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After winning Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars for his performance in the Civil War epic "Glory" (1989), Denzel Washington tackled one challenging role after another on his way to becoming one of the biggest stars in the world. Likened to Sidney Poitier for his ability to appeal to multiracial audiences, Washington's grounding presence was a major draw in historical dramas like "Cry Freedom" (1987), "Malcolm X" (1992), "Hurricane" (1999) and "American Gangster" (2007). He also starred in more action-driven dramas such as "The Pelican Brief" (1993), "Courage Under Fire" (1996), "Remember the Titans" (2000) and "Training Day" (2001), the latter of which earned him the first Best Actor Oscar for an African-American since Poitier's feat in 1963. Rising above the black actor moniker, Washington not only held a firm position as one of Hollywood's top dramatic leads with acclaimed performances in films like "Philadelphia" (1993), but he also earned industry respect for his filmmaking efforts directing and producing both "Antwone Fisher" (2002) and "The Great Debaters" (2007). Throughout his career, Washington collaborated with a number of great directors, but had lasting relationships with the likes of...
After winning Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars for his performance in the Civil War epic "Glory" (1989), Denzel Washington tackled one challenging role after another on his way to becoming one of the biggest stars in the world. Likened to Sidney Poitier for his ability to appeal to multiracial audiences, Washington's grounding presence was a major draw in historical dramas like "Cry Freedom" (1987), "Malcolm X" (1992), "Hurricane" (1999) and "American Gangster" (2007). He also starred in more action-driven dramas such as "The Pelican Brief" (1993), "Courage Under Fire" (1996), "Remember the Titans" (2000) and "Training Day" (2001), the latter of which earned him the first Best Actor Oscar for an African-American since Poitier's feat in 1963. Rising above the black actor moniker, Washington not only held a firm position as one of Hollywood's top dramatic leads with acclaimed performances in films like "Philadelphia" (1993), but he also earned industry respect for his filmmaking efforts directing and producing both "Antwone Fisher" (2002) and "The Great Debaters" (2007). Throughout his career, Washington collaborated with a number of great directors, but had lasting relationships with the likes of Spike Lee on "He Got Game" (1998) and "Inside Man" (2006), and Tony Scott who directed him in "Crimson Tide" (1995) and "Man on Fire" (2004). Though he stumbled occasionally with mediocre, but well-intentioned movies like "John Q" (2002), "Deja Vu" (2006) and "The Taking of Pelham 123" (2009), Washington remained one of American's most bankable and likeable leading men.
Denzel Washington was born on Dec. 28, 1954, in Mt. Vernon, NY, a predominantly African-American suburb just north of Manhattan. His father was a preacher at the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ and also worked for the NY's Water Department, while his mother - a Harlem-bred former gospel singer - owned and operated a local beauty parlor. Washington began working odd jobs from the time he was a student at Grimes Elementary School; also becoming active in the Boys & Girls Club, which he credited for keeping him out of trouble. The club's mentors were especially helpful after his parents' divorce, when Washington lost contact with his father and the restless teen increasingly found himself hanging out on the streets with kids who would ultimately end up dead or doing time. His mother eventually opted to send Washington and his older sister to Oakland Academy boarding school. After graduation, Washington began college at Fordham University in the Bronx and was safely on the right path.
At Fordham, Washington played on the college basketball team and was earning a degree in journalism until a summer job in 1975 forever changed his course. It was while working as a counselor at a Boys Club camp that Washington first took the stage to participate in a camp variety show, which is when he fell in love with acting. Returning to college that fall, he immediately added drama classes to his schedule and made an impressive debut in a Fordham production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones" in the role made famous by Paul Robeson. The following year, he appeared in "Othello," causing his professor Robinson Stone to remark to The Boston Globe, "He was easily the best Othello I had ever seen, and I had seen Paul Robeson play it. Jose Ferrer came to look at it. He and I agreed that Denzel had a brilliant career ahead of him."
Washington graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1977 and promptly headed to San Francisco, CA, where he had landed a scholarship to further study acting at the American Conservatory Theater. In the Bay Area, he was cast in a TV biopic of Olympic athlete Wilma Rudolph, "Wilma" (CBS, 1977), which also introduced him to his future wife Pauletta Pearson. After a year at the Conservatory, Washington continued to earn a solid reputation on the New York stage, appearing in "Coriolanus" with the New York Shakespeare Company; "A Soldier's Play," which earned the ensemble cast an Obie Award and the playwright a Pulitzer; and "When the Chicken Comes Home to Roost," portraying Malcolm Shabazz, a.k.a. Malcolm X.
While touring in "A Soldier's Play," Washington landed the part of insecure young medical resident Dr. Phillip Chandler on the well-regarded drama, "St. Elsewhere" (NBC, 1982-88). Although one of the lesser players in the ensemble, Washington embarked on his film career during the show's run, making his debut in the inane comedy "Carbon Copy" (1981). In 1984, he reprised his stage role in "A Soldier's Play," entitled "A Soldier's Story" (1984), and received high praise for his riveting lead performance as an outspoken recruit who kills his master sergeant (Adolph Caesar). He acted in Sidney Lumet's "Power" (1986), playing a part originally written for a white man, and then garnered his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as South African activist Steven Biko in "Cry Freedom" (1987). Having considered dozens of African actors for Biko, director Richard Attenborough finally found the right mixture of charm, erudition and intellect in Washington, casting him in the first of the actor's historical-political roles. Washington followed up with a second career high in 1988 when he debuted on Broadway in a production of Ron Milner's comedy, "Checkmates."
Washington was tapped to play a Falklands war hero down on his luck in Thatcherite London in the thriller "For Queen and Country" (1988) before delivering an Oscar-winning portrayal of a defiant slave-turned-soldier in "Glory" (1989). As the emotionally-distant, womanizing trumpeter Bleek Gilliam in Spike Lee's stylish but uneven "Mo' Better Blues" (1990), Washington played one of his few roles calling for love scenes. The family man and father of four clashed with the director over the scene, ultimately insisting he keep his shirt on, though their differences would not keep them from working together again. The emerging star returned to the New York Shakespeare Festival that year in the title role of "Richard III" (1991). After a disappointing turn playing an embattled cop on the edge in the crime thriller "Ricochet" (1991), Washington fared better falling for Sarita Choudhury in Mira Nair's engaging art-house romance "Mississippi Masala" (1992). Reuniting with Spike Lee at his best on "Malcolm X" (1992), Washington again slipped inside the skin of the controversial black leader in a superb Oscar-nominated lead performance. The montage of stills and footage of the real X at movie's end pointed up the brilliant alchemy enabling Washington to capture the essence of the influential minister and activist.
Washington's universal audience appeal and the depth of his dramatic chops again enabled him to effortlessly transition from historical and political chronicles of African-American culture to art house and mainstream fare of all genres. In 1993 alone, he demonstrated his ease with Shakespearean dialogue as the dashing Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh's bouncy adaptation of "Much Ado About Nothing," showed he could sell mainstream Hollywood pictures, alongside superstar Julia Roberts in the John Grisham legal thriller "The Pelican Brief," and tackle timely issues, such as the tragedy of AIDS opposite Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia." Some reviewers deemed his role as a homophobic attorney who takes on the case of a HIV-positive lawyer unfairly fired by his law firm as more challenging than the sympathetic central character winningly played by Hanks. In any case, the film was a success and earned Hanks a Best Actor Oscar.
In 1995, Washington starred opposite film veteran Gene Hackman in "Crimson Tide," a nuclear brinkmanship thriller set on a submarine and one of the big hits of the summer season. It was his only box-office success that year, as the violent sci-fi thriller "Virtuosity" tanked despite its foundation of genuinely interesting ideas and the casting of a then unknown Aussie actor, Russell Crowe, as Washington's crazy nemesis. Crowe would in fact, never forget how collaborative and kind the A-list star was to him as a Hollywood newcomer. In addition to the two films, Washington's production company, Mundy Lane Entertainment, launched that year with the thoughtful, period detective film, "Devil in a Blue Dress." The meticulously observed slice of post-World War II Los Angeles black Americana was generally well-reviewed, but failed to find an audience, putting the kibosh on a proposed franchise for its star and ascendant writer-director Carl Franklin. Later that year - as if his year was not already chocked full - Washington served as executive producer of the TV documentary "Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream" (TBS, 1995).
On a seemingly unending upswing of great parts and phenomenal performances, Washington went on to earn strong critical praise in Ed Zwick's "Courage Under Fire" (1996), revealing a darker aspect in his turn as an armored tank commander troubled over his involvement in an incident of friendly fire during the Persian Gulf War. The actor's sensitive and understated etching of his moody character was the stand-out performance in the film. He next co-starred with singer-turned-actress Whitney Houston in a film that might have seemed appropriate given his childhood, "The Preacher's Wife" (1996) - a Penny Marshall-directed remake of 1947's "The Bishop's Wife." Not exactly cutting edge for the 1990s, this warm-hearted holiday movie provided a handsome showcase for its black stars and did the lion's share of its business long after Christmas stockings had come down.
