One of Hollywood's sexiest and most magnetic leading men, Denzel Washington's poise and radiantly sane intelligence permeate whatever film he is in, be it a socially conscious drama, biopic, or suspense thriller. More importantly, Washington's efforts, alongside those of director Spike Lee, have done much to dramatically expand the range of dramatic roles given to African-American actors and actresses.
The son of a Pentecostal minister and a hairdresser, Washington was born in Mount Vernon, NY, on December 28, 1954. His parents' professions shaped Washington's early ambition to launch himself into show business: from his minister father he learned the power of performance, while hours in his mother's salon (listening to stories) gave him a love of storytelling. Unfortunately, when Washington was 14, his folks' marriage took a turn for the worse, and he and his older sister were sent away to boarding school so that they would not be exposed to their parents' eventual divorce.
Washington later attended Fordham University, where he attained a B.A. in Journalism in 1977. He still found time to pursue his interest in acting, however, and after graduation he moved to San Francisco, where he won a scholarship to the American Conservatory Theatre. Washington stayed with the ACT for a year, and, after his time there, he began acting in various television movies and made his film debut in the 1981 Carbon Copy. Although he had a starring role (as the illegitimate son of a rich white man), Washington didn't find real recognition until he joined the cast of John Falsey and Joshua Brand's long-running TV series St. Elsewhere in 1982. He won critical raves and audience adoration for his portrayal of Dr. Phillip Chandler, and he began to attract Hollywood notice. In 1987, he starred as anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom alongside Kevin Kline, and though the film itself alienated some critics (Pauline Kael called it "dumbfounding"), Washington's powerful performance earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
Two years later, Washington netted another Best Supporting Actor nod -- and won the award -- for his turn as an embittered yet courageous runaway slave in the Civil War drama Glory. The honor effectively put him on the Hollywood A-List. Some of his more notable work came from his collaboration with director Spike Lee; over the course of the 1990s, Washington starred in three of his films, playing a jazz trumpeter in Mo' Better Blues (1990), the title role in Lee's epic 1992 biopic Malcolm X (for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination), and the convict father of a high-school basketball star in He Got Game (1998).
Washington also turned in powerful performances in a number of other films, such as Mississippi Masala (1991), as a man in love with an Indian woman; Philadelphia (1993), as a slightly homophobic lawyer who takes on the cause of an AIDS-stricken litigator (Tom Hanks); and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), as a 1940s private detective, Easy Rawlins. Washington also reeled in large audiences in action roles, with the top box-office draw of such thrillers as The Pelican Brief (1993), Crimson Tide (1995), and The Siege (1998) attesting to his capabilities. In 1999, Washington starred in another thriller, The Bone Collector, playing a paralyzed forensics expert who joins forces with a young policewoman (Angelina Jolie) to track down a serial killer. That same year, he starred in the title role of Norman Jewison's The Hurricane. Based on the true story of a boxer wrongly accused of murdering three people in 1966, the film featured stellar work by Washington as the wronged man, further demonstrating his remarkable capacity for telling a good story. His performance earned him a number of honors, including a Best Actor Golden Globe and a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
After another strong performance as a high-school football coach in Boaz Yakin's Remember the Titans, Washington cut dramatically against his "nice guy" typecast to play a corrupt policeman in Training Day, a gritty cop drama helmed by Antoine Fuqua. Washington surprised audiences and critics with his change of direction, but in the eyes of many, this change of direction made him a more compelling screen presence than ever before. (It also netted him an Oscar for Best Actor.)
2002 marked an uneven year for Washington. He joined the cast of Nick Cassavetes' absurd melodrama John Q., as a father so desperate to get medical attention for his ailing son that he holds an entire hospital hostage and contemplates killing himself to donate his own heart to the boy. Critics didn't buy the film; it struck all but the least-discriminating as a desperate attempt by Washington to bring credulity and respectability to a series of ludicrous, manipulative Hollywood contrivances. John Q. nonetheless performed healthily at the box (it grossed over a million dollars worldwide from a 36-million-dollar budget). That same fall, Washington received hearty praise for
his directorial and on-camera work in Antwone Fisher (2002), in which he played a concerned naval psychiatrist, and even more so for director Carl Franklin's 2003 crime thriller Out of Time. Somewhat reminiscent of his role in 1991's crime drama Ricochet, Out of Time casts Washington as an upstanding police officer framed for the murder of a prominent citizen.
In 2004, Washington teamed up with Jonathan Demme for the first occasion since 1993's Philadelphia, to star in the controversial remake of 1962's The Manchurian Candidate. Washington stars in the picture as soldier Bennett Marco (the role originally performed by Frank Sinatra), who, along with his platoon, is kidnapped and brainwashed during the first Gulf War. Later that year, Washington worked alongside Christopher Walken and Dakota Fanning in another hellraiser, director Tony Scott's Man on Fire, as a bodyguard who carves a bloody swath of vengeance, attempting to rescue a little girl kidnapped under his watch.
Washington made no major onscreen appearances in 2005 -- and indeed, kept his activity during 2006 and 2007 to an absolute minimum. In '06, he joined the cast of Spike Lee's thriller Inside Man as a detective assigned to thwart the machinations of a psychotically cunning burglar (Clive Owen). The film opened to spectacular reviews and box-office grosses in March 2006, keeping Washington on top of his game and bringing Lee (whose last major feature was the disappointing 2004 comedy She Hate Me) back to the pinnacle of success. That same year, Washington joined forces once again with Tony Scott in the sci-fi action hybrid Déjà Vu, as an ATF agent on the trail of a terrorist, who discovers a way to "bridge" the present to the past to view the details of a bomb plot that unfolded days earlier. The Scott film garnered a fair number of respectable reviews but ultimately divided critics. Déjà Vu bowed in the U.S. in late November 2006. Meanwhile, Washington signed on for another action thriller, entitled American Gangster -- this time under the aegis of Tony Scott's brother Ridley -- about a drug-dealing Mafioso who smuggles heroin into the U.S. in the corpses of deceased Vietnam veterans.
Washington appeared as New York City subway security chief Walter Garber in the 2009 remake of the 1974 thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and begun filming the post-apocalyptic drama The Book of Eli in the same year. He earned a Best Actor nomination in 2012 for his work as an alcoholic pilot in Robert Zemeckis' drama Flight.
~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi