By Tom Gliatto
April 11, 1994 12:00 PM

ASK LEON WHY HE DECIDED SEVEN YEARS ago to dispense with his surname, Robinson, and the 31-year-old actor will offer, in his soft-spoken, attractively sleepy-eyed way, a number of explanations. “Less formal,” says Leon. And “I’m terrible at remembering names. So don’t give me more than one name to remember.” And “I’m a casual person who wants others to know me on a first-name basis.”

It’s certainly true that Leon, a lean and handsome 6’3″, has worked hard to get that name across in movie after movie. He’s currently playing a disillusioned ex-jock in the gritty urban basketball drama Above the Rim. This follows swiftly on the heels of the surprise hit Cool Runnings (he was the Jamaican bobsledding team’s irrepressible captain) and last summer’s Sylvester Stallone alpine action picture, Cliffhanger (he was John Lithgow’s henchman—the guy Sly impaled on a stalactite). Before that, most notoriously, he played the miraculous statue of a saint that comes to life and makes love to Madonna in her 1989 “Like a Prayer” video.

Leon has yet to be the star of a movie, but ever since he answered Madonna‘s prayers, he has definitely registered as a sex symbol. As his Above the Rim costar Tonya Pinkins puts it, “Leon has that cool, handsome, aloof thing.” And Leon has no problem with that. “I’m still tickled,” he says of his image. “Most of my fan mail is from women—a lot of flattering things and a lot of embarrassing things, like ‘I looked at your eyes and realized that I would do anything!’ ” Unfortunately, says Leon, blacks still aren’t offered the sort of leading-man roles that induce mass swooning. “We don’t get a chance to be romantic,” he says. “But we’re definitely progressing. There are more films with blacks in them, more black filmmakers.” And he can always look to his hero, Denzel Washington, for inspiration. “Denzel is a really fine actor and a good-looking guy,” says Leon. “And he’s from my neck of the woods.”

That’s Mount Vernon, just north of New York City. Leon Preston Robinson IV grew up there and in The Bronx, the middle child and only son of Leon III, a retired New York City Transit Authority executive, and Antoinette, a junior high school teacher. It was a middle-class, Catholic upbringing, says Leon, where “I was raised to believe the color of my skin was my biggest advantage.” His father remembers him as “obedient and religious, always the darling of the family.” At age 8, Leon thought briefly of joining the priesthood and later, like his character in Above the Rim, dreamed of pro basketball. “He was the best basketball player in the neighborhood,” says his lifelong friend Deane Evans, a concert promoter. “In school, kids would roll up newspapers and shout through them, ‘Basket by Robinson!’ ”

Leon made All City as a shooting guard while a student at Mount St. Michael, an all-boys high school in The Bronx, and won a basketball scholarship to L.A.’s Loyola Marymount University. Sudden exposure to mixed-gender classes (“I called my mom and said, ‘I’ve gone to heaven!”) caused his grades to plummet, however, and Leon transferred to Orange Coast College in Newport Beach. Cast in a student film, he enjoyed himself so much that he dropped out to pursue acting: “I felt like, ‘If I’m feeling this way, wow, maybe this is me.’ ”

Leon quickly accumulated small parts and even managed to befriend such Brat Packers as Rob Lowe and Sean Penn. But just as he was making promotional appearances for his biggest movie to date, 1991’s Five Heartbeats, he suffered a tragic jolt. His younger sister Theresa, who lived in Knoxville with her husband and two children, died suddenly of a rare immune disorder at age 26. “Theresa was closest to me in age in my family, and we used to fight like cats and dogs when we were young,” he recalls. “It wasn’t actually until they were putting her in the ground that I really broke down.” Now, he says, “I don’t take my life for granted. I don’t know when my dreams are going to come to a halt.”

Actually they continue to roll along nicely. He has several new movies lined up. He still finds time to play his childhood sport daily, date a model (sticking to his mono-moniker policy, he gives her name as Siobhan) and furnish his Beverly Hills apartment with Italian antiques “as well as some French pieces—a lot of wood.” He loves traveling, especially to Jamaica. And he remains close to his family in New York. “My son goes all around the world,” says his mom, proudly, “and no matter where he goes, he calls. And when he’s here, he sits down with his father, and they play chess.”

Papa Leon is happy to see his son’s name in lights—he just wishes there were more bulbs involved. “I would have preferred,” he says, “that he kept the Robinson.” His son, despite his run of major movie roles, remains respectfully sympathetic. “I think,” he says, “I’ve almost earned the right to use the name Leon.”