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Samuel L Jackson - Biography

TalkTalk have created this exclusive biography of Samuel L Jackson - we believe it to be the most comprehensive on the web

Samuel L Jackson

Personal details

Name: Samuel L Jackson
Born: 21 December 1948 (Age: 66)
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. Eventually, he found himself standing in for Bill Cosby during rehearsals of The Cosby Show. Hardly the place for such a storming thespian talent.

By the late Eighties, a few film parts were coming his way, all of them small. There wasn't a lot going for a black man with problems, no matter how charismatic he was. Inevitably there was Uncle Tom's Cabin (how that must have pained the activist in him), starring Bruce Dern. He played Eddie Murphy's uncle in a sketch in Raw, and a hold-up man in Murphy's Coming To America. There was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it part in Sea Of Love, he was a card player in Michael Caine's comedy thriller A Shock To The System, a taxi dispatcher in Alan Alda's Betsy's Wedding, the Dream Blind Man in Exorcist 3, a preacher in Troma's black vampire flick Def By Temptation, and he was Stacks Edwards, a low-life whacked by Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. These were all good movies, and Jackson was noteworthy in most of them - but the parts were too brief to build a reputation on.

Personally, he was a mess. The drink and drugs were taking their toll, and Jackson, like most users, was blaming everyone but himself. And then he hit the bottom. LaTanya returned home one day to find her husband under the kitchen table, his leg twisted beneath him, his eyes rolled back in his head. For years, she'd been telling him that his intoxication was undermining the emotional integrity of his performances, but he'd have none of it. After all, all the greats did it, didn't they? But now he paid heed and entered a New York rehab clinic and, finally clean, he broke through.

He did this in collaboration with his old mucker Spike Lee. Over the last couple of years, Lee had been extremely prolific, and had cast Jackson in each of his productions. School Daze had taken him back to his college years, being about confrontation at a Southern university. In the inflammatory Do The Right Thing, where tension builds to riot on a hot day in New York, he'd had a groovy cameo as Senor Love Daddy. And he'd been a back-alley thug in Mo' Better Blues, the tale of Bleek Gilliam, where Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes played rival musicians. These, of course, continued the work Jackson had done as an activist in college - he also appeared in the video for Public Enemy's 911 Is A Joke.

And now came Jungle Fever. The word Ironic is probably misused more than any other, but it was genuinely ironic that Jackson, his life thus far having been horribly blighted by drugs, should clean up and immediately come to prominence playing a crack addict. The movie basically concerned the inter-racial fall-out when preacher's son and successful businessman Wesley Snipes embarks on an affair with Italian girl Annabella Sciorra. But the searing side-plot was what lingered in the memory, with Jackson, as Snipes' brother, Gator Purify, constantly bugging and begging for money, and gradually descending into crack hell, forcing Snipes to walk some mean streets in an attempt to rescue him.

Jackson was brilliant and, at last, his brilliance was noted. The New York Film Critics Circle lauded him. At Cannes, they even invented a new category, Best Supporting Actor, in order to honour him. Formerly known as Sam Jackson, he had transformed himself into Samuel L. Jackson, and the name was high of the list of all casting directors (nowadays, Jackson will not answer to the name of Sam, believing that to be an entirely different person). Juiced up by the sudden rush of offers, Jackson took on all the work he could. Throughout the Nineties, he would appear an absurd number of movies, sometimes up to seven in a single year.

He began with the comedy Strictly Business, playing the malevolent, grey-haired boss of a fellow taking lessons in street-wisdom in order to woo Halle Berry. He was whacked within 30 minutes in the Tony Danza mobster flick Dead And Alive. There were more gangsters and drugs with Tim Roth in Jumpin' At The Boneyard, then it was indie cool all the way with Brad Pitt in Johnny Suede. He was Trip in the Tupac-starring Juice, directed by Ernest Dickerson, Spike Lee's cinematographer, and then in White Sands he was a slimy renegade FBI agent, apparently trying to bust gun-runner Mickey Rourke and recover $500,000 found by sheriff Willem Dafoe out in the desert.

The parts were still usually small, but Jackson was shining in all of them, and they slowly started to get bigger. He was sidekick Robbie Jackson in the Harrison Ford blockbuster Patriot Games, then teamed up with Emilio Estevez as they lampooned Lethal Weapon stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Loaded Weapon I. Then there was Amos And Andrew, where he played a successful writer who takes a place up in New England and is surrounded and shot at by the police who think that, because he's black, he must be a burglar. In order to cover their embarrassment, they send in a petty criminal, Nicolas Cage, to pretend to hold Jackson hostage.

Next came the Hughes' brothers excellent Menace II Society where a young kid is looking for respect in Watts and gets involved in drugs and murder. Well, what chance did he have when his dad (Jackson) is a dealer who's shot a man dead before his son's eyes? Then he played techie nerd Chief Engineer Ray Arnold in Jurassic Park, showed up in Robert Townsend's comedy The Meteor Man (Townsend had earlier directed him in Raw) and, for the first time scripted by Quentin Tarantino, played Big Don in True Romance.

Following this was Assault At West Point where one of the first African American cadets is unjustly court martialed and Jackson must defend him, "aided" by racist lawyer Sam Waterston. There was John Frankenheimer's Against The Wall, based on the Attica prison riots of 1971. And then he was back on the streets in Fresh. Here a 12-year-old kid begins to deal drugs. Jackson plays his father, an alcoholic who lives in a camper and plays chess on the street for a living. He tries to teach the boy about life by using the game as a metaphor.

And then along came Jules Winnfield and Pulp Fiction. Tarantino's brilliantly interwoven masterpiece finally gave Jackson a really meaty role in front of a worldwide audience. As Jules, he played the sidekick of John Travolta's Vincent Vega, the two of them swapping snappy one-liners about infidelity, burgers and pigs as they hunt down the enemies of crime lord Marcellus Wallace. And Samuel shone brightly, infinitely cool as he delivered biblical speeches and blew the perps away, before coming to a resolution to quit. His favourite speech was supposedly taken from Ezekiel 25:17, but actually Tarantino wrote it all but the first line - in fact, he'd really written it for Harvey Keitel in From Dusk Till Dawn but, believing that FDTD would never be made, cannibalised his own work. Jackson's wig was not as originally intended, either. He was supposed to wear a giant afro, but Jherri-curled wigs turned up instead and it was too late to replace them.

Amazingly, even though the role of Jules was written for Jackson (Tarantino believes he delivers the lines better than even he imagines them), he nearly lost the part. Paul Calderon managed to wangle an audition and was so good Tarantino considered taking him on. Only when Jackson flew to Los Angeles and re-auditioned did he make the part his. And he was rewarded with an Oscar nomination - coincidentally in the same year that his old mentor Morgan Freeman was nominated for The Shawshank Redemption. At the ceremony, when Martin Landau was announced as the winner for Ed Wood, Jackson was caught on camera clearly uttering the S-word. Hardly gracious in defeat, but there weren't many on the planet who could believe the decision. Jackson later explained: "There was no need for me to sit there clapping and saying 'I'm so glad Martin won' because I wasn't. I wasn't anti him winning, but I was disappointed that I didn't win, and I expressed that."

Now Jackson was a name, but he continued to balance blockbusters with smaller, more interesting movies. He was outstanding as a slimeball motivating tele-sales scam artists in The New Age. In Losing Isaiah, he was an attorney helping former crack addict Halle Berry win her child back from foster parent Jessica Lange (his wife LaTanya appeared too). He was a vengeful cop, hunting down Nicolas Cage in Kiss Of Death. And then he was a denizen of Harlem who helps Bruce Willis chase terrorists in Die Hard III.

In Hard Eight - Paul Thomas Anderson's smooth precursor to Boogie Nights - he played a shady, scary character teaching bad lessons to a gambler's apprentice in Reno. Then he was tremendous again as the Reverend Fred Sultan, a kind of Don King type who, as manager of a boxing champion whose purses are on the slide, seeks a white challenger to excite the nation. Next came two dark indie comedies. First a bit part in Steve Buscemi's Trees Lounge, then another, alongside Buscemi and John Turturro, in The Search For One-Eye Jimmy.

Now for some more hits. In Joel Schumacher's A Time To Kill, Jackson ripped up the screen as Carl Lee Hailey, a father in the Deep South who, in the court-house, kills the men he believes raped and murdered his 10-year-old daughter. Under questioning he bursts out with a quite magnificent "Yayis, they desuhved to dah, an' I hope they burn in hey-ull!!". Then came another winner in The Long Kiss Goodnight where Jackson played a cheap detective who gets caught up with Geena Davis, a super-agent who's been suffering amnesia and living as a wife and mother for 8 years but who is now very much back. Packed with outrageous stunts, it was one of the best action movies in years.

Jackson continued on his run. It was incredible how convincing he was in so many different roles in so short a time. In 187 he was a teacher who's stabbed by a pupil, then returns to try to tame a class in the poorest and meanest of neighbourhoods. In Eve's Bayou, he was a womanising doctor and family man in 1962 Louisiana, who's killed by his 10-year-old daughter. Director Kasi Lemmons did a great job in gradually telling us why.

And then there was Tarantino once more, and another mega-hit in Jackie Brown. Here he was Ordell Robbie, a foul-mouthed arms dealer who orders around girlfriend Bridget Fonda, buddies up with Robert De Niro and threatens or kills pretty much everyone else. He is, as he puts it himself, "as serious as a heart attack" and Jackson played him to perfection - smooth, flashy, funny and unbelievably menacing. Jackson actually took some criticism from an unexpected source when Spike Lee complained about the film's use of the word Nigger. Jackson retorted by saying that Lee considered himself the sole voice of black people and "I didn't get a chance to vote in that election". He also added "Jackie Brown is a wonderful homage to black exploitation films. It's a good film, and Spike hasn't made one of those in a few years".

At this point, even Jackson realised that he'd arrived. He'd been Golden Globe-nominated for Jackie Brown, as he had been for Against The Wall, Pulp Fiction and A Time To Kill, but there was more to it. Having stolen scenes from Robert De Niro in Jackie Brown, he moved on to take them from Dustin Hoffman in Michael Crichton's under-sea supernatural thriller Sphere. He was mixing it with the big boys at last. Then came a brief cameo in Steven Soderbergh's Out Of Sight, and then another big-budget, starring role in The Negociator, a role turned down by Sylvester Stallone. Here he played a hostage negociator who's falsely accused of corruption and murder and, naturally, takes a bunch of hostages in a Chicago high-rise. Only his peer Kevin Spacey - who'd earlier played the smarmy prosecutor trying to send Jackson down in A Time To Kill - can talk him out of it.

Next up was The Red Violin, a superb movie involving the lives and passions of several owners of a special violin over three centuries. It was written by Don McKellar whose Last Night you absolutely MUST SEE. And then, after De Niro and Hoffman came something even bigger - Star Wars. Jackson had appeared on chat shows, explaining just how much he'd like to be in The Phantom Menace and - no doubt as Samuel had hoped - George Lucas took note, casting him as Mace Windu, leader of the Jedi Council. It was only a small role, but Jackson LOVED it. As a kid he'd spent many days imagining himself fighting off pirates in general and Basil Rathbone in particular, and here he was (almost) doing it for real.

Now came Deep Blue Sea, another action thriller where Jackson played the financial backer of an off-shore experiment to discover a cure for Alzheimer's by, er, mutating killer sharks into unstoppable death machines. It was quite a shocker, and a part Jackson got by some lucky connections. Not only was it directed by Renny Harlin, who'd made The Long Kiss Goodnight (Geena Davis was his wife), but it was also made by Warners, who Jackson had helped out by stepping in for The Negociator.

After this was Rules Of Engagement where Samuel played a colonel on trial for having his troops open fire of civilians in Yemen, being defended in court by Tommy Lee Jones. To train for the film, both Jones and Jackson were put in charge of their own company of soldiers and dropped in the wilds of South Carolina.

Really, only Jackson - with that lazy gait, smooth demeanour and dress-sense taught to him by his mother - could play The Man in a remake of Shaft. And, in 2000, that's what he did, playing the nephew of that superfly guy, a detective with the NYPD on a personal mission to bring Christian Bale to justice for a racial killing. And, this being the blackest of black films, there was trouble on-set. Jackson, the former student revolutionary, refused absolutely to utter any lines re-written by script doctor Richard Price, a white man.

For his next role, he stayed larger than life. In M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, he played a sinister fellow whose bones snap on contact with anything remotely solid. For a cure, he scours the world for an "unbreakable" man and finds Bruce Willis, his old Die Hard buddy, who's the sole survivor of a train wreck that killed 131. He was pretty odd in his next film, too. In The Caveman's Valentine, directed by Eve's Bayou's Kasi Lemmons, he played a schizoid, classically-trained pianist who lives in a cave in a New York park, hears music constantly in the air, is plagued by weird flying things, and believes that a terrible force plots our downfall from the top of the Chrysler Building. Then he gets involved in a murder hunt.

As if unable to play it straight any more, Jackson now turned up in a kilt, playing a pharmacological genius who's invented a new drug, double-crossed his backers, and come to Liverpool to strike a $20 million deal with the Scouse underworld. Aided by minder Robert Carlyle, pursued by hitwoman Emily Mortimer, he is in deep trouble. And he was in more in Changing Lanes, a surprise smash in the US. This teamed him up with Toni Collette, his co-star in Shaft, but more particularly with Ben Affleck. The pair of them are involved in a slight accident on FDR Drive in New York which gradually escalates into a full-blown feud. While filming, Jackson, who's spent much time at AA meetings, was given a real glass of bourbon, rather than a fake one. He claimed the smell brought it all back - he used to LOVE Jack Daniel's.

Then, just a few weeks after Changing Lanes shot up the box office charts, Jackson was Number One in no uncertain terms. Impressed with his efforts, George Lucas had written him a far bigger part in Star Wars: Episode 2 - Attack Of The Clones. Now the confidant of guru Yoda, he got to race around and wield a light-sabre, and a purple one, to boot. It was, of course, an enormous hit, yet more justification for the star on Hollywood's Walk Of Fame that Jackson had received in 2000.

Amazingly, this freakish success and work-rate continued. After Changing Lanes came another huge hit with xXx, where Jackson played Augustus Gibbons, the spymaster who hunts down extreme sports star and thief Vin Diesel and gets him to stop a bad Czech from destroying the world. Samuel moved on to No Good Deed, written by Dashiell Hammett and directed by Bob Rafaelson, where he was a cop kidnapped by a gang of robbers, who enters into an intense and dangerous relationship with the leader's girlfriend, Milla Jovovich.

2003 brought another burst of activity. First there was Basic, where he played a hard-ass sergeant hated by his men on a military base in Panama. When a huge storm hits and people are killed, Sam's old mucker John Travolta is called in to investigate. Then there was SWAT, based on the old TV series, where a drug lord is captured and offers a huge reward to any criminals who can free him - Jackson playing the head of the titular sharpshooters and Colin Farrell one of his finest men. The year would end with a brief reunion with Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill, when he popped up as the chapel organ-player at Uma Thurman's blood-spattered wedding.

2004 brought another rush of work, beginning with John Boorman's In My Country, based on Antjie Krog's novel Country Of My Skull. Set in South Africa's Truth And Reconciliation days of the 1990s, where cops and soldiers were able to admit their Apartheid-era crimes and be forgiven, this saw Samuel as a hard-bitten and cynical Washington Post journalist covering events, his unforgiving views striking against those of innocent and hopeful South African poet and reporter Juliette Binoche. The movie would dig deep into the complexities of race and racism, Binoche being white but African and Jackson being black but wealthy, very much separated from his ancestral people.

He moved on to Twisted, where Ashley Judd was a homicide detective who likes to get drunk and have bawdy flings with strangers. When the men start dying, we wonder if she's blacking out and topping them herself. Jackson would play the police commissioner who's raised Judd as his own daughter after her dad went mad and blew her mother away, and now trusts her enough to keep her on the case.

After showing up, again briefly and in a wedding flashback, in Kill Bill Volume 2, Samuel enjoyed another huge success when lending his voice to The Incredibles, a superb animation concerning superheroes who are forced to deny their powers and live normal lives. Jackson would play Frozone, a man capable of turning anything into a block of ice, who goes bowling with Mr Incredible and mulls over the good old days - until the world requires them once again. The film was a huge financial success with the result that, come 2005, the worldwide gross of Jackson's movies had topped $3 billion, the highest in history. Of course, he hadn't headlined many of the big hits but, even so, after the long, dark years, it was nice to claim he was bigger than Harrison Ford.

And 2005 would bring yet more success. Coach Carter saw him star as Ken Carter, in real-life a former sports star and businessman who became an unpaid school basketball trainer and, understanding the real needs of the kids under his charge, pushed academia as hard as sports. When his players underperform in class, he risks a backlash from players, school and parents by locking the gym and forfeiting important games (unheard of in the sports-mad States) in order to bring the boys back into line and offer them a better future. It was a great role for Jackson, allowing him to be powerful, wise and kind. It took him to the top of the box office charts, and Coach Carter became the biggest hit ever produced by MTV.

Now it was back to Franchise City with The Revenge Of the Sith, according to George Lucas the last Star Wars movie he'd ever make. And there'd be a follow-up to xXx where, as Willem Dafoe's military splinter group threatens to bring down the US government, Jackosn's Agent Gibbons seeks out another maverick to save the nation, this time Ice Cube. Very different would be the wacky buddy movie The Man, where Samuel would be a Fed in Detroit, trying to pull off a complex sting operation and solve the murder of his partner, only to be lumbered with dental supply salesman Eugene Levy. And different again would be Freedomland, based on a novel by Richard Price. Here a bloody and bruised Julianne Moore would claim a black man had stolen her car with her 4-year-old in the back seat. Jackson would play a veteran detective who doubts her story but still launches an investigation that threatens to blow a tense local racial situation into fullblown riot.

Having been the most prolific actor of the Nineties, it's likely Samuel L. Jackson will slow down a touch. Especially as he's discovered golf - "the only place I can go dressed as a pimp and fit in perfectly". But that doesn't mean he won't make more appearances than anyone else, or that he won't continue to deliver some of the most intense performances in history. That fire in his eyes is still so bright - it's impossible to imagine it ever going out.

Dominic Wills

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