Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. (born December 28, 1954) is an American actor, director, and producer. He has received three Golden Globe awards, a Tony Award, and two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor for the historical war drama film Glory (1989) and Best Actor for his role as a corrupt cop in the crime thriller Training Day (2001).
Washington has received much critical acclaim for his film work since the 1980s, including his portrayals of real-life figures such as South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in Cry Freedom (1987), Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X in Malcolm X (1992), boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in The Hurricane (1999), football coach Herman Boone in Remember the Titans (2000), poet and educator Melvin B. Tolson in The Great Debaters (2007), and drug kingpin Frank Lucas in American Gangster (2007). He has been a featured actor in the films produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and has been a frequent collaborator of directors Spike Lee, Antoine Fuqua and Tony Scott. In 2016, Washington was selected as the recipient for the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the 73rd Golden Globe Awards.
In 2002, Washington made his directorial debut with biographical film Antwone Fisher. His second directorial effort was The Great Debaters, released in 2007. Washington’s third directorial effort, Fences, starring himself and Viola Davis, was released on December 16, 2016, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Early life and education
Washington was born in Mount Vernon, New York. His father, Denzel Hayes Washington, Sr., a native of Buckingham County, Virginia, was an ordained Pentecostal minister, and also worked for the New York City Water Department and at a local department store, S. Klein. His mother, Lennis “Lynne” (ne Lowe), was a beauty parlor owner and operator born in Georgia and partly raised in Harlem.
Washington attended Pennington-Grimes Elementary School in Mount Vernon until 1968. When he was 14, his parents divorced, and his mother sent him to a private preparatory school, Oakland Military Academy in New Windsor, New York. “That decision changed my life,” Washington later said, “because I wouldn’t have survived in the direction I was going. The guys I was hanging out with at the time, my running buddies, have now done maybe 40 years combined in the penitentiary. They were nice guys, but the streets got them.” After Oakland, Washington next attended Mainland High School, a public high school in Daytona Beach, Florida, from 1970 to 1971. He was interested in attending Texas Tech University: “I grew up in the Boys Club in Mount Vernon, and we were the Red Raiders. So when I was in high school, I wanted to go to Texas Tech in Lubbock just because they were called the Red Raiders and their uniforms looked like ours.” Washington earned a B.A. in Drama and Journalism from Fordham University in 1977. At Fordham, he played collegiate basketball as a guard under coach P.J. Carlesimo. After a period of indecision on which major to study and taking a semester off, Washington worked as creative arts director at an overnight summer camp, Camp Sloane YMCA in Lakeville, Connecticut. He participated in a staff talent show for the campers and a colleague suggested he try acting.
Returning to Fordham that fall with a renewed purpose, Washington enrolled at the Lincoln Center campus to study acting, and where he was given the title roles in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and Shakespeare’s Othello. He then attended graduate school at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where he stayed for one year before returning to New York to begin a professional acting career.
Washington spent the summer of 1976 in St. Mary’s City, Maryland, in summer stock theater performing Wings of the Morning, the Maryland State play, which was written for him by incorporating an African-American character/narrator based loosely on the historical figure from early colonial Maryland, Mathias Da Sousa. Shortly after graduating from Fordham, Washington made his screen acting debut in the 1977 made-for-television film Wilma, and his first Hollywood appearance in the 1981 film Carbon Copy. He shared a 1982 Distinguished Ensemble Performance Obie Award for playing Private First Class Melvin Peterson in the Off-Broadway Negro Ensemble Company production A Soldier’s Play which premiered November 20, 1981.
A major career break came when Washington starred as Dr. Phillip Chandler in NBC‘s television hospital drama St. Elsewhere, which ran from 1982 to 1988. He was one of only a few African-American actors to appear on the series for its entire six-year run. He also appeared in several television, motion picture and stage roles, such as the films A Soldier’s Story (1984), Hard Lessons (1986) and Power (1986). In 1987, he starred as South African anti-apartheid political activist Steven Biko in Richard Attenborough‘s Cry Freedom, for which he received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
In 1989, Washington won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of a defiant, self-possessed ex-slave soldier in the film Glory. That same year, he appeared in the film The Mighty Quinn; and in For Queen and Country, where he played the conflicted and disillusioned Reuben James, a British soldier who, despite a distinguished military career, returns to a civilian life where racism and inner city life lead to vigilantism and violence.
