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Denzel Washington - Biography

Denzel Washington

Personal details

Name: Denzel Washington
Born: 28 December 1954 (Age: 59)
Where: New York, New York, USA
Height: 6'
Awards: Won 2 Oscars, 2 Golden Globes

All about this star

Biography:

The male Oscar nominees of 2002 were an immensely talented and wildly varied bunch. There was the maverick brilliance of Sean Penn, the Shakespearian gravitas of Ian McKellen and Tom Wilkinson, the long screen experience of Jon Voight and those precocious flavours-of-the-last-couple-of-years, Will Smith and Russell Crowe. But, strangely, there was only one dyed-in-the-wool, tried-and-tested Film Star: only one man with the looks of a Newman or a Redford with an outstanding thespian ability to back those looks up: only one man who'd been dominating big-budget movies for over a decade. That man, of course, was Denzel Washington, accepting his fifth nomination and, without doubt, one of the pre-eminent actors of his generation. It came as no surprise when he was named Best Actor.

Denzel Washington was born on the 28th of December, 1954, in Mount Vernon, at the north end of the Bronx in New York City. His father - himself named Denzel after the Doctor Denzel who delivered him - was a Pentecostal minister with the Church of God in Christ. His mother, Lynne, was a beautician and former gospel singer, while there were also an older sister, Lorice, and younger brother David. Incredibly, Denzel Jr was unhappy with his looks from an early age, eventually getting caps of those unsightly front gap-teeth.

He was a serious child, was Denzel, but brought up in very sociable surroundings, spending much time listening to his mother and father, in their own different styles, entertaining their clients at work. It's often been said that the boy picked up his desire to act from the flamboyant communication that went on around him at this time. He certainly picked up a desire to work - the family ethic was very strong - and young Denzel found himself labouring in barber shops and beauty parlours from the age of 11. He was also a member of the Boys' Club of America, for whom he is a leading spokesman to this day (he's also a major supporter of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, and AIDS-hospice The Gathering Place).

When Denzel was 14, he and Lorice were sent away to boarding school. Their parents reasoned they would get a better education but, more importantly, the kids would not be around to witness the messy end of their marriage. Lynne now raised them herself, and Denzel is always quick to praise her for keeping him on the straight and narrow. Remembering his three best friends of the time, he once explained that one was murdered, one died from AIDS-related illness, while the third was in the middle of a 25-year stretch. And Denzel was living like a king in Hollywood. Nice one, mum.

Denzel had considered a career as a doctor, but decided on journalism and, as ever setting his mind to the task in hand, by 1977 he had graduated with a BA in journalism from Fordham University. But, by then, his focus had changed. At university, he'd stumbled into acting and discovered both a latent talent and, probably, an escape from his intense personality. He recalls now how his friends would often complain about how tense and up-tight he was, how he would brood constantly. Only when he had kids of his own, he says, did he really learn how to have fun. So acting must have been a release and a relief - he certainly threw himself into it. One performance, as the green-eyed, wife-throttling Moor, is still talked about at Fordham to this day.

. So, though he was actually studying to be a hack, Denzel won a scholarship to the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. Here he studied under the renowned Bill Ball but, after a single year, he grew restless for work, for a real challenge (something that's characterised his entire career). He returned to New York and was snapped up by the famed Joseph Papp, head of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Here he gained a strong grounding in the classics, appearing in the likes of Coriolanus, and also gained experience off-Broadway. In one production of Laurence Holder's When The Chickens Come Home To Roost, at the Henry Street Theatre, he took on a role he would later reprise on the Silver Screen - that of Malcolm X. Then, he would be Oscar-nominated; for now, he had to be content with an Audelco award.

