June 16, 1997 12:00 PM

IN HOLLYWOOD THE PROMINENT often take pride in being pampered. Which makes the do-it-yourself reliance of Mykelti (it’s pronounced Michael-tee) Williamson seem, by comparison, a tad extreme. “I’ve been cutting my own hair for 10 years,” says the actor, who played Tom Hanks’s tragic shrimper pal Bubba in Forrest Gump. “Every weekend I cut it. I tune my own cars top. I used to build my own engines,” he adds, “but I don’t have time anymore. I’m fortunate enough to be busy.”

Indeed. While remodeling his suburban Los Angeles home—by himself, natch—and orchestrating his April 26 wedding to the Discovery Channel’s Sondra Spriggs (the 170 guests included pals Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance), Williamson, 40, found time to play bad guys gone good in two spring films. Truth or Consequences, N.M., a crime drama directed by his friend Kiefer Sutherland, opened May 2; Con Air, an action yarn starring Nicolas Cage, is due June 6. “He doesn’t like to lounge around and watch the grass grow between his toes,” says Con Air director Simon West. “He’s always juggling things; he’s almost hyperactive.”

“I wish he would slow down,” says his new bride. “He’s always saying, ‘I’ve got to do this, study that’—when he’s already doing the laundry. He gets restless when he’s idle.”

The two met through a mutual friend in 1995, but only after a few get-acquainted phone calls almost proved disastrous. “I didn’t like her very much,” he says. “All she talked about was Hollywood. Bored me silly.” But once the conversation turned to mutual interests, including scuba diving and horseback riding, they hit it off. Williamson finds Spriggs “soft and supportive. When I get crazed, she knows how to cool me out.” A year after meeting, when they were in Toronto to attend Sutherland’s wedding to model Kelly Wynn, Williamson proposed. Then a week before their own wedding, she moved into his four-bedroom Ladera Heights home, where he displays his collection of African art, restores classic cars—he drives a ’53 Chevy truck and a ’57 Mercedes coupe—cooks corn bread and roasted chicken for friends and communes with daughter Phoenix, 7, who lives nearby with his ex-wife Cheryl Chisolm, a real estate agent. “She’s a great mom,” Williamson says of Chisolm, whom he divorced amicably in 1994. Williamson, says Spriggs, brings the same focus to fathering that he does to everything else in his life. “Phoenix is a daddy’s girl,” she says. “He does her hair, buys her clothes, cooks for her. He’s very involved in her life.”

The same can’t be said for Williamson’s own father, whom Mykelti (it means “spirit” in the language of his part-Blackfoot Indian great-grandparents) says “bolted” when he was an infant, leaving his mother, Elaine, to raise him, brother Jerry, now 46 and a career Army officer, and sister Jacqueline, 35, a movie promoter. Born in St. Louis, Williamson grew up in L.A., where his mother settled after marrying Air Force instructor Booker T. Marshall, whom she divorced eight years later. “As a single mom, I prepared my boys for the world, so they wouldn’t have to depend on anybody,” says Elaine, now an accountant at TRW Inc. “They had to do everything—cook, sew, clean.” With only sporadic contact with his father through the years, Williamson says he found substitute role models first in his favorite TV show, Leave It to Beaver—”I used to call my brother Wally,” he says—and later in Muhammad Ali. “He was my hero from the time I was a little bitty potato.”

Williamson wasn’t much bigger when, at 10, he began appearing in local theater productions. During his years at Crenshaw High School, he became a dancer on Soul Train. After graduating in 1975, he worked as an auto and truck mechanic while building an impressive TV acting résumé that includes appearances on Starsky and Hutch, Baretta, Kojak, Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice. Making the leap to the big screen in 1993 with Free Willy, Williamson got what appeared to be his big break in Gump. While he loved working with his costar—”It’s too bad there’s not a planet full of Tom Hankses,” he says—he believes his overweight character’s look, which included large prosthetic lips, temporarily sank his career. “It was in the toilet,” he says. “People thought I really looked like Bubba.”

Pleased now to be back to his old svelte self and hyperactive work pace, Williamson recently wrapped Buffalo Soldiers, with Danny Glover, in Arizona and will begin filming Primary Colors, with John Travolta, this month. He credits Al Pacino, who lobbied director Michael Mann to cast him in Heat in 1995, and his own perseverance for getting his career back on track. “Some people don’t enjoy the audition process,” says Williamson. “But I like to go in and change the air in the room. I love that.”

STEVE DOUGHERTY

JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles

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