In 1990, Washington starred as Bleek Gilliam in the Spike Lee film Mo’ Better Blues. In 1991, he starred as Demetrius Williams in the romantic drama Mississippi Masala. Washington was reunited with Lee to play one of his most critically acclaimed roles, the title character of 1992’s Malcolm X. His performance as the black nationalist leader earned him another nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. The next year, he played the lawyer of a gay man with AIDS in the 1993 film Philadelphia. During the early and mid-1990s, Washington starred in several successful thrillers, including The Pelican Brief and Crimson Tide, as well as in the movie of the Shakespearean comedy Much Ado About Nothing. In 1996, he played a U.S. Army officer who, despondent about a deadly mistake he made, investigates a female chopper commander’s worthiness for the Medal of Honor in Courage Under Fire with Meg Ryan. In 1996, he appeared with Whitney Houston in the romantic drama The Preacher’s Wife.
In 1998, Washington starred in Spike Lee’s film He Got Game. Washington played a father serving a six-year prison term when the prison warden offers him a temporary parole to convince his top-ranked high-school basketball player son (Ray Allen) to sign with the governor’s alma mater, Big State. The film was Washington’s third collaboration with Lee.
In 1999, Washington starred in The Hurricane, a film about boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, whose conviction for triple murder was overturned after he spent almost 20 years in prison. Washington did receive a Golden Globe Award in 2000 and a Silver Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival for the role.
In 2000, Washington appeared in the Disney film Remember the Titans which grossed over $100 million in the U.S. That year, Washington also won a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Dramatic Movie for his work in The Hurricane. He was the first black actor to win the award since Sidney Poitier in 1963.
Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor for the 2001 cop thriller Training Day, where he played Detective Alonzo Harris, a corrupt Los Angeles cop with questionable law-enforcement tactics. He was the second African-American performer to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. The first was Sidney Poitier, who was presented with an Honorary Academy Award the same night.
Between 2003 and 2004, Washington appeared in a series of thrillers that performed generally well at the box office, including Out of Time, Man on Fire, and The Manchurian Candidate. In 2006, he starred in Inside Man, a Spike Lee-directed bank heist thriller co-starring Jodie Foster and Clive Owen, released in March, and Dj Vu.
In 2006, Washington worked alongside Irish rock band The Script on a project combining music and Hollywood. The hybrid of genres was critically acclaimed, but didn’t receive much mainstream attention because of legal conflicts between The Script’s record label and Denzel’s studio commitments.
In 2007, Washington co-starred with Russell Crowe, for the second time after 1995’s Virtuosity, in Ridley Scott‘s American Gangster. He also directed and starred in the drama The Great Debaters with Forest Whitaker. He next appeared in Tony Scott’s 2009 film The Taking of Pelham 123 (a remake of the 1974 thriller of the same name), where he played New York City subway security chief Walter Garber opposite John Travolta‘s villain.
Return to theater
In the summer of 1990, Washington appeared in the title role of the Public Theater‘s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. In 2005, he appeared onstage again as Marcus Brutus in a Broadway production of Julius Caesar. Despite mixed reviews, the production’s limited run was a consistent sell-out. In the spring of 2010, Washington played Troy Maxson, opposite Viola Davis, in the Broadway revival of August Wilson‘s Fences, for which he won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play on June 13, 2010.
From April to June 2014, Washington played the leading role in the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama A Raisin in the Sun, directed by Kenny Leon. The show received positive reviews and won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.
Beginning March 22, 2018, Washington will star as Theodore “Hickey” Hickman in a Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The production, directed by George C. Wolfe, will begin regular performances April 26 and run for 14 weeks.
In 2010, Washington starred in The Book of Eli, a post-Apocalyptic drama set in the near future. Also in 2010, he starred as a veteran railroad engineer in the action film Unstoppable, about an unmanned, half-mile-long runaway freight train carrying dangerous cargo. The film was his fifth and final collaboration with director Tony Scott, following Crimson Tide (1995), Man on Fire (2004), Dj Vu (2006) and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009).
In 2012, Washington starred in Flight, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. He co-starred with Ryan Reynolds in Safe House, where he prepared for his role by subjecting himself to a torture session that included waterboarding. In 2013, Washington starred in 2 Guns, alongside Mark Wahlberg. In 2014, he starred in The Equalizer, an action thriller film directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Richard Wenk, based on the television series of same name starring Edward Woodward.
