The ''Inkheart'' star's movies have made $2 billion worldwide -- how long will he have to apologize for ''Monkeybone''?

By Clark Collis
Updated January 23, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

You wouldn’t believe how much time was spent discussing this scene,” chuckles Brendan Fraser. It’s a January afternoon, and the actor has agreed to watch clips from some of his movies at a Manhattan screening room. At the moment he’s looking at a sequence from an indie period piece that he’s particularly proud of, the acclaimed 1998 film Gods and Monsters. On screen, Fraser is clad only in a towel and being ogled by costar Ian McKellen. Off screen, he’s smiling and remembering how surreal it was to shoot the scene with his status as a nascent family-movie star in the back of his mind. ”The big question was how far that towel was allowed to slip down,” he says. ”I kept on saying: Hey, guys, I’ve got George of the Jungle coming out!”

Such is the career of Brendan Fraser. One minute he’s acting opposite one of the world’s foremost thespians in a serious drama, and the next he’s promoting a kid-friendly Disney movie about a guy raised by apes. One day he’s opening 2001’s The Mummy Returns to the tune of a $68 million weekend, proving yet again that he’s one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, and the next he’s earning critical raves in an adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Detractors mock him for the many visual-effects-heavy, family-friendly movies he’s made: ”His name on the marquee is a guarantee of mediocrity,” says one blockbuster producer who hasn’t worked with Fraser. Studio executives seem unsure of what to do with him: ”They think of Sean Penn or Josh Brolin or whoever for dramas,” says writer-director Paul Haggis, who cast Fraser in his Best Picture winner Crash. ”They don’t think of Brendan Fraser.” And fans, such as Scrubs executive producer Bill Lawrence, on whose show Fraser has guest-starred, believe Fraser is getting neither the kudos, nor the roles, he deserves: ”Brendan is undercredited for how talented he is. He’s the rare actor who is a classic leading man but can also do a character piece. People rarely have the chops to do both. I always thought he had the goods.” So if he has the goods, and he’s proved that he can bring the dough — $2 billion worldwide box office and counting — why can’t Brendan Fraser get some respect?

Fraser, 40, refers to his early Hollywood days as his ”himbo” phase. But his career in the ’90s was remarkably varied. He roamed from his breakthrough role in the goofy 1992 comedy Encino Man to his acclaimed dramatic turn in School Ties to the admittedly ”himbo”-ish George of the Jungle to 1999’s action-horror adventure The Mummy. The last of these movies, in which he buckled his swash as a monster-battling adventurer, was an unexpectedly massive hit, bringing in $155 million. The film would spawn two sequels and gift Fraser with a reputation as someone audiences like to see in big-budget spectacles. That rep seems to be more deserved now than ever. In the last six months he has carried the 3-D movie Journey to the Center of the Earth (which grossed $102 million domestically), the third Mummy film (which not only broke the $100 million mark but also raked in a further quarter of a billion dollars worldwide), and this week’s young-adult fantasy Inkheart. Has he made mistakes? Oh, yes. This is a man who followed The Mummy with box office flops like the comedy remake Bedazzled and the bizarre Monkeybone, in which he battled a sex-crazed, animated ape. ”The films he made in between the two Mummy movies really hurt his career,” says Stephen Sommers, who directed both the original film and the first sequel. ”It got to be: Brendan Fraser, he’s great in a Mummy movie, but other than that…” The actor, who was reportedly paid $10 million for Bedazzled and another $12.5 million for The Mummy Returns, admits his choices around that time were, in part, financially motivated. ”I was looking to start a family,” he says (over the next few years he would have three children with his wife, Afton).

In 2001, The Mummy Returns reestablished Fraser’s box office credentials. But then, after interrupting his run of fantasy movies with The Quiet American, it was back to visual effects with 2003’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action, which opened to only $9.3 million. ”I got a payday, but I didn’t work for a year and a half after that,” he says. Fraser couldn’t even fall back on mummy-hunting: ”Universal had this kind of revolving door with executives. I had to wait for the call for seven years.”

Fraser was still a big enough name to help indie movie directors get financing. Paul Haggis secured the $7 million budget for Crash only after Fraser came on board: ”I said, I’ve got Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, and Sandy Bullock. I should be able to get my $7 million, right? The money people said, No, you need a good name for this last role. When Brendan said yes, I went, Oh, my God, I’ve got a film.” But even after Crash won the Oscar for Best Picture, Fraser kept getting the same kind of scripts. ”I’ve learned that if a movie gets put in the ‘win’ column, it belongs to the studio,” he says. ”If it gets put in the ‘lose’ column…you finish the rest.” Fraser resolved to take more of a hands-on role with his movies. When he was approached to star in Journey to the Center of the Earth, he insisted on helping develop the material. ”The script was about a deadbeat father and a son,” says Journey director Eric Brevig. ”Brendan read the Jules Verne novel and said, Look, it’s an uncle and his nephew in the book, let’s just do that. It was, like, of course! Because you want a sympathetic protagonist. Brendan’s a secret weapon. If you get him on your movie, and it is halfway decent, he’ll make it absolutely great.”

The actor makes no such grand claims for himself. He says he simply follows a series of golden rules: ”Know the material. Don’t bump into the furniture, and have a good relationship with the people you work with.” Fraser’s congeniality, in fact, appears to be as legendary as his ability to act with CGI beasties (Looney Tunes director Joe Dante says working with special effects is as easy as ”falling off a log” for Fraser). Brevig contends that the actor is more than just the nicest man in Hollywood: ”He was also the nicest man in Montreal, where we shot the movie.” Inkheart director Iain Softley recalls a dinner party the actor gave during the shoot, at his rented Italian villa, when he led everyone on a tour of the place, complete with ghost stories. ”He was taking us over rooftops,” he says. ”It was like he was Peter Pan.”

In person, Fraser is big featured, youthful-looking, and has something of The Boy Who Never Grew Up about him. (If you’re curious, his hair looks thicker today than it has sometimes appeared in photographs.) He comes across as a more intelligent, but just as affable, version of the well-meaning galoots he has played so often. Of course, this makes him the perfect person to play those roles. It also helps that he’s not likely to star in any personal scandals that would jeopardize his family-friendly image, especially since he lives in Connecticut. (The tabloids largely ignored the news, in December 2007, that Fraser and his wife were divorcing. The actor is quiet about his personal life, acknowledging only that he’s single.) Fraser’s amiability and enthusiasm also make him a good fit for physically tiring blockbusters. And he genuinely loves doing them and talks wistfully about the action-adventure epics that slipped through his fingers. Around 2003, for instance, he was in discussions to play Superman. J.J. Abrams’ script ”was f—ing awesome,” Fraser says. ”Shakespeare in space! But it never came to fruition.” There’s no bitterness in his voice as he says this. Brendan Fraser doesn’t really do bitter. And why should he? His movies have cashed in at the box office, and even his detractors may come around. ”There is a powerful dramatic actor waiting to emerge underneath those boyish features,” says Quiet American director Phillip Noyce. ”His best days are yet to come.”

Fraser’s next movie is a medical drama with Harrison Ford. He acknowledges that the film is important for him. But he isn’t a guy who spends time worrying about whether Hollywood respects him. ”No, do you want me to?” he laughs. ”Please don’t feel sorry for me. I’m not a pariah, as far as I know. And people love movies like The Mummy. I love them! The job becomes easier when you enjoy what you’re doing, and I found an area I really do enjoy.”

On that note, Fraser strides out into the afternoon, pausing to help a woman with a broken leg get into her car. The nicest man in Hollywood and Montreal has just conquered New York.