Personal detailsName: Samuel L Jackson
Born: 21 December 1948 (Age: 65)
Where: Washington, DC, USA
Height: 6' 3"
Awards: Won 1 BAFTA, nominated for 1 Oscar and 4 Golden Globes
All about this star
To watch Samuel L. Jackson being interviewed is a fascinating experience. His face speaks volumes about his life and career. Ordinarily, he's hugely affable, beaming and joking, delivering a succession of super-cool one-liners, giving the people what they want. His smile, his openness and generosity reveal a man who is exactly where he wants to be, a film star who appreciates his status and privileges. Then sometimes, when the questions get too tawdry or silly, you'll see a flash of fire in those eyes, a sudden rage that tells of a long road hard-travelled. Because Samuel Jackson, of all Hollywood's biggest stars, has probably endured the toughest route getting there.
He was born Samuel Leroy Jackson on the 21st of December, 1948, in Washington DC. His father left when he was very young, moving to Kansas City, Missouri, leaving Samuel to be raised by his mother, Elizabeth, and his grandparents, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Granddad was a janitor, while Elizabeth worked in a factory (later she'd be a supply buyer for a state mental institution).
Elizabeth had high hopes for her son, wanting him to be a doctor or a lawyer, and she instilled in him a serious work ethic. In this time of segregation, she made him recognise his disadvantaged state and taught him that he needed to work ten times harder than everyone else, and dress ten times better, just to survive. Consequently, young Samuel was a bookworm of a child, kind of nerdy, though he says "I was always kind of MEMORABLE". He learned many skills, playing French horn and trumpet in the school symphony. He'd also teach himself an important trick that would serve him well onscreen - how to not blink. He became a master of the art, staring out all comers.
Eventually, he won a place at Morehouse University in Atlanta. He'd thought of becoming an oceanographer, but settled on architecture, as befits such a bright young man. But that didn't last long. Since childhood, Samuel had been afflicted with a terrible stammer. At Morehouse, one of the tutors suggested that he attend public speaking classes to cure himself. He did, and he did. And he also got hooked on the adrenalin rush of performance. He won a part in a college musical and never looked back, changing his major to Drama.
Jackson has since said that he got into acting for all the wrong reasons - for the girls, the drugs, the rock and roll, the popularity. Whatever his reasons, he loved it and persisted after graduation in 1972. His mother, of course, was not keen on this choice of profession. It was only when Samuel appeared in an ad for Krystal hamburgers, getting well-paid for chomping an onion burger and smacking his lips, that she realised he had some kind of future.
Jackson gained more than just a career from Morehouse. He also found a wife. In 1970, while attending drama classes at sister college Spelman, he met a fledgling actress named LaTanya Richardson. They would date for years, finally getting married in 1980. She would bear him a daughter two years later, named Zoe and, despite all the trouble and turmoil of the ensuing decade, their marriage would remain strong.
And there was politics. Growing up in Tennessee, going to college in Georgia in the late Sixties, Jackson could not help but be drawn towards the Civil Rights movement and the battle for equality. And Samuel was even more radical than most. In 1969, he was suspended from college for his part in a sit-in that involved taking hostage several members of the Board of Trustees (including Martin Luther King's dad!). The students were demanding a black studies programme and more black trustees. It was an attitude that would mark his work for decades for come.
After graduation, Jackson remained in Atlanta for some time, doing TV ads, acting in regional theatre productions and even making a film debut, in Together For Days. Later, there'd be a short-lived TV series, and a TV movie, The Displaced Person. But Jackson was ambitious and eventually moved to New York, where he worked with the Negro Ensemble Company and the New York Shakespeare Company, coming under the wing of another black actor from the south, Morgan Freeman, some ten years his senior. To support himself, Jackson worked as a doorman at the Manhattan Plaza, an apartment block housing hundreds of actors and artists. One of them was Giancarlo Esposito who, some 15 years later, would co-star with Samuel in Amos And Andrew.
In 1978, there'd be another TV movie, The Trial Of The Moke, starring Howard E. Rollins Jr, and Rollins would also be the star of Jackson's first major movie, Ragtime, about a young black pianist seeking justice in 1910 New York. But Hollywood wasn't bashing down Jackson's door, so he returned to New York and the stage, with considerable success. Amongst many, many shows, there'd be an off-Broadway production of Home, directed by Billie Allen, and A Soldier's Story (the play that provided Denzel Washington's breakthrough). After a 1981 performance of the latter, Jackson would be introduced to a budding black director and fellow Morehouse alumnus, Spike Lee. He would prove to be a fortuitous contact.
At this point, Jackson was known as a disciplined and diligent actor. He originated the role of Boy Willie in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, and that of Wolf in the same author's Two Trains Running. But there were growing problems with drink and drugs - his personal favourites were cocaine and tequila. He'd been told that all the great actors lived life on the edge and he decided to go there too, and stay there. And soon his indulgence was working against him. He was not cast as Wolf when Two Trains Running moved to Broadway. Work became hard to come by.