Distinguished and versatile actor Cuba Gooding Jr. spent many years in bit roles before finally becoming a star. The son of Cuba Gooding, lead singer for the '70s pop group the Main Ingredient, he was born in the Bronx on January 2, 1968, but moved to Los Angeles after his father's group had a hit single with "Everybody Plays the Fool" in 1972. Unfortunately, the elder Gooding abandoned his family two years later. The subsequently tumultuous nature of Gooding Jr.'s upbringing did not deter him from achievement: During his teens, he attended four different high schools but managed to become class president of three of them.
Gooding Jr. made his professional debut in 1984 as a breakdancer for Lionel Richie's show at the Olympics. As an actor he was discovered by an agent while performing in a high school play, and began working steadily in television commercials, which led to a bit part on an episode of Hill Street Blues. The experience inspired him to take acting lessons and after attending workshops and classes, he began to get a few more parts in television and films. He made his first feature-film appearance in Coming to America (1988) in which he was credited as "Boy Getting Haircut." Gooding Jr.'s first real break came when he was cast as Tre Styles in Boyz 'N the Hood (1990). The film earned him considerable acclaim and seemed to offer the promise of a great career. Sure enough, Gooding began landing fairly substantial parts in feature films. Unfortunately, save for a few exceptions like A Few Good Men (1992), most of the films were not well regarded, and the actor continued to work in relative obscurity. The comic talents he demonstrated as Paul Hogan's sidekick in 1994's Lightning Jack were overshadowed by further mediocre films, and it was not until 1997 that he truly came into the spotlight. That year, he starred as a loyal football player in Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his efforts.
Following this triumph, Gooding Jr. next appeared in the acclaimed As Good as It Gets alongside Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, and Greg Kinnear. Two relatively obscure films, the suspense drama A Murder of Crows and the mockumentary Welcome to Hollywood, followed before Gooding Jr. took part in another high-profile picture, What Dreams May Come. Starring opposite Robin Williams, Gooding Jr. played the deceased Williams' tour guide to heaven. Unfortunately, the film was critically savaged and failed to do much business at the box office.
In 1999, Gooding Jr. kept busy with both television and film. In addition to starring in a series of Pepsi commercials, the actor appeared opposite Anthony Hopkins in Instinct and had a lead role in Chill Factor, an action extravaganza which featured him as an ice cream man trying to keep a top-secret military chemical safe with the help of a short-order cook (Skeet Ulrich). Gooding Jr. would star opposite screen legend Robert De Niro in 2000's military drama Men of Honor, in which he portrayed the real life experience of Carl Brashear, the first African-American to serve as a diver in the United States Navy. Just one year later, he stepped into the role of an ill-fated serviceman in Pearl Harbor, though he took a break from heady, big-budget war dramas in favor of comedies Rat Race (2001) and Snow Dogs (2002).
The year 2003 would prove another busy year for the actor, who starred in three wildly different movies including Boat Trip, a comedy of errors in which he played an unwitting straight man aboard an entirely gay cruise; Radio, which featured Gooding Jr. as the film's mentally challenged protagonist; and The Fighting Temptations, a musical comedy starring Beyoncé Knowles. In 2004, the young actor lent his vocal chords to voice the role of Jake the Horse in Disney's Home on the Range. He next appeared in Lee Daniels' directorial debut, Shadowboxer, playing a contract killer opposite Helen Mirren. In 2007, he appeared in the critically reviled Norbit, playing a supporting role to Eddie Murphy, and also starred in Daddy Day Camp, the sequel to Daddy Day Care, replacing Murphy in the lead role. Gooding again played a Tuskegee pilot in 2012's Red Tails (he had previously appeared in the 1995 HBO made-for-TV movie The Tuskegee Airmen). In 2013, he re-teamed with director Daniels on The Butler and had a small role in Robert Rodriguez's Machete Kills. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi