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Making His Mark

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Someone was feeling frisky. And for once it was not Mark Wahlberg, but a 5-year-old chimp named Jacob. Or was it Jacob’s brother Jonah? Wahlberg couldn’t tell. But while filming Planet of the Apes last May, the actor, who stars as stranded astronaut Leo Davidson, found himself fending off the amorous advances of one of the twin chimps who share the role of his Planet pal. “Hey, what’s up here?” Wahlberg exclaimed in mock shock. “I thought this was a family movie.”

Such protestations, even though feigned, may seem surprising from a high school dropout who made his name dropping trou’ before thousands of hormonally hyped hip-hop fans. But then much has changed since Wahlberg found fame—and controversy—in the early 1990s. Calling himself Marky Mark, the little brother of New Kids on the Block singer Donnie Wahlberg was the force behind 1991’s platinum-selling Music for the People and revealed just about all as a Calvin Klein underwear model. His bad-boy bravado seemed to get the better of him with the revelation that at 17 he served a 45-day prison term for assaulting a Vietnamese man he had called “a slant-eyed gook”—a lapse followed in 1993 by a brawl that broke out after he allegedly called one of Madonna‘s friends “a homo.”

Now 30 and “Marky” no more, Wahlberg has put all that behind him. And so, it seems, have his critics. Says GLAAD spokesman Scott Seomin of Wahlberg’s earlier slurs: “We like to believe that it was just the ignorance of his age speaking.”

For a few years now, the only brow-raising drama from Wahlberg has come onscreen. Since his first major acting gig in the 1993 USA Network movie The Substitute, he has earned critical praise for such films as 1995’s Basketball Diaries, 1997’s Boogie Nights, 1999’s Three Kings and last year’s The Perfect Storm. Planet director Tim Burton chose him to play the film’s human hero because, like Charlton Heston in the 1968 cult classic, he is a Steve McQueen-like man of action and few words. Says Burton: “We needed someone who, with just a look, could say, ‘Where the hell am I?’ ”

One thing that hasn’t changed is his allure among the ladies. Just ask former Baywatch star Traci Bingham, 33, who 11 years ago filmed a steamy music video with Wahlberg and swiped a pair of his boxer shorts as a souvenir. “Days after, they still smelled like him,” says Bingham, who has kept them to this day. “I can see why he gets mobbed and has girlfriends everywhere he goes.” Indeed, his former steadies include Legally Blonde’s Reese Witherspoon and, most recently, The Fast and the Furious’s Jordana Brewster.

Though he still likes to think of home as the Braintree, Mass., house where his mother, Alma, 59, lives, Wahlberg spends most nights holed up in a hotel on location. According to a staffer at a favorite stopover, Manhattan’s Trump International Hotel & Tower, he is “always with a different woman.” Except perhaps on Sundays. Whether he has spent a typical Saturday night drinking brews with pal Leonardo DiCaprio at Manhattan’s trendy SoHo bar Veruka or had a long week filming his next movie in Paris (a remake of the Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn thriller Charade due next summer), the Catholic Wahlberg always makes it to mass. “I’ve always said, ‘Please, just be good people,’ ” Alma says she has told her children. “If other good things follow, all the better.”

That lesson came slow to the youngest of nine Wahlberg kids, who was hit hard by the divorce of Alma, a former bank clerk and nurse’s aide, and his father, Donald, 71, a onetime milk deliveryman still living near Boston, when he was 10. Living with his mother, brothers and sisters in Boston’s working-class Dorchester section, he was “staying out all night” by 12, he told Vanity Fair, and at 14 “had a pretty serious cocaine problem.” He stole cars, sold pot and was high on angel dust, he said, when he assaulted the Vietnamese man, taking out his eye with a wooden pole. As he put it, “I’ve done my share of bad.”

And now he is looking to do good. Like Donnie, now 31 and an actor, Wahlberg has become an advocate for inner-city kids. His just-launched Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation will fund field trips and rec centers for kids nationwide—including those at a Dorchester Boys and Girls Club he frequented in his youth. “It means a great deal to the kids to see him come back,” says the club’s program director Mike Joyce. And to know how far they, like Wahlberg, can go.

Karen S. Schneider

Anne Driscoll in Boston, Joseph V. Tirella in New York, Michelle Caruso and Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles