A Comic's Erratic Ride

MARTIN LAWRENCE WAS SUPPOSED to be the next Eddie Murphy. Five years ago he'd just costarred in back-to-back hit movies, ""House Party'' and ""Boomerang,'' and signed a deal with Fox to star in the network's first African-American sitcom, ""Martin.'' Now Lawrence sits in his publicist's office looking fragile, sounding sedate and talking guardedly about getting his life back on track after months of chaos, both personal and professional. ""I want more kids,'' he says quietly. ""That's the only thing in my personal life that I'm sure of.''

Professionally, of course, he'd like more hits, and he may well have found one in the movie ""Nothing to Lose.'' Lawrence plays a fast-talking carjacker named T., who attempts to rob an ad executive (Tim Robbins). The executive will have none of it and kidnaps T. right back - and so begins a hilarious and unpredictable ride. The role re-establishes Lawrence as the funny homeboy next door, and his loyal black fans probably won't fail him at the box office. Still, the comedian has become infamous for dangerous, erratic behavior, and a sexual-harassment lawsuit against him was recently settled. Which is to say: hits have never kept him out of trouble.

Lawrence grew up in Landover, Md. His father left the family when he was 8, and his mother raised six children in a housing project on what little she made as a cashier. In 1992 Lawrence's show, ""Martin,'' became one of Fox's top-rated sitcoms. ""Success really just blew his mind the first year of the show,'' says a former employee. ""Instead of being happy, he resented the people who put him there and became this power freak. As soon as success hit, he snapped.'' Lawrence fired his manager and the cocreator of his show, Topper Carew, and became his own executive producer. Sources say many irrational antics followed, and not a few temper tantrums. Lawrence will say only that there was too much work and too much stress: ""It took its toll on everything around me.''

In 1995 Lawrence married Patricia Southall, a former Miss Virginia, and had a daughter, Jasmine Page. ""Martin was very insecure,'' says a close friend, ""and he thought marriage would solve that for him, but it didn't.'' Neither, it seems, did costarring in the summer smash ""Bad Boys.'' It's said that by May 1996 Lawrence was hav-ing troubles on the set of ""Nothing to Lose,'' flubbing his lines and laughing hysterically over nothing. One day director Steve Oedekerk reportedly sent Lawrence home. In a now famous incident, the comic ended up at a Sherman Oaks carwash with a gun in his pocket, wandering in the street and shouting at no one in particular. According to the divorce papers Southall later filed, he arrived home at 5 a.m., rambling about washing his car. After an overnight hospital- ization, which Lawrence attributes to ""exhaustion and dehydration,'' he was back on the set and remained even-keeled for the rest of the shoot.

In November 1996, however, his hit TV show was dealt a death blow. ""Martin'' costar Tisha Campbell quit and then filed a lawsuit against Lawrence, alleging that he'd tormented and sexually harassed her on the set. After the lawyers settled, Lawrence was kept off the Universal lot while Campbell finished her scenes on the ""Martin'' finale. He is barred from talking about the settlement, but he admits, ""There was more of "Martin' to see, and if things had been different, it could have lasted longer. The fans were there and the material was there. But we had to move on. There was no choice.''

Sadly, his wife had to move on, too - telling the court she was afraid for her life. She and the comedian are now locked in a custody battle. ""I will probably never get married again because of all the trouble I went through with the first one,'' Lawrence says. ""It wasn't worth it except for my daughter, Jasmine, who is beautiful and innocent.'' He says he has no immediate plans for future projects. ""It's been bittersweet, up and down, these last few months, but I am hanging in there through the grace of God and the support of my fans and family. I am concentrating on my life as a whole - on growing up and just dealing with the things that have happened.'' Sounds like a man who's finally figured out he's got something to lose.