However, none of his features opening in 1998 took off - though his work in all was exemplary. Washington did the best he could in Zwick's "The Siege," which deteriorated in a tide of action movie clichés after a promising beginning - not to mention the insidious, prejudicial attitudes naively displayed. He also reunited that year with Lee for the ambitious, yet flawed "He Got Game," playing a convict father temporarily released to try and convince his basketball prospect son to commit to the governor's favorite college. Washington gave a stand-out performance as the sorrowful Everyman wronged by passion and a blink of faith, but the director's heavy hand - despite his on-target look at basketball recruiting - mitigated the power of the father-son relationship. As the paralyzed protagonist of the serial killer thriller "The Bone Collector" (1999), Washington managed to compellingly anchor the film from his high-tech bed while glamorous newcomer Angelina Jolie served as his legs in the street.
In 1999, Washington lost 40 pounds to play Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, the unjustly imprisoned former middleweight boxing contender, in "The Hurricane." The film received a six-minute standing ovation when a work-in-progress print debuted at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival, causing the director to cite Washington's dedication and the painstaking recreation of different decades as the movie's two biggest pluses. Despite engendering controversy, mostly in the way some "facts" were omitted or rearranged, no one could fault the actor's work. Washington picked up his second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Audiences had become accustomed to rooting for Washington as a moral, noble lead, but with "Training Day" (2001), the actor showed them something new when he undertook the role of streetwise, abrasive and corrupt L.A. narcotics officer Alonzo Harris, who breaks in a new, idealistic partner (Ethan Hawke) while dispensing his own brand of street justice. Washington tore into the juicy role and earned his second Academy Award - this time, for Best Actor - the first black man to achieve that distinction since Poitier. By the time he picked up that statue, he had delivered another quality turn as the father of a critically ill son driven by circumstances to take desperate measures in the action drama "John Q" (2002). The film faired only marginally well at the box office.
Now unquestionably the most popular black actor of his generation and a genuine A-lister with the paychecks to prove it, Washington's search for life's next challenge led him to directing. His first effort was the crowd-pleaser "Antwone Fisher" (2002), the true tale of a security guard who found success as a screenwriter and producer after a volatile career in the U.S. Navy. Washington returned to the role of leading man in the thriller "Out of Time" (2003), reuniting with director Carl Franklin to play chief of police of Banyan Key, FL, who ends up as the prime suspect in a small town double homicide. Both "Antwone Fisher" and "Out of Time" underperformed at the box office, but Washington's ability to draw an audience with the right material was reaffirmed with "Man on Fire" (2004), an action-packed revenge drama which cast the actor as a taciturn bodyguard who befriends his 10-year-old client (Dakota Fanning), before going on a bloody trail of retribution when she is kidnapped.
In director Jonathan Demme's remake of the classic conspiracy thriller "The Manchurian Candidate" (2004), Washington equated himself well in a challenging role, taking the Frank Sinatra part as a confused military officer attempting to unravel the secrets behind his frightening dreams of a mission gone awry. Washington made the character his own, investing him with both quiet nobility and crazed desperation. He followed up with a return to the stage for two months of performances as Brutus in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" on Broadway. Washington's presence packed the show night after night; however the actor received some of the worst stage reviews of his career. Returning to the big screen, he starred in Spike Lee's first stab at the heist genre, "Inside Man" (2006), playing a smooth, even-keeled hostage negotiator who is dispatched to the scene of a bank robbery to diffuse a crisis situation, but finds himself one step behind the job's cool and collected mastermind (Clive Owen).
Washington once again put his good-guy image aside and earned rave reviews for 2007's "American Gangster," co-starring alongside former co-star and now fellow A-lister Russell Crowe in the fact-based chronicle of New York's drug underworld of the 1970s. In the Ridley Scott-directed picture which many likened to the gangster epics of Martin Scorsese, Washington played a savvy, business-minded employee of Harlem's top drug dealer who steps in to build his own empire following the death of his boss. The film earned over $46 million dollars on opening weekend and instantly generated Oscar buzz for both lead actors and director Scott. Washington would return to his respectable persona later in the year with the Christmas release of "The Great Debaters" (2007), playing an inspirational teacher who founds a powerhouse debate team at an all black college during the 1930s. The film marked Washington's sophomore directing effort. Reuniting with Tony Scott once again, Washington starred in "The Taking of Pelham 123" (2009), a remake of the 1974 thriller in which he played a New York City subway dispatcher dealing with a dangerous criminal mastermind (John Travolta) who has hijacked a train and taken hostages.
