By Gregory Cerio
Updated August 14, 1995 12:00 PM

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED AT THE WRAP PARTY for Sandra Bullock‘s new movie, The Net, last spring. At the height of the hoopla, the lights dimmed and a big-screen TV lit up with a video tribute from the crew to the film’s leading lady—a brief collection of beauty shots and outtakes selected by the gaffers, grips and so-called best boys, a rather hard-bitten bunch not easily impressed by big names. As Bullock watched the tape, set to the tune “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” she grew teary-eyed. Even now, Net veterans recall with delight how the actress not only fetched her own coffee to the set but often carried in a dozen orders of cappuccino for the crew. Or how Bullock asked production workers to join her in her favorite pastime, salsa dancing, at an L.A. club. “The video was just a way of saying thanks,” says Todd Marks, a computer adviser on the film. “She’s that nice. It was never ‘the crew’ and ‘her.’ She was part of the crew.”

It’s true: Though she has been at the top of producers’ wish lists for everything from the prostitute in the proposed Pretty Woman 2 to the title role in Disney’s planned live-action version of Peter Pan, Bullock would actually make one heck of a great gaffer, and not just because she drove a bus in Speed or sold subway tokens in While You Were Sleeping. Consider the way she recently went about renovating the house she shares with her sister Gesine, 25, a law student. Bullock didn’t bring in any contractor to the stars to fix up the funky, 1926 Spanish-style cottage in an L.A. canyon. Rather, she did much of the work herself, setting every hand-painted Mexican tile into place on the kitchen floor with her trusty grout float. She is—in matters relating both to floors and life as a film star—on an abiding quest for the level. Success isn’t enough for Bullock: She wants sanity too. No small order when you’ve gone from relative peanuts to $6 million a movie in roughly the time span of the O.J. trial.

What a difference one summer makes. Before Speed opened in June of 1994, Bullock, 31, was making the most of second-tier roles in movies like Demolition Man and nursing a badly bruised heart. She and actor Tate Donovan, 31 (Ethan Frome), whom Bullock once called “the greatest love of my life,” had just ended their three-year relationship. By a cruel coincidence, Bullock also lost her Jack Russell terrier last year; Luigi, one of three pups she owned, was apparently stolen. “She was devastated,” says a friend. “She went looking for it everywhere.” Even lately, one thing Bullock has done when she arrives on a movie set is to put up posters with the dog’s picture. “My name’s Luigi,” the signs say. “Has anybody seen me?”

Luigi may resurface yet. But Bullock’s long anonymous afternoons—those she spent tending bar in Greenwich Village or making carefree trips to Colonel Sanders for her beloved extra crispy—for both better and worse, seem gone forever. On many a Hollywood morning this summer, Bullock is the buzz. Sleeping was a surprise hit, The Net is scoring well and she has three more movies on tap: Two if by Sea, A Time to Kill and Kate & Leopold. Few, if any, other female stars are as bankable as Bullock is right now. Industry leaders, in fact, are seeing her as the next Julia Roberts. Though three years older than Roberts, Bullock does have a similar range: She can give you girl-next-door, and she can give you glitz. And she can take your breath away with a wide-eyed look or throwaway gesture. “She’s not a glamour-puss,” says Sid Ganis, marketing president for Columbia TriStar. “She’s fresh as a daisy, and people can’t take their eyes off her.” Bullock’s career seems to have its own momentum. Shortly after she spurned the Pretty Woman sequel, the actress said, “Someone told me I’m expected to do the film version of I Dream of Jeannie. It’s news to me!”

Her social life is gathering speed too, starting with the fact that most of Western Civilization seems to have developed a powerful crush on her. But while many would call, few have her phone number. In recent weeks, Bullock has been seen with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, 28, who is described by his agent as a “fax pal.” On the other hand, you don’t have to be a football hero. Her escort at The Net’s premiere was Don Padilla, a technician who worked on the movie.

What caused the sudden Bullock boom? Net director Irwin Winkler has a theory. “Sandra doesn’t have a star attitude,” he says. “People see a lot of themselves in her.” Then, of course, there is the beauty factor—although Bullock, with her unclassic features and that small scar over her right eye, a souvenir of a tumble into a creek at age 11, is hardly bowled over by her own looks. “I’m not what the industry or the media have deemed a hot tamale,” Bullock told Mademoiselle. “There is something comfortable about me. I’m like a sleeper sofa. A good couch your grandmother has.”

