By Michael A. Lipton
June 24, 1996 12:00 PM

THE FIRST THING YOU THINK WHEN YOU’MEET VING Rhames is, ‘Wow! He’s got a real hard look,’ ” says fellow actor Matt Dillon. Anyone who recalls the 6′, 200-lb. Rhames, 34, as menacing crime boss Marsellus Wallace in 1994’s Pulp Fiction—or has caught him as Luther, the no-nonsense computer wiz who helps Mission: Impossible’s Tom Cruise steal CIA files—would assume this is not a man to be trifled with. Yep—until you get to know Ving (short for Irving). “He’s a sweetheart,” insists Dillon.

In 1993 the two were making The Saint of Fort Washington, a film about New York City’s homeless. One day, on location at a homeless shelter, Dillon was approached by a man in faded Army fatigues. “Did you do a play called The Boys of Winter with Ving Rhames?” he asked. “Yeah,” said Dillon, recalling their 1985 Broadway drama about Vietnam grunts. “Why?”

“I’m his brother,” the man replied.

Later that day, when Rhames arrived on the set, he was reunited with Junior, his older brother (by six years), a Vietnam vet turned drifter whom Ving and his family hadn’t heard from in several years. “I got him out of the shelter that day,” says Rhames (pronounced Raims). “I put him up in my apartment and helped him get a job. Now he lives with my parents in a home I bought in Harlem.”

His father, Ernest, 69, a retired auto mechanic, and mother, Reather, 69, a homemaker, raised their sons Ving and Junior in an apartment there. “I grew up in the same neighborhood with drug kings and gangsters,” says Rhames. “I saw that crime pays, but I never got involved in crime.”

For that he can thank, among others, his ninth-grade English teacher. “When we would do reading in class,” says Rhames, “Miss Goodblatt would call on me to read. She said I had a talent. So on a whim I auditioned for the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan.” To his delight, Rhames was accepted. Next, after graduating in 1978, he won a drama scholarship to the Juilliard School, where he became versed in the classics. “I graduated on a Friday,” he recalls of his 1983 commencement. “By Monday, I was doing Shakespeare in the Park.”

Over the next three years, he did everything from regional theater (including plays by Ibsen and Molière) to stints on daytime soaps (The Guiding Light, Another World). “I was never a struggling actor,” Rhames says, “for which I feel very blessed.” After his film debut in 1984’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, supporting roles steadily came his way in movies like Patty Hearst (1988), Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and Dave (1993). He’ll next turn up in Striptease as Shad, a nightclub bouncer who befriends ecdysiast Demi Moore (see page 88). Meanwhile, he still has a recurring TV role as Walter Benton, Eriq LaSalle’s auto-mechanic brother-in-law on NBC’s ER.

It was LaSalle, a close friend and former Juilliard classmate, who in 1987 introduced Rhames to Valerie Scott, then a Warner Bros, publicist. They married in 1994 and last year moved into a two-story, ranch-style house in Santa Monica. The couple plan to start a family. Last January, while filming Rosewood (due out this fall)—in which Rhames has his first starring role as a World War I vet in a Florida town in 1923—he asked director John Singleton if he could wear his wedding band on camera, honoring a vow he’d made to Val. Never mind that his character is single. “He was married in the past,” explained Rhames. The director didn’t buy it.

But he’s sold on Rhames’s performance. “In all his other movies he was a bad, kick-ass guy,” muses Singleton. “In Rosewood he gets to work with kids, gets to dance and sing and be a bad dude. He got so happy about doing this sensitive role.” Singleton laughs. “In some scenes I’d have to say, ‘No, Ving, you don’t have to cry here.’ ”

MICHAEL A. LIPTON

JEFF SCHNAUFER in Santa Monica