Vin Diesel: From nightclub bouncer to action hero
(PEOPLE) -- The trapdoors, the scenery, the props: To 7-year-old Mark Vincent, Manhattan's Theater for the New City looked like a great playground.
After slipping in an open door one day, he and some friends were happily wreaking havoc when artistic director Crystal Field spotted them and persuaded them to try acting instead of acting up. "I thought she was going to call the cops," he recalls. "She said, 'If you guys want to play here, come every day at four o'clock and learn your lines.'"
Vincent has been performing ever since -- only these days, it's with bigger biceps and a macho moniker: Vin Diesel.
After accelerating into Hollywood's fast lane last year as a charismatic car thief in "The Fast and the Furious," Diesel, 35, is steering for big-budget action stardom as a skydiving, snowboarding superspy in the new thriller "XXX." Diesel's bad-boy roles "set him up perfectly to become a new kind of action hero," says costar Samuel L. Jackson. "There's an air of mystery and danger about Vin, but he also has a little bit of the just-like-us quality."
Credit his melting-pot background (part African-American, part Italian-American) and his more-than-just-muscles appeal: "He's smart," says his "XXX" love interest, Asia Argento, who adds that he often "explained the scene and what my character was thinking. There was a director quality there."
But first came the daredevil quality. Raised in Manhattan by his mother, Delora, 58, an astrologer, and stepdad Irving, 67, a drama teacher, Diesel (who never met his biological father and has a twin, Paul, a film editor) was a fearless boy. "We used to do things with our Rollerblades like hold onto the back of a cab and go, like, 50 mph," he says.
At 17 he began working as a bouncer at trendy nightclubs like the Tunnel, for which he adopted his alias. "He would come in on his nights off and dance by himself," says ex-Tunnel manager Ricky Marcado. "People would stop and watch him."
Diesel scraped by juggling Off-Broadway roles with bouncing and selling lightbulbs as a telemarketer. "I'd shop at the Gap, and if things got really hairy at the end of the month I could return the shirt," he says.
Then in 1995 "Multi-Facial," a short film he wrote, directed and starred in about his problems getting cast because of his ethnic looks, screened at Cannes. Steven Spielberg saw it and tapped Diesel for a role in 1998's "Saving Private Ryan." After turns in 2000's "Boiler Room" and "Pitch Black" came "Furious," which grossed more than $140 million and widened the cult following for the guy with the shiny pate. For the record, "I'm actually getting kind of thin in some areas," admits Diesel.
That's quite all right with Czech model Pavla Hrbkova, 18, whom the actor began dating around February after she was hired for a small role in "XXX." She has been spending the summer with Diesel in L.A., though he'll leave soon to start shooting a series of sequels to "Pitch Black."
He's also set for a follow-up to "XXX" for which he'll earn an A-list-worthy $20 million. "I wanted everything I am right now," he says of his success. "I planned and I worked hard. ... I love what I do."
Samantha Miller, Carrie Bell, Michael Fleeman, Amy Longsdorf, Elizabeth Cobb, Mark Dagostino, and Jan Stojaspal contributed to this report.
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