Bullock likes to make people feel comfortable. A couple of weeks ago, when she was finishing shooting one movie and busy promoting The Net, she had her backyard decked out in twinkling white lights for two gay male friends who had decided to have a marriage ceremony and needed a place to celebrate. About 35 people came, ate barbecue and had a fine time. Such is Saturday with Sandra. Speaking of Bullock’s way with people, Winkler says, “She’s unassuming, fun and very accessible.”

Life has taught her to be adaptable. Bullock is the older of two children born to John, a vocal coach, and Helga, a German-born opera singer. Though her official residence was Arlington, Va., Bullock lived a transatlantic life until age 12. The family would visit Europe yearly for opera season, when Helga would perform. It was through her mother that Sandra, at age 8, got her first taste of the stage. “In just about any opera, there’s a gypsy child in the background,” Bullock once explained. “That was my part.” In Salzburg, Austria, audiences would toss her chocolates by way of applause. By the time Sandra reached the sixth grade, Helga has said, she was already set on being an actress.

Eventually the Bullocks settled back in Arlington full-time. “I was still in green velvet bell-bottoms when everyone else was wearing straight legs,” Bullock has said. “I always had these stupid barrettes holding my hair back. I was just a couple of beats off.”

By the time she was studying at Washington-Lee High School (the alma mater, incidentally, of Warren Beatty and his sister Shirley MacLaine), Bullock had found her American rhythm—enough to join the cheerleading squad and date a football player. “She could make anyone laugh,” one classmate recalls, adding that Bullock was also something of a straight arrow. “She wasn’t smoking or wearing ripped clothes. She didn’t do drugs. She was an above-average student, but no brainiac.” Her ’82 senior class voted Bullock “Most Likely to Brighten Your Day.”

Her sunny disposition concealed a serious side that emerged when Bullock enrolled as a drama student at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. Her acting teacher Don Biehn, 49, recalls Bullock’s performance in the Chekhov drama Three Sisters. “It’s a highly charged piece, and she was trying to give the emotional moment in every scene, trying to hit a home run,” Biehn says. “I remember thinking, ‘She is fearless.’ ”

After leaving ECU in 1986, she headed for New York City, studied Method acting under Sanford Meisner and fibbed her way into a bartender’s job. (“I didn’t know how to mix any fancy drinks,” she later admitted. “The customers helped me.”) She also began the long and usually fruitless rounds to casting offices. “There was only one time when I said I was going to quit this business, in my early 20s,” Bullock says. “I said I would give it one more year, but I didn’t think I’d make it work. It was out of my control, and I’m a control freak.”

But little breaks came, on stage and TV. In 1990 she starred in the shortlived NBC sitcom Working Girl and played a nerdy psychobiologist in Love Potion No. 9. The brew didn’t allure audiences, but it worked for Bullock and costar Tate Donovan, with whom she became involved during the shoot. Staffers on the film recall being surprised the two got together. “Sandra was a sweetheart,” says one, adding that Donovan seemed most interested in his close-ups. Indeed, ego may have played a role in the breakup. “The person who needed me most was always the person I was attracted to,” Bullock has said of the split. “My priorities were him first, me second.”

In 1993, Bullock earned a succession of good supporting roles: kidnapper Jeff Bridges’ victim in The Vanishing; a waitress in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway; a wannabe country star in River Phoenix’s last movie, The Thing Called Love. In 1993, Demolition Man set Bullock up for her breakthrough role the next year in Speed. “Everyone told me not to do Speed,” she told The Virginian-Pilot. “I mean, it looked like I’d be just ‘the girl.’ ” But, she added, “I’ve learned to do things by instinct.”

Last year Jon Turteltaub, director of While You Were Sleeping, chose Bullock for a lead originally charted for Demi Moore (whose price was well above the $1.2 million Bullock was reportedly paid). The film has garnered $75 million at the box office, and the only thing more becoming than that figure, Turteltaub says, is the way Bullock has dealt with her fame. “She’s handling it like she handles everything—humbly and happily,” he says. “She takes her success gently.”

Though there are some other things Bullock takes sneakily. Like Turteltaub’s candy. The director recalls how he had a prop man put a lock on the drawer where Turteltaub kept his personal stash of sweets after discovering that Bullock was repeatedly helping herself to his trove. When the candy still kept disappearing, he says, “I found out Sandy had colluded with the prop man to get her own key!”

Face it: You gotta love a movie star who, in 1995, is still dealing in the Spanky and Alfalfa level of scandal. Net director Irwin Winkler knows that—and so does his wife of 36 years, Margo. Recently, Margo, a little peeved at the look that came into Irwin’s eyes when he discussed Bullock, asked him a point-blank question: “Do you have a crush on Sandy?”

“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “Don’t you?”

Margo just smiled.

“And that,” notes Winkler, “tells you a lot about Sandra Bullock.”