Conscientious and focused in all areas of his life, Denzel had worked hard for this success. To support himself, he'd been a garbage man, he'd worked in factories and in the post office, he'd even worked the midnight shift at a record-processing plant. He'd suffered bad times and hunger, keeping his unemployment book to this day to remember how it was. And he'd worked hard at his art too, one lesson in particular sticking in his mind: "It was instilled in me as a young performer," he later recalled "to take chances %u2026 because failure is a part of growth. If you're gonna fail, fail big and take chances".

While his stage career was progressing, Denzel had also procured several TV roles. He'd made his debut in Wilma, about the sprinter Wilma Rudolph, who won three golds at the 1960 Olympics - Denzel playing one of her boyfriends. On-set, he met co-performer Pauletta Pearson, an actress, singer and pianist (she'd later appear in Beloved). The couple would marry in 1982 and have four children - John David, Katia and twins Malcolm and Olivia - renewing their vows in South Africa in 1995, in a ceremony officiated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Onscreen, Denzel also made an appearance in the controversial Flesh And Blood, where a mother, Suzanne Pleshette, continually seduced her son, Tom Berenger.

Then came Denzel's big screen debut. Tellingly, considering the work he'd do in the future, it dealt with race, but in a comic manner he would never attempt again. In Carbon Copy, he played the teenage and hitherto unknown son of white executive George Segal. George must try to incorporate this surprise newcomer into his very white life, with - ahem - hilarious consequences.

But, thankfully, it got better, and fast. Denzel returned to New York and the stage to play in A Soldier's Story with the Negro Ensemble Company. The play concerned a black soldier found dead outside a military base in Louisiana. The investigation, by a black lawyer, uncovers an extremely complicated and wholly unexpected situation. Denzel's character, Private First Class Melvin Peterson, was conspicuously involved somehow. And Denzel - mostly known these days as a noble good-guy - was superb, picking up an Obie for his efforts.

Actually, he won a great deal more than that. Denzel now came to the attention of those nice people at NBC and was cast as insecure young resident Doctor Phillip Chandler in a new series, called St Elsewhere. This series, concerning the daily goings-on at St Eligius Hospital, was truly innovative, veering between bizarre humour and fraught drama - as such it could be seen as the parent of ER, Chicago Hope and even Northern Exposure. Starring alongside Denzel were Ed Begley Jr and ex-football star Mark Harmon (himself also an excellent Ted Bundy), with Helen Hunt appearing between 1984 and 1986.

The show was a storming success, and Denzel would stay for six years, building his experience and cementing his reputation. In the meantime, he would use his summer breaks to slowly break into movies and, cannily, tried to pick the classiest projects he could. First came Norman Jewison's film adaptation of A Soldier's Story, with Denzel reprising his onstage role. Then came Sidney Lumet's Power, where Richard Gere starred as a seemingly omnipotent political spin-doctor who gets dragged into heavy-duty corruption. And then, in 1987, came the breakthrough - Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom.

Here Denzel played the part of South African activist Steve Biko who, having inspired and influenced journalist Donald Woods with his integrity and charisma, is then murdered by the authorities. Woods (played by Kevin Kline) now has to sneak out of the country if he wants to write the story and, though white, faces the same perils as Biko. Denzel was immense as Biko and won himself the first of his five Oscar nominations. Outrageously, he was beaten by Sean Connery's performance in The Untouchables but, like 2002, it was a good year for black recognition, Morgan Freeman also receiving his first nomination, for Street Smart.

Denzel doesn't often dwell on race issues in Hollywood. "I'm very proud to be black," he once said "but black is not all I am. That's my cultural historical background, my genetic makeup, but it's not all of who I am, nor is it the basis from which I answer every question". This he proved over his next eight roles - only acouple dealt overtly with racial politics, but ALL the roles were wildly different from the rest. He was, quite purposefully, an actor first and a spokesman second. Actually, maybe being a spokesman came third or fourth, after being a husband and father.

