His catchphrase-inspiring turn in "Jerry Maguire" has launched him into A-List heaven

Sometimes the ways of fame can boil down to one totally insane moment in the parking lot outside the Super Bowl.

It’s the day of the big game in New Orleans, and Cuba Gooding Jr. is walking through the jam-packed parking lot when a young woman suddenly pegs him as the fast-talking, towel-dropping, Tom Cruise-berating football player Rod Tidwell from Jerry Maguire.

And so it begins. ”Shooow me the mon-ay!” she screams. Gooding smiles his ”Thank you, ma’am” smile and keeps walking, but it’s too late. A kid hears the woman and just has to say it too — ”Show me the money!” — and so does his mom: ”Show me the money!”

And they tell two friends. And so on. And so on. ”And suddenly,” Gooding says, still pumped from the experience a week later back home in Los Angeles, ”I’m in the show-me hell of entertainment!”

But he goes with it. That’s the kind of guy Gooding is. And as he strides up the ramp leading to the Super Dome, he is hailed like some legendary toreador arriving to do battle with the biggest of the bulls. Now it’s just a matter of giving the people what they want.

”There are about 3,000 people, and it’s like a concert,” he says, ”and cheerleaders are pointing at me saying ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s him!’ and a woman comes up to me and asks if she can grab my ass. ‘Just one cheek, pleeease!’ And everybody else just wants me to say it. ‘Say it! Saaay it!’ So I just climb up on top of this wall with about an eight-story drop, and I look out at everybody and they’re all screaming, and I throw out my arms and scream as loud as I can: ‘Show me the money!!!”’ The crowd goes wild.

No doubt about it, Cuba Gooding Jr. is a very famous dude these days, and he’s loving every minute of it. His Oscar-nominated role in Jerry Maguire — and particularly all that mon-ay business — has elevated the 29-year-old Bronx native with the perpetual smile from the status of promising rookie (best known for his noble, serious portrayal of a child of the ghetto in 1991’s Boyz N the Hood) to the Hollywood equivalent of a first-round draft pick. ”With Jerry Maguire,” says its writer/director, Cameron Crowe, ”Cuba got to show people the rainbow instead of just a few colors as far as his acting is concerned. And now he’s become a peacock with those colors. The guy is on fire.” Adds coproducer James L. Brooks: ”To think that this actor was the same troubled thoughtless teenager from Boyz N the Hood is really unbelievable. The man has got the goods.”

He’s also getting the offers. A year ago, Gooding was being sent five or six scripts a month. He says he now gets 40 or more scripts every week. And they’re interesting parts, particularly for an African-American actor. ”People are starting to look at me,” he says, ”as a Cuba Gooding Jr., rather than as a black actor, and I appreciate that because I’ll always be black, thank the good Lord.”

Brooks has already put Gooding to work playing a high-powered art dealer opposite Jack Nicholson in his next movie, tentatively titled Old Friends. Mike Nichols, Steven Spielberg, and Jon Turteltaub (Phenomenon) have also called. ”It’s amazing to be able to work with great directors,” he says, ”but it needs to be the right project. Steven Spielberg could come to me and say, ”Okay, I’d like you to put a rag on your head and yell ‘Mogumbo mojumbo’ and I’d like you to do it with a little Vaseline on your lips.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, Steven, kiss all parts of my black ass. I love ya, but you can go home with that bulls—.”

When he’s not busy signing $100 bills for fans (he writes “Show me the…” and draws an arrow pointing to Ben Franklin’s head) or playing celebrity hockey games with his buddy Cruise and Wayne Gretzky, Gooding hangs out at home in L.A. with his wife, Sara, a former teacher (whom he met at age 21 before all the hype); their 2-year-old son, Spencer; their new baby, Mason; and their three gargantuan Great Danes, Lollipop, Pitch Black Jr., and Woodrow.

Impressive for a former taco vendor whose first professional gig was as a break-dancer on stage behind Lionel Richie at the 1984 Olympic Games. But there’s one twist in this happy story: Although he has risen to the top of his game playing a hotshot NFL star who sticks with his longtime agent even after hitting the big time, Gooding himself has demonstrated a peculiar restlessness when it comes to the people who have helped guide his career. He’s switched agents six times in 10 years and has changed publicists four times in the past three months. That’s a lot of shuffling in an industry where everybody knows everybody else’s business.

