Jamie Foxx is a party all by himself: one recent afternoon, in his African-accented L.A. bachelor pad, he regaled a visitor with impersonations of Quincy Jones and Al Pacino, a rapid-fire series of "dozens" jokes and a mini-set of R&B standards on which he backed up his own vocals on piano. Not that he's all by himself that often: he's usually got a crew of friends around who really like to party, and a lot of nights around the Foxx homestead are said to be like that scene in Oliver Stone's 1999 football movie "Any Given Sunday," in which Foxx plays a rapping, womanizing quarterback hosting a wild pool party. "A Jamie Foxx party can be quite a shock to the system," says one co-worker, "since anything goes. And I mean anything goes." His 36th-birthday party, last year, was particularly legendary--and not primarily because Tom Cruise showed up. "He was just talking and mingling with my friends," Foxx recalls, "which was damn funny 'cause I got a lot of friends with no Social Security numbers." (He means with criminal records.) When Cruise is asked about the occasion, he just laughs. A lot. "Jamie likes a good time, and that party was a good time," he says. "That's all I can say."

This summer moviegoers get to see Foxx and Cruise at work, in Michael Mann's tense action film "Collateral." Foxx, after years of toiling as a comic on television and in low-budget black slapstick films, has a serious costarring role as a nerdy cabdriver who picks up Cruise's brutal hit man and is forced to drive him at gunpoint from murder to murder. And in October, Foxx stars for the first time, in what ought to be a career-making role as the driven, drug-addicted Ray Charles in the biopic "Ray." His performance has been getting Oscar buzz since the movie wrapped earlier this year. Two such different roles would be a stretch for any actor, let alone for Foxx, who's still fondly remembered as Wanda, the big-lipped, big-butted female character he played in the early-'90s comedy-skit show "In Living Color." But Foxx is nothing if not versatile. "I came out here to Los Angeles 15 years ago to start a music career," he says. "Hell, if I had stayed with music, I probably would have one hit--if that--and been broke and pissed off somewhere. It's funny how your plan changes."

Foxx began planning his career while growing up in Terrell, Texas. His too-young parents, he says, "didn't want to be bothered with raising a kid," so his grandparents adopted him when he was 7 months old. "My grandmother was a strict Christian," he recalls, "so there wasn't any music in the house, but she did make sure I had piano lessons. I think she knew it could take me to the next level." (In "Ray," Foxx plays his own piano parts and lip-syncs to vocals recorded by Charles before his death in June.) But his grandmother, who worked as a domestic, did let him watch TV, where Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx (no relation) and Richard Pryor showed him another possible way out of Terrell--by "acting the fool." In fact, just about any way out would have been fine. "I heard 'n----- this' and 'n----- that' my entire life, so I couldn't wait till I got a chance to get away from there," he says. "People tell me racism is just more subtle in places like Los Angeles and New York. Well, I prefer subtle s--t."

While attending U.S. International University in San Diego on a music scholarship, Foxx spent weekends in L.A. shopping for a record deal--he finally released an album in 1995--and trying out at comedy clubs. He dropped out of college, and soon he and Wanda landed their spot on "In Living Color." This led to "The Jamie Foxx Show," which lasted for five seasons, and to a series of small dramatic roles. "They kept me out there and helped people realize that I could make them laugh or cry." After "Any Given Sunday," Foxx began hosting such popular specials as the MTV awards, then got the part that made Hollywood truly take notice: his turn as Muhammad Ali's trainer in Mann's "Ali," starring Will Smith. "Jamie was the best thing about that movie," says Taylor Hackford, who directed Foxx in "Ray." "It's interesting that Jamie started out as a comic, because that's not where his career is going. He's not going to be the next Eddie Murphy--he's going to be the next Denzel."

Mann has a different take on Foxx's background in comedy. "From a director's point of view, he has such an interesting way of getting into character," Mann says. "Being a comic, he learns his role through mimicking people and then going on from there." Foxx himself says he based his intimidated cabdriver in "Collateral" on a nerdy friend. And in prepping to play Ray Charles, he had the man himself on hand. Charles even sat with Foxx at the piano. "He wanted to see what I could do," Foxx says, "so he kept playing stuff and challenging me to do the same to see if I could keep up. And finally he said to me, 'You got it, kid.' It was total validation."

Can it get better than this for Jamie Foxx? Yeah, probably. And that worries him a little. Just now he's got his posse to entertain and be entertained by. They even help him write comedy material when he hosts shows, and they keep him grounded. "I don't want the high price you have to pay if you're a Tom Cruise or Will Smith," Foxx says, "where you're followed everywhere and can't leave the house without wondering who's behind you. Where I am right now is cool--it's just enough crazy." Well, maybe it'll stay that way. But we suspect he should have thought of all this a couple of roles ago.