First came The Mighty Quinn, where Denzel played a Jamaican cop whose dodgy mate Robert Townsend (who'd earlier appeared in A Soldier's Story) gets involved with murder and Mammon. Next, he revealed an outstanding English accent in For Queen And Country, where he was an ex-soldier seeking respectable work in London, only to end up as a drug dealer's bodyguard. And then came that Oscar breakthrough - Glory.

Director Edward Zwick has said of Denzel: "Whatever that mysterious electrochemical process is that makes the camera love someone, he has more of it than any one person should". In Glory, it really showed. Here Matthew Broderick played the white leader of the first company of black volunteers in US military history, taking flak from both sides in the American Civil War. With very little experience, and trying desperately to maintain some order amongst men he does not understand at all, he struggles to discipline Denzel's rebellious Private Trip, a soldier who openly asks why these men should fight for a Union that views them the same way the Confederates do. Washington's was a searing performance of rage and dignity, thrown into sharp focus by Broderick's na've determination and Morgan Freeman's usual world-weary reasonableness. And Denzel won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, thus placing his name on a very short list. Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Poitier, Louis Gossett Jr, er . . . Louis Farrakhan might add Ben Kingsley . . . and, er, that's about it.

After Glory came Heart Condition, where Denzel played a slimy defence lawyer who's shot dead and has his heart transplanted into the body of arch-enemy cop Bob Hoskins, returning to haunt the little feller. In Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues he acted out the tempestuous career of self-obsessed trumpet-player Bleek Gilliam. Then came Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala where he played a young American carpet cleaner who begins a frowned-upon affair with the daughter of an Indian family who've just escaped Idi Amin's Uganda. In Ricochet, he was a straight-laced assistant DA who's framed and threatened by a sublimely beastly John Lithgow.

Next came that reprise of his early performance as Malcolm X. Again directed by Spike Lee, Denzel was absolutely superb, capturing Malcolm first as a young hoodlum, then as a white-hating leader of the Nation Of Islam, on through his pilgrimage to Mecca and his conversion to traditional Islam to his eventual assassination. It was a severely testing role, and Denzel managed it well, from the early rage to the later spiritual calm. He was again Oscar-nominated.

After returning to his Shakespearian roots by playing Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, there was a string of big, big movies. First came The Pelican Brief, where student Julia Roberts stumbles upon the sinister truth behind the murderof two Supreme Court judges and goes on the run, followed by Denzel's hungry journalist. Then came the heart-rending Philadelphia. Here Tom Hanks played a lawyer sacked for contracting AIDS, with Denzel as a homophobic lawyer who has to stand for him in court. Then came Crimson Tide, with Denzel back in uniform as the First Officer on a nuclear sub who resorts to mutiny to stop gung-ho captain Gene Hackman from zapping the Russkies and starting World War 3. Denzel looks great in a uniform, especially a white one, and he knows it. He also looks great in a tight white teeshirt and will don one onscreen wherever possible (really, it's one of the few things all his characters have in common).

After these came Virtuosity, with Denzel the only one capable of catching a virtual criminal (Russell Crowe), created from the personalities of 150 serial killers, who somehow escapes into the real world. Then came the sorely under-rated Devil In A Blue Dress where he played a private dick in post-WW2 LA, hired to track down some blue blood's fiancee who's scarpered off into the black area of town. As in Chinatown, nothing turns out to be as it first seems. Next up was Courage Under Fire, once again with Edward Zwick. Here it was back to the military with the D-Man as an officer, haunted by mistakes in his own past, who goes to investigate the Gulf War heroism, or otherwise, of the dead Meg Ryan.

Now came three wildly different pictures. In The Preacher's Wife, Denzel played an angel who drops from Heaven to help out a minister whose marriage to Whitney Houston is on the rocks and whose church is being nicked by developer Gregory Hines. Then there was the magnificent and bizarrely ignored Fallen - easily one of the best supernatural thrillers of recent years. Here Denzel played a cop who catches killer Elias Koteas (a brilliant loopy performance by him), sees him executed and is then freaked out to discover he's back. How DID he DO that? Well, it's excellent fun finding out.