“If an agent is instrumental in helping to secure a role for an actor and the results are as perfect as they have been for Cuba, why change things? What Cuba’s got is what we all strive for,” says Paradigm agent Sam Gores, who represented Gooding when he got the role in Maguire. “This decision can’t possibly be about business. It’s become about character and integrity and principles.”

Last month, Gooding told Gores he was signing on with the higher-profile Creative Artists Agency, which also represents Crowe and Cruise. Gores should not have been surprised. Gooding left him before when things were going well, after Gores helped get him the part in Boyz N the Hood.

“Cuba treats representatives like pieces of meat,” adds an agent who has worked with Gooding. “He wants them to show him the money, yet once they do, he’s gone. There’s no excuse for this kind of hopping around. To me, it’s only an indication that he’s going to trip himself up down the road.”

The irony of all this happening to the man who played the principled character in Jerry Maguire is certainly not lost on Crowe. “Cuba’s got his moment in sight, and he just wants to handle things correctly. You can only imagine what it’s like for an actor who’s cold trying to get the attention of an agent who’s hot. It’s brutal. But dumping a longtime associate who’s a friend sends a weird signal. If you make a stink about something in the business, it’s going to get around.”

“It’s all very funny to me,” Gooding says with a smile, leaning back in his chair after a photo shoot at the Santa Monica airport. He looks fit in his snug black T-shirt, even though he isn’t quite as buffed as he was in Jerry Maguire. (He lifted weights for three weeks to get his lean 5’11”, 180-pound frame into pro-football-player form before his oft-recounted audition for the movie, during which he dropped his pants to show he had no problem with nudity.) “Nobody talked about how many people I pissed off after I did [the flop] Lightning Jack.”

In fact, nobody talked much about Gooding at all until recently. After Boyz made him a media darling in 1991, “I wanted to be a cowboy, I wanted to be a pirate, I wanted to be a businessman. I wanted to be accepted universally.” Instead, “the scripts I got were Boyz N the Hood 2, 3, Boyz N the Hood Goes to Heaven, Boyz N the Hood Goes to the Laundromat, Boyz at the Supermarket. ‘Can I hep ya? Yes’m. I’ll take two loafs a bread, cuz.’ I wasn’t into it.”

So Gooding did what he had always done when he felt his career stagnating: He switched agents. He’d done it originally when his first agency, Coralie Jr. (“They handled sword swallowers and little people,” he says), wasn’t finding him roles that pleased him. At that time, he moved to the more actor-friendly Gores, whose clients include Jonathan Frakes and Laurence Fishburne. But after a few good offers, followed by a couple of disasters (Lightning Jack among them) and declining salary offers (Gooding took a role in Outbreak for less than he’d got for similar roles earlier in his career), he moved to William Morris.

“I didn’t want to miss out on opportunities,” he says. “I was seeing movies all the time with really bad actors. And these were roles I couldn’t even get readings for.” But according to Gooding, William Morris wasn’t helping him much either, so he signed on with ICM, the agency that got him the reading for Jerry Maguire. One problem: ICM was almost too big. “I was fighting the heat at my own agency,” he says. “I was competing with other ICM clients for roles.” Which is why he went back to his friend Gores. “I needed that personalized attention again, just like in Jerry Maguire,” Gooding says. Nonetheless, Gooding left Gores for CAA the moment his star started blazing again. “At this point,” Gores says of the agent hopping, “you have to start looking yourself in the mirror and saying ‘It’s me and not my agent.'”

But Gooding has some good reasons for not sitting still. He watched his father, Cuba Gooding Sr.—the singer with the ’70s R&B band the Main Ingredient, source of the hit “Everybody Plays the Fool”—”lose everything” after his star dimmed. He also knows the challenges of being a black actor. “I was shocked to see the racism in Hollywood,” he says. “As a young actor you think this is the fairy world. I’ve seen Sidney Poitier kiss a white woman in a movie. Then you hear, ‘We want to make you an offer on this movie, but we can’t because we have another black actor up for a role and we can’t have two black actors.’ That just happened to me. I was blown away.”

And now, as he signs another “Show Me the Money” bill for a fan at the airport, he seems perfectly happy with the choices he’s made. “I would love to have stayed with Coralie Jr. and been able to accept an award somewhere and say, ‘I’d just like to thank my agent, the only person responsible for my being here.’ But unfortunately I’ve had to make decisions [to get] me to this point. It’s not easy. If it was easy, there’d be a whole lot of other actors here instead of me, with a slightly different line, saying “Show me the Toyota” or whatever. But it’s me and I like it that way.”