South Carolina-born African American comedian Chris Rock grew up in Brooklyn and projected a marked aptitude for comedy early in life. Rock traveled the New York club circuit during his adolescence, so aggressively and persistently that he established himself as a seasoned veteran by his late teens. He happened to be performing at the New York Comedy Strip c. 1984, when his break arrived in the form of an audience visit by one Eddie Murphy. Deeply impressed with the then eighteen-year-old rising star, Murphy cast him in his forthcoming Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), as a parking valet. It hardly constituted a breakout performance, but the role and newfound connection with Eddie Murphy helped Rock land a couple of small supporting roles, and eventually a spot on NBC's hallowed Saturday Night Live, from 1990-93. During his SNL stint, Rock also periodically guest-starred in fellow comedian Keenan Ivory Wayans' African American sketch comedy series In Living Color.
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In 1991, Rock broke from comedy in favor of a more dramatic role, and his performance as a surprisingly innocent crack addict-cum-informant in Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City attracted a substantial amount of favorable attention; Roger Ebert praised Rock as "effortlessly authentic and convincing."
One could argue with some foundation that the role in New Jack City is indicative of Rock's driving force (i.e., the politics of modern society and race within the contextual framework of American culture). Although Rock employs comedic delivery, many of his favorite topics are quite grave, and Rock's ability to confront these issues, cloaked in ribald humor, helped launch his career during the late '90s. While his 1993 screenwriting debut, on Tamra Davis's CB4: The Movie, received lukewarm reviews at best, Rock established himself as a household name after his scathing HBO comedy special Bring the Pain (1996) earned him two Emmy awards and a significantly larger fan base. The same year, he received a third Emmy for his work as a writer and correspondent for Comedy Central's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Then, in 1997, the successes of Rock's stand-up, his contributions to Saturday Night Live and In Living Color, his film roleass, and his work on Bring the Pain collectively inspired HBO to sign Rock for a sketch comedy series, The Chris Rock Show, that ran from 1997 to 2000. The program borrowed the formats of Saturday Night Live and In Living Color, yet it upped the vulgarity, volatility, and presence of hot-button contemporary issues - in addition to the intelligence. In addition to Rock, the program featured a cast of up-and-coming African American comics, such as Wanda Sykes and Mario Joyner. The program ran to sensational reviews.
Rock's film career expanded throughout the late '90s, and the young comic won particular notice for his role as a hot-headed law enforcement agent in 1998's Lethal Weapon 4 opposite Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, and later for Kevin Smith's irreverent Dogma(1999), as a bitter apostle of Jesus. He also published a book titled Rock This! with much success. Though Dogma received mixed reviews, in 1999 Rock mounted his second HBO comedy special, Bigger & Blacker, which found the comedian addressing topics from gun control to Bill Clinton and proper parenting techniques. In late 2000, Rock played an obnoxious hitman equipped with an incredibly inventive string of obscenities in Neil La Bute's controversial black comedy Nurse Betty, alongside Renee Zellweger and Morgan Freeman.
In 2001, Rock put his screenwriting abilities to the test in Down to Earth, a remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and again in Pootie Tang, a feature spin-off of one of the characters from The Chris Rock Show. In 2001, Rock voiced one of the characters in Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and another in Osmosis Jones, and rejoined Kevin Smith for a cameo in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. In 2002, Rock was one of several comedians featured in Christian Charles' documentary Comedian, and in the same year starred opposite Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins as a CIA spy in the Joel Schumacher-directed action comedy dud Bad Company. Rock then directed, co-wrote and starred in 2003's Head of State as an unlikely presidential candidate for the Democratic party.
Head of State divided critics; most felt nonplussed, or espoused mixed feelings, such as The Los Angeles Times's Manohla Dargis, who mused, " Rock can't set up a decent-looking shot, and… doesn't care about niceties such as character development… but…nonetheless wrings biting humor from serious issues with the… ferocity [of]… Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce." After Head, Rock's big screen activity diminished just a bit; he voiced Marty the Zebra in the CG-animated, family-oriented features Madagascar (2005) and Madagascar 2 (2008), but his most frequent turn during this period arrived in the form of a new semiautobiographical sitcom on UPN, Everybody Hates Chris, that debuted in September 2005. As written and produced by Rock, it cast Tyler James Williams as a younger version of the comedian, during the early '80s, who lives in the steel-tough area of Bedford-Stuyvesant and is bused, each day, to a school full of Italian Americans. As narrated by Rock, this sweet, gentle, nostalgic and witty program caught everyone off guard and drew outstanding ratings during late 2005 "TV Sweeps"; New York Times correspondent Alessandra Stanley was certainly not alone when she praised it as "charming" and compared it favorably to The Cosby Show - high praise, indeed.
In 2007, Rock returned to cinemas, posing a quadruple threat (writer/producer/ director/star) with the adults-only sex comedy I Think I Love My Wife. In that picture (a remake of Eric Rohmer's Chloe in the Afternoon!) Rock plays Richard Cooper, a suburban investment banker saddled with a wife and two kids, who finds it increasingly difficult to avoid delving into a rich world of sexual fantasies, and then to avoid an imminent affair with a gorgeous "old friend" (Kerry Washington) seeking career advice. I Think I Love My Wife took its stateside bow in mid-March 2007, to reviews as mixed as anything in Rock's prior career; most critics either loved or hated it; a few responded ambivalently.
Rock took on a supporting role in 2012's What to Expect When You're Expecting, and voiced the character of Marty the Zebra in Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted the same year. He resprised his role in Grown Ups 2 in 2013. In 2014, he wrote, directed and starred in Top Five. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi