Born: Dec. 28, 1954 -
Occupation: Actor, Philanthropist
Denzel Washington was born on December 28, 1954, in Mount Vernon, New York, to Denzel Washington, a Pentecostal minister, and Lennis Washington, a beautician and a former gospel singer. He grew up in an integrated neighborhood that bordered the Bronx where he associated with West Indians, Italians, as well as blacks, and learned much from the different cultures. He, his older sister Lorice, and younger brother David were brought up in a disciplined home. Washington's mother influenced and grounded her children through solid values and activities with groups such as the Boys Club and the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). When he was 12, Denzel Washington worked part-time delivering clothes to the cleaners and brushing the clothes of clients in the barbershop his mother co-owned.
Washington's parents divorced when he was 14-years old, an event that devastated the young man and led to behavioral problems. He rejected religion and became unruly, just the opposite of what he had been. To help curb his behavior, his mother sent him to Oakland Academy, a private preparatory school primarily attended by wealthy white child ren in upstate New York. He achieved excellence in baseball, track, football, and basketball. He also played piano in a local black band called the Last Express.
Washington entered Fordham University in 1972 to begin work on a college degree in pre-medicine. To pay his expenses, he acquired several loans and ran an after-school baby-sitting service at a Greek Orthodox Church in Upper Manhattan. He dropped out of school one semester due to poor grades and worked at the post office and then as a trash collector, but soon returned to Fordham. During a summer job at a camp, he made a recitation on stage that set the direction of his career. He was lauded for his natural acting ability and enrolled in a theater workshop. Changing his career plans, he dropped pre-medicine as a major and embraced journalism. While at Fordham he starred in two student drama productions, The Emperor Jones and Othello. In 1977 he had a professional offer to act in Wilma, the story of track star Wilma Rudolph, a movie made for television. Meanwhile, Washington completed his college degree with a double major in drama and journalism.
With his goal now set in a new direction, acting became a focus for Washington. He began his study of professional acting at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. He won key roles in Man and Superman and Moonchildren. The class size was reduced after a tough competition, but Washington retained a place in the program. He was a quick learner and as school progressed Washington, who then believed he had learned the techniques necessary for good acting, missed class often. He left the conservatory at the end of his first year, with two remaining, and moved to Los Angeles to try professional acting.
Unsuccessful in Los Angeles, Washington moved back to his mother's house in Mount Vernon. While attending an off-Broadway play, he ran into Pauletta Pearson, whom he met briefly when the two played in Wilma. Their relationship grew; Pearson moved into the Washington home and later they married. His wife gave him the encouragement that he needed during his frustrations in the 1970s.
Washington landed a role in the social comedy Carbon Copy (1981), which flopped at the box office. Believing that he would not fulfill his dream of becoming an actor, he accepted a job at an urban recreation center teaching sports and acting to children. One week before he was to report to work, he auditioned for and landed the role of Malcolm X in When the Chickens Come Home to Roost, which played at the Henry Street Settlement Arts for Living Center. Washington studied hard for the role, learned to imitate Malcolm X, and even dyed his hair red. He appeared in the
Washington appeared with several African American productions, including The Might Gents and Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. Returning to Shakespeare, he acted in Coriolanus as Aedilus, through the Black and Red Ensemble production for the Shakespeare-in-the-Park program.
Washington did other work for television, appearing in License to Kill and Flesh & Blood. He declined a number of movie offers that would have required him to play negative roles such as a pimp or druggie. He accepted an offer to play a doctor in the television program
Washington took breaks from St. Elsewhere to appear in movies. In 1984 he starred in
Using the same preparation techniques as for When Chickens Come Home to Roost, he immersed himself in tapes and speeches about Steve Biko. Physically, he changed his appearance to somewhat resemble Biko, removing caps from his teeth and adding several pounds to increase his weight.
Washington appeared in two other movies, For Queen and Country (1988) and The Might Quinn (1989), before landing a role in
Although Washington consistently received moving and stirring roles to play, he rejected a part the 1980s film Platoon, because he wanted to play a Native American rather than a black. Washington claims both ethnic groups in his background.
Washington next appeared in the 1990 comedy-drama, Heart Condition. It is the story of a white detective who receives the heart of black lawyer Washington, who acted as the ghost. Washington moved on to Ricochet (1991), then to Mississippi Marsala in 1992. For the latter film he won the NAACP's Best Actor Award.
In 1992, Washington and
Washington continued to receive offers for movie roles. He appeared in three films during 1993; Much Ado About Nothing, a film version of Shakespeare's comedy; The Pelican Brief, the story of a newspaper reporter's investigation of the assassinations of two Supreme Court justices; and Philadelphia, the story of a homophobic lawyer who learns about life and love from his AIDS-stricken client. In 1995 he acted in Crimson Tide, an action film in which he was a young, Harvard and U.S. Naval Academy-trained executive officer aboard a beleaguered nuclear submarine further beset by mutiny, and Devil in a Blue Dress, in which he played a private detective who, after wrestling with racism, reconfirms his American dream. His next venture was the military drama Courage Under Fire, a story of a lieutenant colonel, played by Washington, and his command in the Persian Gulf. The officer gave an order to fire during the night on what he thought was the enemy; later the officer found out that the unit fired on was one of his own.
In 1996 Washington starred in The Preacher's Wife, with singer
Handsome, suave, tall, and brown skinned, it is no coincidence that Denzel Washington has been compared to Sidney Poitier. Washington in 2002 won an Academy Award for his role in director Antoine Fuqua's Training Day, to become only the second African American actor in the 73-year history of the Motion Picture Academy to win the Oscar for best actor in a lead role; Poitier was the first.
Washington works with the Boys and Girls Club and does commercials for the national organization. He has given generously — $1 million — to the Children's Fund of South Africa and $2.5 million to his church, the Church of God in Los Angeles. In 1997 he won the Whitney M. Young Award from the Los Angeles Urban League for outstanding community activities, especially with youngsters.
Denzel and Pauletta Pearson Washington are the parents of four children: John David, Katta, Malcolm, and Olivia. A family man, he finds time to coach the football team of John David, Katta's basketball team, and to enjoy his wife's gourmet meals and holiday traditions. They live in a Beverly Hills home built by black architect Paul Williams. Washington believes in religion and family. Quoted in his biography, he said: "I always try to have my family with me when I am out in public." He wants to show that "black people can have families," thus helping to remove negative stereotypes of the one-parent black family. During a family visit to Africa in summer of 1995, the Washingtons renewed their marriage vows, in a ceremony performed by archbishop Desmond Tutu. Although Washington receives many accolades, he strives to remain unaffected by them.
Washington's trademark for success in portraying a character has been to learn as much about the individual as possible, including his social, historical, and political environments and displaying physical traits. With this kind of dedication and zeal to be true to the character, Washington has established himself as a leading actor in the m ovie industry.
May 6, 2004: The Boys and Girls Clubs of America named Washington to receive the Herbert Hoover Humanitarian Award. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, May 6, 2004.
July 30, 2004: Washington starred in The Manchurian Candidate, which was released by Paramount Pictures. Source: New York Times, movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=288545, August 9, 2004.
Biography Resource Center. Gale.
Gale Research Inc. 1999.