portrait of an artist: denzel

By Chris Robinson on 10/24/2012

When Denzel Hayes Washington, Jr. turned 14, his mother sent him away. Lynne, a hair stylist, and Denzel’s father Reverend Washington, a Pentecostal minister, were getting divorced, and Lynne wanted to get her middle child away from the drama, and the city. So she sent him to a prep school in the New York suburbs, about an hour away. “That decision changed my life,” Washington would later say, “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.”

Born: Dec 28, 1954 (Mount Vernon, NY)

Best Work: Glory (1989), Training Day (2001)

Worst Work: Heart Condition (1990)

Career Highlight: 2003 Best Actor Oscar (for Training Day)




After junior high he relocated to Daytona Beach, Florida with his mother and enrolled at Mainland High School (which also gave us George Plimpton and Vince Carter). Denzel thrived there, starring on school sports teams and working hard in the classroom. For college, he returned to his New York roots at Fordham University, where he played basketball (his coach P.J. Carlesimo went on to coach in the NBA) and majored in journalism.

But Denzel had internalized a sense for drama while listening to the chatter in his mother’s beauty salon, and he still burned with the power of his father’s electrifying performances from the pulpit. Journalism failed to harness his fire. Dissatisfied, he took a semester off to work at a YMCA children’s camp in Connecticut, where a colleague recommended he try acting. This ignited a spark, and Denzel returned to school with a renewed sense of purpose. He switched his major, won roles in school plays, and applied to grad schools. After graduating in ’77, he left for the West Coast and briefly studied at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. Within the year he returned to New York, a professional actor.

His first gig was a made for TV movie called Wilma (where he worked with a young actress – although 4 years older than he – named Pauletta Pearson; six years later they would be married). A breakout role followed soon after, when in 1982 he won a role on new TV series St. Elsewhere. The show lasted for 6 years, but when it finished, Denzel’s phone started ringing. The first call he took was for Edward Zwick’s Civil War epic Glory. The film was Denzel’s first opportunity on the big stage of a major studio’s prime offering ($18 million budget) and the rookie would have to hold his own among such proven talents as Cary Elwes, Matthew Broderick, and Morgan Freeman. He outshone them all, and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Since his turn in Glory, Denzel Washington has gone on to become one of America’s favorite movie stars. He has played lothario, Southernerreporter, activistprinceP.I., preacher, boxer, psychiatrist, gangster, MTA employee, nomad, engineer, terrorist, and, most recently, pilot. But his favorite role is that of protector: whether as a bodyguard, a soldier (six times), a father (twice), a coach (twice), a laywer (three times), or a cop (ten [!] times). He has even played a lawyer cop. He generally shies away from playing the antagonist (although maybe he shouldn’t: his most acclaimed role was also his slimiest) in favor of portraying principled, noble heroes. Whatever the role, he always finds a way to show off his megawatt smile, and weightily purse his lips in that inimitable way. He boasts a seemingly unshakeable poise, and invariably radiates a cool, determined intelligence.

Like personal hero and film pioneer Sidney Poitier, Denzel has never shied away from addressing issues of race in his work, often doing so head-on (see X, Malcolm). In 2001, he became the second African-American man, and first since Poitier himself, to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Since getting married in 1983, Denzel and his wife Lauretta have had four children: twins Olivia and Malcolm (21), Katia (25), and John David (28), a professional football player. A devout Christian, he has considered becoming a preacher: “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 2.5 million dollars to help build the new West Angeles Church of God in Christ facility in Los Angeles.

Fans and moviegoers in general will hope he doesn’t quit acting anytime soon, as many feel Denzel Washington’s finest work as an actor is still ahead of him.  Δ

Washington Trivia: As a young actor Denzel filmed commercials to make ends meet, including a series of Fruit of the Loom spots (as Grapes)


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