides into a booth in an elegant restaurant in Venice, Calif., and clicks open a silver case. Inside lies a neat row of cigarettes, all decorated with skulls and crossbones. ”They’re called Death cigarettes,” he says, flashing a mischievous grin. It’s an odd moment coming from the actor who plays Furious Styles, the model father in Boyz N the Hood whose vigilant moral guidance steers his son away from a fatal attraction to gangs.

The major redeeming force in the film, Furious is a nonviolent hero, an antidote to the image of the black male who flees the responsibilities of fatherhood. ”Furious is the ultimate black father,” says Boyz writer-director John Singleton, who as a production assistant on Pee-wee’s Playhouse met Fishburne (who played Cowboy Curtis) and vowed to write a role for him. ”I looked up to Larry. On Boyz I tried to make him the father on the set.”

Fishburne felt ambivalent about maintaining that lofty position offscreen. ”It’s hard to be a role model,” he says. ”I’m still looking for my father. And besides, Furious is more a symbol than a real person. It would be impossible to live up to him.”

The only child of divorced parents, Fishburne, 30, was raised in Brooklyn by his mother, a math teacher. He and his father, a juvenile corrections officer, were not close. ”My dad was being Furious for a whole lot of other kids,” he says. ”It was weird, but it was okay.” At 11, with his mother’s encouragement, he auditioned for the TV soap One Life to Live and became a regular. By 12, he’d nabbed a starring role in his first film, Cornbread, Earl, and Me. And at 14, he fought the Vietnam War in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. He hacked his way through the casting jungle over the next decade, getting blown away in films like Death Wish II and Band of the Hand. Yet in between those disappearing acts were some memorable roles. Coppola directed him in Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club, and Gardens of Stone. Steven Spielberg tapped him to play Swain in The Color Purple. And Spike Lee cast him as the Afrocentrist Dap Dunlap in School Daze.

Lee also introduced him to Hajna Moss, a New York University student from the Bahamas whom Fishburne married in 1985. The couple live with their 3-year- old son, Langston (a baby is due this month), and Fishburne’s 13-year-old nephew in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Brooklyn neighborhood that was the setting for Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The actor feels strongly that black Americans are doomed unless they look to their African heritage for identity and pride. In fact, Furious’ speech about a plot to decimate the black race could have come from Fishburne himself — only Fishburne is even more outspoken.

”I guess it was decided years ago,” he says. ”Somebody sat down and said, ‘What are we going to do about these niggers? Let’s stick them in concentration camps and call them the projects. Let’s give them a bad education so we’ll always have people to do menial work.”’ Of the unwillingness of some black men to deal with fatherhood, he says, ”A lot of it has to do with the rules that are set up in this society. You’re supposed to have a job and be a breadwinner and be monogamous. That is not a traditional African way. They had extended families.”

Fishburne’s next role, in Deep Cover, a cop action drama directed by Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem), will keep him in L.A. and away from his family for several months. Does his career prevent him from being the kind of father he’d like to be? ”I may not be around enough when they need me,” he says, looking uncomfortable. ”So there it is.”

Outside the restaurant, Fishburne switches from a Death cigarette to a licorice root and is stopped by a young black man wearing UCLA shorts and a Boyz T-shirt who asks the actor to autograph his shirt. The reluctant role model writes, ”Peace and Love, Furious AKA Larry Fishburne.”

The fan beams. ”Man, what a great father you were in that film!” he says. ”That film is where it’s at.”