April 21, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

After his first three film roles-as a sensitive Detroit kid in Zebrahead, a sweet lamebrain actor in True Romance, and a fragile freshman recruited by skinheads in Higher Learning-Michael Rapaport recalls that his parents had to give him a piece of advice. ”They said, ‘The nice-guy stuff we’re not buyin’. We want to see a film that shows your true colors-a real animal.”’ David Rapaport and June Brodie, old hands at New York radio, will be thrilled to see Kiss of Death. Their son plays Ronnie, the violent two-bit dictator of a hot-car lot. Rapaport, who lives in L.A.’s Hancock Park now, grew up on Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side, but he sounds like Vinnie Barbarino, and he’s no poseur: He picked up his accent playing pickup basketball in Brooklyn and Harlem. ”I’m not a tough guy,” the 25-year-old says, ”but I know a lot of tough guys.” He got kicked out of classes for being ”extremely disruptive” but managed to graduate from high school in 1989 and hit the comedy-club circuit in L.A. and Vegas, where his ”tough-ass, obnoxious” act got him so little respect that he got fired by Rodney Dangerfield’s club after two nights. A 10-line job on TV’s China Beach got him into Hollywood (”I cried when I got that role”), and 1993’s True Romance (in which his actor character convincingly goes gaga upon getting his first bit part on T.J. Hooker) got him out of comedy clubs forever. In Kiss of Death, Rapaport is in the ideal spot for an ambitious actor: right between Nicolas Cage and David Caruso. For the crucial verbal duel that opens the film (and Caruso’s big-screen career), Rapaport reports, ”David put this pressure on me. He said this is the biggest moment in the film-be convincing. I thought, Oh, great. It was my first day!” Undaunted, Rapaport went on to Woody Allen-he plays a boxer in Allen’s next flick, Eros. ”I heard he wouldn’t talk to you, so I would just go up to him and talk. I wasn’t doin’ it to bust his balls. I’d say, ‘Did you see Pulp Fiction?’ He’d say, ‘Yeah, I liked Christopher Walken.’ I wanted to make contact.” Rapaport plays opposite the director; but he won’t utter one word more about their contact on screen. ”That’s all I can say, or else the Woody Allen ninja people will show up at my house and kill me.” Michael Rapaport has proved he can be tough, but that doesn’t mean he’s stupid.

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