Born July 15th, 1961, the hulking, unmistakably burly Forest Whitaker initially got into college on a football scholarship, but upon transferring to the University of Southern California, he majored in music, winning two more scholarships in that field. Still another scholarship, this one in the name of Sir John Gielgud, came Whitaker's way when he entered the drama program at Berkeley. A seasoned stage veteran at 21, the baby-faced Whitaker appeared in his first film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in 1982, coincidentally making his debut in the role of a football player.
Four years later, Whitaker attracted critical attention in the role of the young pool player who flummoxes Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) in The Color of Money (1986). He was subsequently selected by director Clint Eastwood for the prize role of jazz great Charlie "Bird" Parker in Bird (1988), which won him the Best Actor award at Cannes. In 1992, Whitaker gained further fame for his role as a captured British soldier whose prior relationship with the mysterious Dil (Jaye Davidson) catalyzes the plot of The Crying Game.
Whitaker went on to work steadily throughout the rest of the decade in films of almost every possible genre. For Robert Altman's meandering, often-reviled fashion exposé Prêt-à-Porter (1994), the actor portrayed a fashion designer who has a tryst with fellow designer Richard E. Grant; the sci-fi thriller Species (1995) featured him as an empath on the trail of an alien; while in Smoke (1995), Wayne Wang's fine adaptation of several of Paul Auster stories, Whitaker portrayed an errant father confronted by his long-estranged son. He ended the century by portraying the title character in Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), and began the 21st century by starring, appropriately enough, in the futuristic action flop Battlefield Earth (2000).
In addition to his work in front of the camera, Whitaker has also stepped behind it, surprising many by choosing to direct relatively unchallenging chick-flick scripts. In 1995, he made his feature directorial debut with Waiting to Exhale, the popular adaptation of Terry McMillan's novel of the same name. Three years later, he was at the helm of Hope Floats, another melodrama starring Sandra Bullock as a woman who moves back to her Texas hometown. In 2004, he directed the comedy First Daughter, starring Katie Holmes as the daughter of the president, played by Michael Keaton.
Although the first half of the next decade found Whitaker working primarily in independent films, he did stay in the public eye thanks to a part as a sympathetic burglar in David Fincher's thriller Panic Room (2002). Fortunately for fans of the versatile actor, Whitaker achieved one of the great successes of his career playing the grandstanding dictator Idi Amin in 2006's The Last King of Scotland, a film that earned him numerous industry and critics' awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama, and a long-overdue Oscar for Best Actor. Whittaker continued to be active throughout 2008 by taking on roles in The Air I Breathe and thrillers Street Kings and Vantage Point.
~ Hal Erickson, Rovi