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The real Ving Rhames is more interesting than scary

On screen, Ving Rhames is menacing, from the top of his big, muscular head to the bottom of his scary bass voice.

But the real Rhames doesn't necessarily fit that image. Yeah, he grew up in Harlem, and "my urban thug experiences gave me a lot to draw on as an artist. I think you have to go through some trials and tribulations to have something to offer, as an actor, I think. If you're squeaky clean, you have less to relate to and I am sure it's just harder."

Then there's his other side. The onetime TV "Kojak" and frequent star-supporting player in movies from "Pulp Fiction" to last summer's "Piranha 3D" and the new direct-to-video action picture, "Death Race 2," is quick, in interviews, to credit God with his success.

And then there's his name, "Ving" is short for "Irving." Rhames, 51, was named for longtime NBC News correspondent, the eternally square Irving R. Levine. And Rhames' middle name is Ramses.

"You think that's surprising? I studied Egyptology for six years. A guy who grew up in a gang culture studied Egyptology and became an actor."

The acting part is maybe less surprising than he makes out, an alumnus of the NY High School for the Performing Arts, onetime Juilliard student, Rhames was in the greasepaint from an early age.

"I grew up in Harlem, a block away from the Apollo Theater. My mother used to take us there one weekend a month."

He saw singers and comics, actors -- the works. And that as a career suggested itself to him.

But after school, after his start on the stage, it was that first big break movie -- "Pulp Fiction" -- that marked Rhames. His screen persona -- imposing, quiet, threatening without making threats, and often, as in that film, funny. A viral video hit spun out of "Piranha 3D," "Ving Rhames wins an Oscar for Piranha 3D," which had him accepting the award from co-star Elisabeth Shue, thanking one and all, and making out with her at the podium.

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