Washington next starred in "The Book of Eli" (2010), a post-apocalyptic actioner in which he plays a man who holds the key to human survival. He went on to collaborate with Scott once again on "Unstoppable" (2010), a well-received action thriller where he played a veteran engineer working with a young conductor (Chris Pine) in a desperate attempt to stop a runaway freight train loaded with poisonous gas from wiping out a nearby city. The film proved to be his last with Tony Scott, who committed suicide in 2012 by jumping off a bridge in San Pedro, CA - an act which devastated Washington. Meanwhile, he played a rogue CIA agent targeted for assassination who is transported to a safe house by a young, inexperienced operative (Ryan Reynolds) in the surprise action hit, "Safe House" (2012). Washington followed with an acclaimed performance in the drama, "Flight" (2012), where he was an alcoholic commercial pilot who miraculously avoids a mid-air catastrophe and crash lands his plane, saving everyone on board, only to later have his heroism called into question during the subsequent investigation. Both the film and Washington's performance were praised by critics, garnering him Golden Globe and Academy Award Best Actor nominations for his work.
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"[Washington] auditioned late, but as soon as I saw him I knew he was Peterson. What was striking about Denzel right from the first was his presence, his ability to create a positive persona but also its opposite--that hint of mystery and threat. It's an interesting combination that gives him a wonderful range of possibilities." --Douglas Turner Ward, founder and artistic director of the Negro Ensemble Company and director of "A Soldier's Play", recalling Washington in The Boston Globe, August 5, 1990.
"Denzel Washington, who has become the reigning black-male sex symbol of his generation ... is fashion-model handsome, with a body that's a lean, athletic dream. ... His appeal, though, is rooted in the beckoning gentleness of his stare. When he smiles, exposing a slight overbite, he radiates seductive ardor rather than narcissism." --Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly, February 14, 1992.
Washington received a honorary degree from Fordham University (1991).
He also received the Spencer Tracy Award from UCLA for his body of work in 1993.
About working with him in "The Pelican Brief": "It was like working with the Beatles. I'd come out of the trailer, and there'd be four guys going, you know, 'Hey, Julia, babe' ... Denzel comes out ... and (there were) 200 women screaming.
"Referring to Denzel Washington as simply sexy is like saying Ernest Hemingway was a good fisherman." --Julia Roberts quoted in People, July 29, 1996.
According to a 1998 Harris Poll, Washington was the 10th most popular movie star, male or female. No other black actor made the top 40.
"It's no coincidence that as the Oscars come around, there's a lot more British actresses being nominated than American. And I think it's because they get better training. When we did 'Much Ado About Nothing' it was almost embarrassing to hear everybody talking about what they were going to do next. All the British actors were talking about the theatre work they were off to do, while the Americans were doing movies next. That was the trouble at that time, the Brits were prepared but had no place to showcase. We've got the showcase, but we're not as prepared." --Denzel Washington, quoted in Neon, May 1998.
When in South Africa, Washington spontaneously gave $1 million to the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund.
As a spokesman for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Washington can often be found in inner-city neighborhoods hanging out with kids. "It makes me sad. A lot of young kids think they have to be hard. You look a little deeper and you see that they're really just looking for love. They're looking for respect. But they think they have to be hard to be accepted. I know better. I grew up with murder and mayhem, too, but I turned it into a positive." --Washington to Cindy Pearlman in The Chicago Sun-Times, January 21, 1998.
About the importance of family in his life: "Acting is not life; those children are life ... I don't want to be that person who says, 'Oh, God, I wasn't there. I was more thinking about me than them. My career has been enhanced by family, stability, having birthday parties. If I didn't have a family, what would I be doing this weekend?" --Washington quoted in USA Weekend, January 9-11, 1998.
About making his directorial debut: "It was the fear of the unknown. But now I'm hooked. I just won the Academy Award, but I can tell you, this was more exciting than that."-- Washington Premiere September 2002
"People ask me a lot about this Oscar and what it means and I'm like, I won one 13 years ago and to me there is no difference in supporting and best actor. It's like writers. If they gave out an Oscar for writing an article should a 1000 word article be a supporting writer and a 2000 word article a leading article, what's the difference? That doesn't mean that the leading writer is a better writer. So I really feel that way and it was not more of a thrill the first time. All of those things, the responsibility or fears and all that, I think were more acute 13 years ago for me than now."---Washington to www.darkhorizons.com October 1, 2003
"I love Denzel's obsessive quality and his internal darkness. There's a hardness to Denzel that's really interesting. He knows how to draw it out and use it effectively."---director Tony Scott to Toronto Sun, April 18, 2004.
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