An acclaimed character actor of the stage, screen, and television, Don Cheadle often manages to steal most of the scenes in which he appears. That is no small feat, for the slender African-American actor has, at first glance, a rather unassuming physical presence, particularly when compared to some of his big-name co-stars. An actor whose style compliments rather than overshadows the performances of those around him, Cheadle stands out for his rare ability to bring a laid-back intensity and subtle charisma to his roles.
A native of Kansas City, MO, Cheadle was born on November 29, 1964, to a psychologist father and bank manager mother. During his early childhood, his family moved to Denver and then Nebraska. One thing that remained a constant in Cheadle's childhood was his interest in performing, which began around the age of five. In addition to acting, he was interested in jazz music and his parents supported both of these endeavors. By the time he graduated from high school, he had scholarships from both music and acting schools; choosing the latter, he attended the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Following graduation, Cheadle made his film debut with a small role as a hamburger server in Moving Violations (1985). He honed his acting skills as a guest star on television series ranging from Hill Street Blues to Night Court, and, in 1992, he landed a regular role as a fussy hotel manager on The Golden Palace. Although the show faltered after only one season, Cheadle landed on his feet, subsequently snagging the plum role of earnest district attorney John Littleton on Picket Fences (1993-1995).
While he was building a career on television, Cheadle was also earning a reputation in feature films. He first made an impression on audiences with his lead role in Hamburger Hill (1987), and, in 1994, he had his true screen breakthrough portraying Denzel Washington's best friend in Devil in a Blue Dress. So good was his performance -- which earned him a number of film critics awards -- that many felt an Oscar nomination was inevitable; when the Academy passed him over, many, including Cheadle, wondered why. However, the actor chalked it up to politics and got on with his career, working steadily throughout the remainder of the decade. 1997 proved to be a big year for him: he co-starred in three major films, Volcano, Boogie Nights, and John Singleton's Rosewood. He won particular praise for his work in the latter two films, earning nominations for SAG and Image awards.
The following year, Cheadle made a triumphant return to television with his portrayal of Sammy Davis Jr. in The Rat Pack, winning an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe award. Also in 1998, he did stellar work in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight and Warren Beatty's Bulworth, playing a down and dirty ex-con in the former and a drug lord in the latter. Another Emmy nomination followed in 1999, for Cheadle's powerful portrayal of a school teacher sent in to counsel a young man on death row, in A Lesson Before Dying. Cheadle would become something of a fixture in Soderbergh's films, and in fact delivered a stunning performance as a federal drug agent in the director's epic muckraking drama Traffic (2000).
Cheadle then turned up in Soderbergh's remake of the Rat Pack classic Ocean's Eleven in 2002.
The chasm between Traffic and Ocean's Eleven (not in terms of quality but in terms of intended audience and depth) is instructive; it established a definitive career pattern for Cheadle during the mid-late 2000s. Throughout that period, the gifted actor continually projected versatility by alternating between buttered-popcorn pictures - such as Soderbergh's 2004 and 2007 follow ups to Eleven (Ocean's Twelve and Ocean's Thirteen) - and more complex, demanding, intelligent material. For example, in 2004 (a particularly vital year for Cheadle) the actor delivered a four-barrelled lead portrayal in the heart-wrenching docudrama Hotel Rwanda. In that politically-tinged, factually-charged account, the actor plays the Rwandan manager of a Kigali hotel, so devastated by the surrounding massacres of his fellow countrymen that he turns the establishment into a clandestine refugee camp. Cheadle justly netted an Oscar nomination for his work. That same year, the thespian held his own against lead Sean Penn (no small feat, that) in the depressing and despairing yet critically acclaimed psychodrama The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Cheadle reserved his most formidable coup, however, for 2005, when he both produced and co-starred (opposite many, many others) in Paul Haggis's difficult ensemble film Crash-a searing, biting meditation on racism and the Best Picture winner of its year.
In early 2007, Cheadle paired up with actor Adam Sandler and writer-director Mike Binder for Reign Over Me, a two-character drama about a dentist (Cheadle) reunited with his displaced college roommate (Sandler) after the trauma of 9/11. The picture reeled in generally favorable, if not universally positive, reviews. Later that same year, the actor essayed the lead role in Talk to Me. As directed by Kasi Lemmons, this period drama recreated the life and times of the controversial 1960s convict-cum-shock jock Petey Greene (Cheadle) who rides to fame amid the throes of the civil rights movement and Vietnam-era tumult; many critics tagged the portrayal as definitively Oscar worthy.
Cheadle would remain a top star over the coming years, appearing in everything from the kid-friendly Hotel for Dogs to the gritty crime thriller Brooklyn's Finest. Cheadle would also take over the role of Lt. James Rhodes in the Iron Man sequel, replacing Terrence Howard. Cheadle would also find success on the small screen, producing and starring in the critically acclaimed comedy series House of Lies. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi