By Mary Vespa
August 11, 1986 12:00 PM

Interviewed recently on CNN, Sammy Davis Jr. was asked to name today’s “most complete entertainers.” His list: “Michael Jackson, Gregory Hines and Eddie Murphy.” Gregory Hines? “He scares me to death,” said Davis, “because his potential is as big as a mountain.” On the evidence of Running Scared, Hines’s latest film, Davis is right. Teamed with Billy Crystal as one of a pair of undercover cops who fire wisecracks at UZI speed, Hines brings a finger-snapping style to the movie that makes the whole thing click. Critics may call the film an imitation Beverly Hills Cop, but Running Scared generates a unique, one-of-a-kind energy between its two stars.

The movie also marks a significant change for Hines, 40. Only 18 months ago, when he hoofed through a subplot in The Cotton Club, he was best known as a tap dancer. Last November, co-starring with Isabella Rossellini in Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Knights, he displayed surprising ability as a romantic actor. Now he’s sharing star billing for the first time, and if the metamorphosis continues, Hines will soon be selling movie tickets on his own. Moreover, with his dancer’s grace, relaxed wit and bedroom eyes, Hines could move into a realm where no black actor has been before—the hip, sophisticated, romantic-comedy territory staked out by Cary Grant and Fred Astaire.

His affable appeal, one is happy to discover, isn’t based on image alone. “Gregory is the kindest person I’ve ever seen with people,” says co-star Crystal. “He’s totally unselfish.” Running Scared’s director, Peter Hyams, agrees: “Gregory has this enormous wellspring of warmth. He’s a real hugger, a kisser. I wanted that affectionate quality for the character.”

Happily, too, Hines is not the black Leo Buscaglia. His soft side is balanced by the kind of aggression required to survive 35 years in show business, many of them frustrating. As a dancer, his art was dismissed as a black novelty act. As an actor going for white roles, he was just dismissed. Hines’s conclusion: “You have to be aggressive, inventive and resilient. I don’t believe there is a system [of advancement] for black artists.”

His racial identity is important to him, so much so that he embellishes it, claiming to come from Harlem. Actually, Hines was born and raised in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, a more integrated neighborhood. “I don’t know where he gets this Harlem bit,” puzzles his mother, Alma. And although Hines’s maternal grandparents were Portuguese, Jewish, Irish and Panamanian, he is unambivalent about his ethnicity. “When I was a kid,” he explains, “blacks would say, ‘Oh, we have some Irish in us and some Portuguese. We have better quality hair. We’re better than other blacks.’ I thought it was a load of bull. I always have considered myself a black man. What my mother has on her side is irrelevant. When I go for a role that was written for a white, it means nothing.”

Hines’s acting has strictly been on-the-job training. His first break came in 1981, when he appeared in Wolfen and History of the World, Part I. Remembering Hines’s quirky, offbeat performance as the medical examiner in Wolfen, Peter Hyams cast the actor in an episode of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories last year, then pitched him to MGM for Running Scared. “I just knew it was going to happen with Gregory,” says the director. “He never really had the opportunity in film to play a flat-out leading man.”

It was a debut as leading men for both Hines and Crystal, and both had to beef up for it. “Once we read the script and knew we had to take our shirts off on page 62, we started to pump.” Crystal was impressed with his co-star’s dedication. “Gregory is built like a greyhound, and when he started, he was very skinny. But he attacks things. The day after we began working out, he had a body-building book and magazines like You and Your Tendons and The Wonderful World of Thighs.”

The training has made Hines more conscious of fitness and diet, but he still stays in shape primarily by tap dancing, an art he’s been practicing since age 3. Prompted by their mother, he and his brother Maurice, now 42, began crisscrossing the country playing nightclubs in 1955. Even running into a tree stump at age 10 (an accident that left Gregory legally blind in the right eye) didn’t interrupt the schedule. “He was in school at the time,” recalls his dad, “and he and his brother only worked weekends. It didn’t affect his dancing.”

In 1963, Maurice Sr., a onetime soda salesman and bouncer, joined the act as a drummer, and Hines, Hines and Dad began touring the international circuit. “We weren’t ever really successful,” says Gregory. “We were a very strong opening act, but we never got over the hump.”

By 1972 Gregory was unhappy with both his profession and his brief marriage to dance therapist Patricia Panella. He found solace for a while in cocaine. “It took about a year for my nose and sinuses to come back,” he says. In 1973 he separated himself from the family act and the marriage.

Hines spent the next four years in Venice, Calif., a period he calls “a turning point for me as a person. I always had had someone as a buffer between me and what was really happening in life. I really didn’t know how to take care of myself.” He started a jazz-rock group, began wearing his signature left earring and experimented with hallucinogenic drugs. Then he met Pamela Koslow, a twice-divorced guidance counselor. “He was a wonderful lover,” says Koslow, 41, making no bones about his appeal. “I’d never met a man who was so soft and gentle. The first time we made love…what can I say?”

Hines said hello to New York again in 1977, when he returned and was divorced from Panella. After his brother helped him get auditions, Gregory also started a new career, appearing in three successive Broadway shows—Eubie!, Comin’ Uptown and Sophisticated Ladies—for which he racked up three Tony nominations.

Married five years ago, Gregory and Pam live in a duplex penthouse loft in Manhattan with their son, Zachary, 3. Gregory’s daughter, Daria, 15, and Pam’s daughter, Jessica, 14, are frequent visitors. “My family is very important to my existence,” says Hines. “If there was something beyond the marriage ceremony I could do with Pam, I would. I have responsibilities as a husband and father that I want to fulfill.” Now partners in work as well as home life, the two are working on a musical about the life of jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton; she’ll produce while he plays the lead. Also ahead for Hines is an album that Luther Vandross will produce in the fall.

Occasionally, Hines is still bothered by a dark vision of the future—one in which he’s an aging hoofer who must keep dancing to pay the bills. “I want to be in a financial position where I don’t have to do that,” he says. “I respect my abilities, and I don’t want to go past the point where I don’t anymore.” But according to director Hyams, Hines’s fear about his career is completely unwarranted. “In terms of talent,” he says, “Gregory is an absolute ticking thermonuclear weapon just waiting to go off.”