In 2016, Washington starred as one of the leads in the remake of 1960 western film of the same name, The Magnificent Seven, alongside Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, and Peter Sarsgaard. Principal photography began on May 18, 2015, in the north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The film premiered on September 8, 2016 at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, and was released in the United States in conventional and IMAX theatres on September 23, 2016.
In The Magnificent Seven, Washington plays Sam Chisolm (“the Bounty Hunter”), a duly sworn warrant officer from Wichita, Kansas who goes after bad guys. Washington’s character was renamed from Chris Adams (played by Yul Brynner in the original film) to Sam Chisolm. It is Washington’s first Western film. Washington did not watch Western films growing up since it was the end of the Western era in the movies. Moreover, he and his siblings were barred from going to the cinema since his father was a minister in a church. They instead grew up watching biblical films like King of Kings and The Ten Commandments. However, he has admitted seeing portions of Rawhide and Bonanza shows. He did not watch the original film in preparation for this but has watched Seven Samurai. Fuqua said that Washington, whom he has twice collaborated with, was his first choice to be cast irrespective of which role. The producers were skeptical whether he would take the job since it was a Western film. Fuqua then flew to New York City to negotiate with Washington, who accepted the offer.
In 2016, Washington directed the film Fences, co-starring Viola Davis and based on Wilson’s play of the same name, with a script by Wilson. Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Washington plays a former Negro league baseball player working as a waste collector who struggles to provide for his family and come to terms with the events of his life. The film was released on December 16, 2016, by Paramount Pictures. For his performance, Washington was nominated in the Best Actor category for a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award.
On June 25, 1983, Washington married Pauletta Pearson, whom he met on the set of his first screen work, the television film Wilma. The couple have four children: John David (b. July 28, 1984), a former football player with the United Football League’s Sacramento Mountain Lions (and before that, college football at Morehouse); Katia (b. November 27, 1986) who graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor of Arts in 2010; and twins Olivia and Malcolm (b. April 10, 1991). Malcolm graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in film studies, and Olivia played a role in Lee Daniels‘s film The Butler. In 1995, Denzel and Pauletta renewed their wedding vows in South Africa with Archbishop Desmond Tutu officiating.
Washington is a devout Christian, and has considered becoming a preacher. He stated in 1999, “A part of me still says, ‘Maybe, Denzel, you’re supposed to preach. Maybe you’re still compromising.’ I’ve had an opportunity to play great men and, through their words, to preach. I take what talent I’ve been given seriously, and I want to use it for good.” In 1995, he donated US$2.5;million to help build the new West Angeles Church of God in Christ facility in Los Angeles. Washington says he reads the Bible daily.
Washington has served as the national spokesperson for Boys & Girls Clubs of America since 1993 and has appeared in public service announcements and awareness campaigns for the organization. In addition, he has served as a board member for Boys & Girls Clubs of America since 1995. Due to his philanthropic work with the Boys & Girls Club, PS 17X, a New York City Elementary School decided to officially name their school after Washington.
In mid-2004, Washington visited Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) at Fort Sam Houston, where he participated in a Purple Heart ceremony, presenting medals to three Army soldiers recovering from wounds they received while stationed in Iraq. He also visited the fort’s Fisher House facilities, and after learning that it had exceeded its capacity, made a substantial donation to the Fisher House Foundation. Washington’s other charitable contributions include US$1;million to Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Fund in 1995 and US$1;million to Wiley College to resuscitate the college’s debate team.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia named Washington as one of three people (the others being directors Oliver Stone and Michael Moore) with whom they were willing to negotiate for the release of three defense contractors the group had held captive from 2003 to 2008.
On May 18, 1991, Washington was awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Fordham University, for having “impressively succeeded in exploring the edge of his multifaceted talent”. In 2011, he donated $2 million to Fordham for an endowed chair of the theater department, as well as US$250,000 to establish a theater-specific scholarship at the school. He also received an honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Morehouse College on May 20, 2007. and an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania on May 16, 2011.
In 2008, Washington visited Israel with a delegation of African-American artists in honor of the state’s 60th birthday.
In April 2014, Washington presented at Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Easter Bonnet Competition with Bryan Cranston, Idina Menzel and Fran Drescher, after raising donations at his Broadway show A Raisin in the Sun.