skip navigation
Starring Denzel Washington
share:
Remind Me

Denzel Washington Profile

Denzel Washington's career has been one of the most successful of any actor in Hollywood, built upon a talent for acting and for picking the right roles. A multiple Academy Award® winner (including the first African-American actor to win two Oscars®), he has consistently made the lists of the world's most beautiful people (including People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive") as well as being named America's Favorite Movie Star in the 2006 and 2007 Harris polls. His handsome face and commanding presence has led to a career playing strong characters, often based on the lives of real people, and always fascinating to watch.

He was born Denzel Hayes Washington, Jr. on December 28, 1954 in Mount Vernon, New York, one of three children of Denzel Washington Sr., a Pentecostal minister, and his wife Lennis, a beautician. Young Denzel started work early in the beauty parlor where one day a woman known as a seer in their community wrote on a piece of paper that he would one day speak to millions. Washington kept that paper in his wallet for years and the prophecy came true.

His parents divorced when he was 14 and he and his siblings were sent away to boarding school to escape both the dissolution of the marriage and the rough neighborhood in which they lived. Washington later reflected that of his three closest friends, one had been murdered, one died of AIDS, and the other was in jail. A member of the Boys and Girls Club of America as a child, he won the designation of "Police Chief for a Day"; as an adult, he has been a spokesperson for the organization.

Washington attended Fordham University in New York to study journalism where he veered into acting after participating in several student productions, including the lead in Othello. Following graduation he attended the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco studying under Bill Ball for a year before dropping out to become a professional actor. He began working with Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival where he appeared in several productions and also found work in off-Broadway productions such as When the Chickens Come Home to Roost. In the latter play, he played Malcolm X, winning an Audelco Award (Audience Development Committee, Inc., which recognizes excellence in New York African-American theater productions). It was a role he would later revisit on the screen to much acclaim in Spike Lee's 1992 biopic, as he would with A Soldier's Play and its 1984 screen adaptation, A Soldier's Story.

While appearing in his first television movie Wilma (1977) based on the life of Olympic athlete Wilma Rudolph, he met Pauletta Pearson, an actress, singer and musician. They were married in 1983 and have four children, including his son John David, who is a running back with the St. Louis Rams, wearing #36.

Washington's first feature film was the comedy Carbon Copy (1981) in which he co-starred with George Segal as Segal's previously unknown African-American son. It was a minor hit but it did lead to his securing the role of Dr. Chandler on the television show St. Elsewhere. While appearing on the program, Washington was spotted by director Richard Attenborough who decided to cast him in his critically acclaimed Cry Freedom (1987), which was Washington's break-out feature role. He starred as the South African activist Steven Biko whose murder while in detention by the police is documented in a book by his friend, author Donald Woods. Washington was nominated for an Academy Award® as Best Supporting Actor for Cry Freedom but lost to Sean Connery for The Untouchables.

With St. Elsewhere canceled, and Washington firmly established as a leading man, his career focus became filmmaking. In 1989 he co-starred in Glory in which he played a member of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-black company of soldiers during the Civil War. In preparation for a scene in which he was whipped, Washington relied upon his faith, later saying, "I'm backstage in a room, and I'm thinking, how am I gonna do this scene? All I did - you know people ask me, how did you prepare? - I say, I prayed. And I got on my knees and they were waiting for me, and I prayed. And then I prayed to all the spirits. I said, "Look fellas, ladies" and I'm talking about those who have been, and I said, "Look I don't know, I'm just rolling with you all. Just whatever happens, I'm going. And I said are you with me? Come on!" I'm serious! And I went out there and what hit me was, I'm in charge. Never put my head down. This isn't the first time this has happened to me, the character - and, in fact, I had the guy build all the scars to put on my back - and I went out there with an attitude that I'm going to take this and not fold. But it hurt. And the tear was actually real. You know, you just allow it and you're thankful for it. It's not technical. It's not science. It's spirit." The spiritual approach worked. Washington won the Oscar® as Best Supporting Actor.

Two films with Spike Lee followed, Mo' Better Blues (1990) and Malcolm X (1992) which gave Washington his second Academy Award® nomination, this time as Best Actor. Now a major box office draw, it has been estimated that Washington's films earn back ten dollars for every one dollar of his asking price and the studios are happy to pay. The 1990s saw a constant stream of hits for Washington including Philadelphia (1993) in which he played a homophobic attorney who takes on the case of a gay lawyer with AIDS who has been fired by his conservative law firm because of his condition. To prepare for this role, he spent time with legendary attorney Johnnie Cochran. His co-star Tom Hanks, likened working with Washington to attending film school because of how much he learned from him.

Washington's career has been built upon playing diverse characters from military men in Crimson Tide (1995) and cops in Virtuosity (1995) to angels in The Preacher's Wife (1996) and criminals in He Got Game (1998). He has also portrayed many real life characters, including Steven Biko, Malcolm X, and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the wrongly convicted boxer, in his Academy Award nominated performance for The Hurricane (1999).

In 2001, Denzel Washington won the Oscar® for Best Actor in Antoine Fuqua's Training Day, making him the second African-American actor to win in this category. (He has since been succeeded by Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker). The next year, Washington made his directorial debut in Antwone Fisher, in which he also played the role of Fisher's therapist. It was based on the life of a Sony Studios security guard who was born inside a women's prison and endured horrific treatment in orphanages, leading to psychological problems. With the help of a therapist he was able to overcome the odds and emerge from it a stronger man. His story had made the rounds at Sony and he was offered a deal for the rights, but he insisted on writing the script himself, which he later sold to Fox Searchlight. The film's star, Derek Luke, was working at the Sony Studios in the gift shop and knew Fisher. He auditioned and Washington came to the gift shop himself to tell Luke he had the role. Denzel Washington earned good reviews from the critics, including Seattle Post-Intelligencer critic William Arnold, who wrote, Washington "brings it off with an unforced and well-earned emotional wallop, and whose strong hand, keen eye, sweet spirit and good taste are reflected in almost every scene. [...]The big, pleasant surprise is Washington's impeccable job of directing. Antwone Fisher is a modest movie, but he handles it with such a master's touch that he seems well on his way toward joining Warren Beatty, Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood in that highest Hollywood pantheon of triple-threat producer-director-stars."

Now in his mid 50s, Washington's career shows no signs of slowing down. He has recently completed shooting a remake of the classic The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and is scheduled to appear in The Book of Eli with Gary Oldman; and in Spike Lee's newest, Inside Man 2 which is currently in development. When he is not acting, Washington is very involved with his family (of which he has said, "Acting is just a way of making a living, the family is life.") and his charitable endeavors, including The Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, The Gathering Place (an AIDS hospice), and Save Africa's Children. He recently made a substantial donation to the Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas for the building of Fisher Houses, where military families can stay at no charge while their loved ones are in the hospital. Along with the many tributes paid to him in his own field, Denzel Washington was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Morehouse College in 2007.

by Lorraine LoBianco

SOURCES:
Wikipedia.org
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer review by William Arnold, December 25, 2002
The Internet Movie Database

Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Guest Programmer: Michael Feinstein - 1/8
4 Movies

The consummate entertainer and musical historian has devoted himself to the Great American Songbook, making him the perfect...more

Events

TCM Shopping
  • Glory: Special Edition DVD
  • The untold story of the 54th Regiment of... more info
  • $19.99
  • Regularly $19.99
  • Add to cart
  • Philadelphia DVD
  • Jonathan Demme's 1993 film tackling gay... more info
  • $7.49
  • Regularly $14.99
  • Add to cart
  • A Soldier's Story DVD
  • "A Soldier's Story" (1984) is based on the... more info
  • $9.98
  • Regularly $9.98
  • Add to cart
  • The Mighty Quinn DVD
  • Academy Award winner Denzel Washington must... more info
  • $9.98
  • Regularly $9.98
  • Add to cart