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Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington: One of Oscar's Favorite Sons

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By Brian Hurwitz

In a career spanning decades, this perennial acting powerhouse has come to redefine the role of a leading man. But rather than rest on the laurels afforded to one of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars, Washington uses his fame to enact change and inspire others. A multiple award-winning actor and filmmaker, Washington often credits his abilities and his success to his faith. Far more than a masterful performer, Washington is also an accomplished director and has produced several of the blockbusters in which he’s appeared. And with two acting Oscars already on his astounding resume, no doubt it won't be long until he's awarded a third.

Denzel Washington
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The second child of Denzel Hayes Sr., an ordained Pentecostal minister who also worked for the New York City Water Department, and Lennis Lynne, the owner and operator of a beauty parlor, Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. was born on December 28th, 1954 in Mount Vernon, New York. His parents were strict and his exposure to film and television was minimal. Owing to his father’s position in the church, Washington was raised to believe in God and to respect his community. Despite his parent’s influence, the neighborhood in which he lived was a dangerous one with an exceptionally high crime rate. Washington started to fall in with kids who were on a fast track to nowhere and repeatedly got into trouble at school.

Denzel Washington
Gettyimages | John T. Barr

Although early in his life Washington planned to be a doctor, after graduating from high school he enrolled at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York with the intent of pursuing his interest in journalism. But something was missing and Washington took a semester off to figure out precisely what it was. He got a job as the creative arts director at an overnight camp in Lakeville, Connecticut. The experience proved to be life-altering, as his performance in the staff talent show led to a co-worker suggesting he study drama. That fall, he returned to Fordham with a renewed sense of purpose. His focus was immediately rewarded when he was cast as the lead in productions of Eugene O’Neill’s "The Emperor Jones" and Shakespeare’s "Othello." Graduating with a B.A. in Drama and Journalism, Washington won a scholarship to study at the American Conservatory Theater and moved to San Francisco.


Within a year, he booked his first role in a made for television movie and left the Conservatory to pursue his acting career full-time. In 1981, he was cast in Carbon Copy, his first feature. A year later he became a series regular on the NBC medical drama St. Elsewhere. The show ran for six seasons and Washington appeared in all 137 episodes. During its hiatus, he continued to land roles in numerous TV and feature films including A Soldier’s Story (1984), Power (1986) and Cry, Freedom (1987). But it was his unforgettable portrayal of Private Trip, an escaped slave turned Union Army soldier, in Glory (1989) that elevated him from supporting player to leading man. Washington won both the Oscar ad Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and suddenly found his skills were in high demand.

In 1990 he began what would become an enduring relationship with famed director Spike Lee in the musical drama Mo’ Better Blues. The two re-teamed for Malcolm X (1992), with Washington playing the titular civil rights leader. Besides being nominated for just about every major acting award, the film cemented his status as both a bankable star and a dramatic dynamo. Throughout the nineties, Washington built on his legend with such roles as lawyer Joe Miller in Philadelphia (1993), reporter Gray Grantham in the feature adaptation of John Grisham’s international bestseller The Pelican Brief (1993), First Officer Hunter in Crimson Tide (1995), and as wrongfully convicted boxer Rubin Carter in The Hurricane (1999).

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis
Gettyimages | Jim Spellman

Washington hit the new millennium running. First as Coach Herman Boone in the inspiring true story Remember the Titans (2000), then as the fiendish LAPD detective Alonzo in Training Day (2001). The latter brought Washington his second Oscar, this time for Lead Actor, as well as a dozen other awards and nominations. Finding himself in the unique position to point his career in any direction he chose, Washington chose to indulge his longtime desire to direct and took on his first project, the inspirational biographical drama Antwone Fisher. Released in 2002, the film was well received by both audiences and critics.

He then stepped behind the camera once again to direct another stirring historical biopic, The Great Debaters (2007). That film went on to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture. It was almost a decade before Washington directed his third film, Fences (2016), based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson. As with Washington’s two previous films, Fences went on to earn numerous awards and nominations including the Oscar for Best Lead Actress awarded to Viola Davis.

Washington has been married to fellow actor Paulette Pearson for over 35 years. Together, they have four children. His oldest son, John David, is a former professional football player turned actor who most recently starred in Spike Lee’s Oscar winning film, BlacKkKlansman. A devout Christian, he reads the bible on a daily basis and has generously donated to religious and military causes. Additionally, he has served as the national spokesperson for the Boys & Girls Club of America since 1993.

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