And then there was a real step into the unknown with Spike Lee's He Got Game. Everyone knows Denzel is good-looking. Indeed, when Newsweek ran a feature trying to explain the biological basis for society's definition of beauty, they used Denzel as a template.
And it's very rare that good-looking film stars deliberately play ugly. But that's what Denzel did in He Got Game, playing the yellow-toothed, raggedy-headed, wife-killing father of a basketball prodigy who sneakily tries to get the boy to enrol at the Governor's own college in exchange for early parole. Interestingly, when audiences saw Washington kiss the white Milla Jovovich onscreen, many black women were appalled, claiming that he was betraying them.

. Now Denzel's movies were uniformly high-budget (they needed to be, from Courage Under Fire on he was a $10 million a film man - and more). In The Siege, once again with Zwick, he was an anti-terrorist expert who battles with nutty general Bruce Willis when New York is attacked and the city is brought under martial law. Then there was The Bone Collector. This was not very scary and featured one of the weakest tag-lines in living memory (Cue Denim ad voice: "He collects human bones...he's the BONE Collector"), but it gave Denzel another chance to stretch himself, as a bed-ridden quadriplegic detective who uses Angelina Jolie and a cool camera set-up to track down a serial murderer.

That was tough to play, but it had nothing on his next role, as boxer Rubin Carter in The Hurricane. Carter, the subject of the famous Bob Dylan song, was a real-life boxer who'd been on the verge of challenging for the middleweight championship when he was framed for murder and jailed for life (times three). He'd battled to prove his innocence but discovered that racist elements in the authorities would prefer to keep him inside, innocent or not. Then things changed...

Denzel trained for a year to get into shape for the boxing sequences, at one point undergoing two hours boxing practice a day for six months with trainer Terry Claybon. He lost 40 pounds, and he looked great. This was by no means the first time he'd suffered for a part, he's actually renowned for his hardcore research. For The Pelican Brief, he spent months with a Washington reporter. For Glory he practised with Civil War re-enactors. For Philadelphia he interviewed many lawyers, including the notorious Johnny Cochran. And for Courage Under Fire he attended the National Training Centre at Fort Irwin where he endured battle games, listened to crashing tapes of tank battles from Desert Storm and also qualified to use a 120mm gun and drive an M1A1 tank.

The Hurricane, directed by old pal Norman Jewison, should really have won Denzel his second Oscar, but Kevin Spacey took it for American Beauty. Washington would be back very soon for another try. First came Remember The Titans, another true story about a black hero, this time Herman Boone, a football coach who took over a college side in Virginia in the early Seventies, immediately after racial integration was brought in. And then came that second Oscar, for Training Day, where Ethan Hawke played a rookie in Narcotics who spends his first day on the job with Denzel's cynical Alonzo Harris, a cop who strays far from the straight and narrow in his quest to bust dealers.

After this would come John Q, directed by Nick Cassavetes (whose dad, John had appeared in Flesh And Blood, one of Denzel's earliest movies). Here Denzel played a poverty-stricken father who can't afford his son's heart transplant op and so holds up the local ER and demands they do their thing there and then. And then came Denzel's directorial debut, Antwone Fisher, where Denzel played a Navy psychologist who brings an angry young man back from the edge of madness. It was a leap in the dark for Denzel who'd previously only directed the video for Bebe Winans' In Harm's Way.

2003 would bring the complex noir thriller Out Of Time, where Washington played a Florida sheriff in the process of splitting from his detective wife, Eva Mendes. Hooking up with an old flame, he finds she has cancer (and a well-insured, wife-beating husband) and proceeds to steal impounded drug money to fund her cure. Before the treatment can begin, though, both flame and hubbie die in a house-fire and, with Mendes investigating, all the evidence points to Denzel. He's not really innocent, he's not really guilty - can he extricate himself from this unholy mess?

