Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. was born in Mount Vernon, NY
on December 28, 1954.
One of Hollywood’s sexiest and most magnetic leading men, Denzel Washington’s poise and radiantly sane intelligence permeate whatever film he is in, be it a socially conscious drama, biopic, or suspense thriller. More importantly, Washington’s efforts, alongside those of director Spike Lee, have done much to dramatically expand the range of dramatic roles given to African-American actors and actresses.
The son of a Pentecostal minister and a hairdresser, Washington was born in Mount Vernon, NY, on December 28, 1954. His parents’ professions shaped Washington’s early ambition to launch himself into show business: from his minister father he learned the power of performance, while hours in his mother’s salon (listening to stories) gave him a love of storytelling. Unfortunately, when Washington was 14, his folks’ marriage took a turn for the worse, and he and his older sister were sent away to boarding school so that they would not be exposed to their parents’ eventual divorce.
Washington later attended Fordham University, where he attained a B.A. in Journalism in 1977. He still found time to pursue his interest in acting, however, and after graduation he moved to San Francisco, where he won a scholarship to the American Conservatory Theatre. Washington stayed with the ACT for a year, and, after his time there, he began acting in various television movies and made his film debut in the 1981 Carbon Copy. Although he had a starring role (as the illegitimate son of a rich white man), Washington didn’t find real recognition until he joined the cast of John Falsey and Joshua Brand’s long-running TV series St. Elsewhere in 1982. He won critical raves and audience adoration for his portrayal of Dr. Phillip Chandler, and he began to attract Hollywood notice. In 1987, he starred as anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom alongside Kevin Kline, and though the film itself alienated some critics (Pauline Kael called it “dumbfounding”), Washington’s powerful performance earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
Two years later, Washington netted another Best Supporting Actor nod — and won the award — for his turn as an embittered yet courageous runaway slave in the Civil War drama Glory. The honor effectively put him on the Hollywood A-List. Some of his more notable work came from his collaboration with director Spike Lee; over the course of the 1990s, Washington starred in three of his films, playing a jazz trumpeter in Mo’ Better Blues (1990), the title role in Lee’s epic 1992 biopic Malcolm X (for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination), and the convict father of a high-school basketball star in He Got Game (1998).
Washington also turned in powerful performances in a number of other films, such as Mississippi Masala (1991), as a man in love with an Indian woman; Philadelphia (1993), as a slightly homophobic lawyer who takes on the cause of an AIDS-stricken litigator (Tom Hanks); and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), as a 1940s private detective, Easy Rawlins. Washington also reeled in large audiences in action roles, with the top box-office draw of such thrillers as The Pelican Brief (1993), Crimson Tide (1995), and The Siege (1998) attesting to his capabilities. In 1999, Washington starred in another thriller, The Bone Collector, playing a paralyzed forensics expert who joins forces with a young policewoman (Angelina Jolie) to track down a serial killer. That same year, he starred in the title role of Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane. Based on the true story of a boxer wrongly accused of murdering three people in 1966, the film featured stellar work by Washington as the wronged man, further demonstrating his remarkable capacity for telling a good story. His performance earned him a number of honors, including a Best Actor Golden Globe and a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
After another strong performance as a high-school football coach in Boaz Yakin’s Remember the Titans, Washington cut dramatically against his “nice guy” typecast to play a corrupt policeman in Training Day, a gritty cop drama helmed by Antoine Fuqua. Washington surprised audiences and critics with his change of direction, but in the eyes of many, this change of direction made him a more compelling screen presence than ever before. (It also netted him an Oscar for Best Actor.)
2002 marked an uneven year for Washington. He joined the cast of Nick Cassavetes’ absurd melodrama John Q., as a father so desperate to get medical attention for his ailing son that he holds an entire hospital hostage and contemplates killing himself to donate his own heart to the boy. Critics didn’t buy the film; it struck all but the least-discriminating as a desperate attempt by Washington to bring credulity and respectability to a series of ludicrous, manipulative Hollywood contrivances. John Q. nonetheless performed healthily at the box (it grossed over a million dollars worldwide from a 36-million-dollar budget). That same
Denzel is definitely a great actor, a great humanist.