`Gang Related' Co-Stars Remember Tupac Shakur

NEW YORK - The last days of Tupac Shakur were very much on the minds of co-stars Jim Belushi and Lela Rochon during filming of his final movie, "Gang Related," which opened Wednesday.

"There was an eerie feeling on the set," Rochon said. "I really didn't think we'd get the movie finished. But that was just my feeling. Tupac was arrogant about it, usually. He said he'd be OK. But he told me, too, that he expected to die young."

Shakur, the gangsta rap star whose death has fed a cult following, died on Sept. 13, 1996, after he was shot while riding in a car in Las Vegas.

Just hours before the fatal shooting, he and his entourage of bodyguards and hangers-on were involved in a fight, reportedly with a rival rap group, outside a Las Vegas hotel.

Shakur, who was 25, used anger and gunplay in his songs and made millions from it. His self-proclaimed "thug life," which he represented through "gangsta" rap, resulted in jail time on an assault charge and repeated violent episodes.

His critics pointed out that his records praised violence and misogyny. On the other hand, supporters, such as Jesse Jackson, claimed that his life was about "the violent culture we live in - the survival of the fittest that too often calls for revenge."

"Gang Related" was finished just days before his death. The set, according to the actors, revealed a lighter and more focused Shakur than his public image. Rochon, who was elevated to stardom by "Waiting to Exhale," said that "Tupac was a sweetheart - and so charismatic on camera - but, in my opinion, he expected a youthful death.

"I joked with him a great deal. He was a little guy. I said to him, `Tupac, how could your little self rape anybody? Assault anybody? You just don't look the type.' He told me that he didn't. That he never did that."

He was convicted in 1995, though, of a sexual attack on a woman.

"He said to me, `Lela, you're too square. You need to hang out with me.' But, frankly, I was scared to hang out with him. I saw him only on the set."

What was she scared of?

"I was scared of getting shot," she answered, flatly.

Rochon, who plays a stripper and police informant in the new movie, said that initially she was angry at Shakur upon hearing of the shooting last year. "I immediately thought, `What was he doing to get shot?' "

But those feelings turned to shock days later when she learned he had died. "It was such a waste. I used to talk to him on the set about his future. I told him that he was in the best position anybody could be in. Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes are stars, but they're getting older. Who else was this photogenic and just 25 years old? I kept telling Tupac that he was in perfect position to take over for Denzel and Wesley. He was just the right age. I don't think he heard me. You always wonder, when something like this happens, what else you could have said."

"Gang Related," contrary to the title, is not a film about gangs. It concerns two crooked cops, buddies Belushi and Shakur, who apprehend drug dealers, kill them, take their drugs and then dismiss the murder with the label "gang related."

Belushi is no stranger to sudden, tragic deaths. His brother, comedian-actor John Belushi, died of a heroin and cocaine overdose in 1982. Jim Belushi was in New Zealand doing a TV commercial when he heard of Shakur's death.

"I was shocked, but not surprised," he said. "That isn't really logical, but that is the way I felt. He seemed bent in that direction, but yet he was directly on target in the movie. He and I had a great chemistry going."

Belushi remembered, though, that there was a fight on the set.

"On the first day of rehearsals, Tupac was late. On the second day, he didn't show up at all. On the third day, he was late again. I told him, `Apparently you're not committed to this project. Apparently, you don't take making this movie seriously. If you're late tomorrow, don't bother to show up the next day, because I won't be here."

"We got into a heated argument. He said he was late because he couldn't get a parking space. His bodyguards moved up, but he told them, `This is between Jim and me.' He told me that he was, indeed, committed to this film and, later, he proved it. He was there, after that, in every way."

Shakur's acting career included acclaimed roles in "Juice," "Poetic Justice," "Above the Rim" and "Gridlock'd" before his final role in "Gang Related."

There was a suggestion, late in his life, that perhaps the rap persona was an act. In one of his last interviews, with Vibe magazine, he said "Thug life is dead to me. If it's real, let somebody else represent it, because I am tired of it. I represented thug life too much."

Belushi has a more pleasant memory. "I introduced Tupac to the music of Frank Sinatra on the set while we were filming `Gang Related.' He was not hip to it, but he went wild. He listened to Frank a lot. He planned to do a rap version of `Fly Me to the Moon.' "

That record was never made.