Next came Man On Fire, directed by Tony Scott, where Denzel was hired to protect an industrialist's family in Mexico City, only to see daughter Dakota Fanning kidnapped. Tortured by his guilty military past and his present alcoholism, he goes after the bad guys with all guns (and rocket launchers and bombs) blazing. The movie did its best to turn his character into a Terminator-type figure, even having him deliver a smart one-liner as he shoves explosives up a man's rectum, but Washington was too smart to let it descend into abject silliness, clearly revealing the man's warped religion and pained search for redemption.

The same year, 2004, brought another winner in The Manchurian Candidate, a remake of the Frank Sinatra paranoia-fest. Here Liev Schreiber, driven on by ruthless senator mum Meryl Streep, is pushing for high office, his credentials boosted by an act of heroism during the Gulf War. Washington would play one of the old army colleagues he supposedly saved, a man troubled by flashes of nightmare that contradict the official party line. He must dig deep into traumatic memories to find the truth then, under threat from shady and all-powerful corporate interests, reveal it to the people.

Denzel's planned next move, sadly, did not come to fruition. Signed up to reteam with his Training Day director, Antoine Fuqua, for American Gangster (AKA Tru Blu), he was all set to play notorious Seventies drug lord Frank Lucas, with Benicio Del Toro also onboard. The screenplay, by Steve "Schindler's List" Zaillian, was hot. But then disputes, rumoured to be over Universal's desire to cast Matt Damon, caused the project to collapse. Clauses in his contract meant that Denzel was still paid - apparently $20 million - but it was still a terrible shame. Instead, Denzel would return to the stage, packing out houses and garnering rave reviews for his performances as Brutus in Julius Caesar at New York's Belasco Theatre, his first contact with the Bard since Much Ado About Nothing. So effective was he as a man "with himself at war" that many were shocked when he was denied a Tony nomination.

Washington moved on to a reunion with Spike Lee, this time eschewing the racial politics in favour of action in Inside Man. Here criminal mastermind Clive Owen leads a raid on a bank that goes horribly wrong, Denzel playing a cop who must persuade Owen not to execute hostages while also preventing his escape. Complicating matters would be Jodie Foster as a mysterious official who insists on entering the bank to protect the secret contents of a safety deposit box. Following this, there'd be a further reunion, with Tony Scott who, with Man On Fire, had given Denzel his best ever box office opening weekend (he'd also directed him in Crimson Tide). This would be Deja Vu where Washington would play yet another government agent, this time one who can travel through time and does so in order to save the life of a woman who'll otherwise be murdered. It would be a fascinating and romantic sci-fi thriller, though its production was delayed when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

Nowadays, Denzel spends as much time as he can with his family in an LA mansion once owned by William Holden - when he's not filming or working at his production company. This, called Mundy Lane Entertainment after the place Denzel grew up, debuted with Devil In A Blue Dress and has made well-received documentaries on Hank Aaron and Shaft-director Gordon Parks, both Emmy-nominated. Home-life, of course, is important as the kids are growing up now. They have an added value, too, because he foolishly once risked losing them.
Before the Oscars of 1993, in an interview with Barbara Walters, conversation turned to sexual temptation. Very unwisely, Denzel said "Being a star and all of that, temptation is all around. It's all around, you know, and I haven't been perfect. I'll be quite candid about that". The press, of course, went mental. Washington would never be that candid again.

. It's a shame, because forthrightness suited him. Everyone loves the story of when Quentin Tarantino was brought in to "liven up" the script of Crimson Tide. On-set, Denzel lambasted him big-time for his use of racial slurs in his movies. Tarantino suggested maybe they should talk somewhere more private, but Denzel said no - right here would do. But, as he said himself, there's more to him than his blackness - there's his integrity and generosity, and the fact that he's one of the finest actors of his generation. Before the Oscars of 2002, Julia Roberts stood firmly in his corner, saying "I cannot absorb living in a world where I have an Oscar for Best Actress and Denzel doesn't have one for Best Actor". She had a point, and was clearly overjoyed when presenting him with the honour herself. He so obviously deserved it.

Dominic Wills

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Gallery

  • NEW YORK - MAY 03: Host Steve Harvey and actor Denzel Washington speak at the New York Gala benefiting The Steve Harvey Foundation at Cipriani, Wall Street on May 3, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for The Steve Harvey Foundation)
    Steve Harvey Hosts NY Gala Benefiting Steve Harvey Foundation - Inside
    NEW YORK - MAY 03: Host Steve Harvey and actor Denzel Washington speak at the New York Gala benefiting The Steve Harvey Foundation at Cipriani, Wall Street on May 3, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for The Steve Harvey Foundation)
  • NEW YORK - APRIL 26:  Actor Denzel Washington poses during a media interview at the Broadway Opening Night After Party for "Fences" at the Bryant Park Hotel on April 26, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
    Broadway Opening Night After Party For "Fences"
    NEW YORK - APRIL 26: Actor Denzel Washington poses during a media interview at the Broadway Opening Night After Party for "Fences" at the Bryant Park Hotel on April 26, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
  • NEW YORK - APRIL 26:  Actors Denzel Washington and Viola Davis pose for photos at the Broadway Opening Night After Party for "Fences" at the Bryant Park Hotel on April 26, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
    Broadway Opening Night After Party For "Fences"
    NEW YORK - APRIL 26: Actors Denzel Washington and Viola Davis pose for photos at the Broadway Opening Night After Party for "Fences" at the Bryant Park Hotel on April 26, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
  • NEW YORK - APRIL 26:  Actors Denzel Washington and Viola Davis pose for photos at the Broadway Opening Night After Party for "Fences" at the Bryant Park Hotel on April 26, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
    Broadway Opening Night After Party For "Fences"
    NEW YORK - APRIL 26: Actors Denzel Washington and Viola Davis pose for photos at the Broadway Opening Night After Party for "Fences" at the Bryant Park Hotel on April 26, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
  • WESTWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 26:  Actor Denzel Washington arrives at the premiere of Twentieth Century Fox's "Unstoppable" at Regency Village Theater on October 26, 2010 in Westwood, California.  (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
    Premiere Of Twentieth Century Fox's "Unstoppable" - Arrivals
    WESTWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 26: Actor Denzel Washington arrives at the premiere of Twentieth Century Fox's "Unstoppable" at Regency Village Theater on October 26, 2010 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
  • WESTWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 26:  (L-R) Actors Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, and Denzel Washington arrive at the premiere of Twentieth Century Fox's "Unstoppable" at Regency Village Theater on October 26, 2010 in Westwood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
    Premiere Of Twentieth Century Fox's "Unstoppable" - Arrivals
    WESTWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 26: (L-R) Actors Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, and Denzel Washington arrive at the premiere of Twentieth Century Fox's "Unstoppable" at Regency Village Theater on October 26, 2010 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
  • WESTWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 26:  (L-R) Actors Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, and Denzel Washington arrive at the premiere of Twentieth Century Fox's "Unstoppable" at Regency Village Theater on October 26, 2010 in Westwood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
    Premiere Of Twentieth Century Fox's "Unstoppable" - Arrivals
    WESTWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 26: (L-R) Actors Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, and Denzel Washington arrive at the premiere of Twentieth Century Fox's "Unstoppable" at Regency Village Theater on October 26, 2010 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
  • WESTWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 26:  Actor Denzel Washington arrives at the premiere of Twentieth Century Fox's "Unstoppable" at Regency Village Theater on October 26, 2010 in Westwood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
    Premiere Of Twentieth Century Fox's "Unstoppable" - Arrivals
    WESTWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 26: Actor Denzel Washington arrives at the premiere of Twentieth Century Fox's "Unstoppable" at Regency Village Theater on October 26, 2010 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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