Denzel Hayes Washington, Jr. (born December 28, 1954) is an American actor, screenwriter, director, and film producer. He first rose to prominence when he joined the cast of the medical drama, St. Elsewhere, playing Dr. Philip Chandler for six years. He has received much critical acclaim for his work in film since the 1990s, including for his portrayals of real-life figures, such as Steve Biko, Malcolm X, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Melvin B. Tolson, Frank Lucas, and Herman Boone.
Washington has received two Academy Awards, two Golden Globe awards, and a Tony Award. He is notable for winning the Best Supporting Actor for Glory in 1989; and the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2001 for his role in the film Training Day.
Denzel Washington was born in Mount Vernon, near New York City, on December 28, 1954. His mother, Lennis “Lynne”, was a beauty parlor-owner and operator born in Georgia and partly raised in Harlem. His father, Reverend Denzel Hayes Washington, Sr., a native of Buckingham County, Virginia, served as an ordained Pentecostal minister, and also worked for the Water Department and a local department store, S. Klein.
Washington attended grammar school at Pennington-Grimes Elementary School in Mount Vernon until 1968. When he was 14, his parents’ marriage fell apart and his mother sent him to a private preparatory school, Oakland Military Academy, in New Windsor, New York. “That decision changed my life,” Washington later said, “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.” After Oakland, Washington next attended Mainland High School, a public high school in Daytona Beach, Florida, from 1970–71. Washington was interested in attending Texas Tech University: “I grew up in the Boys Club in Mount Vernon, and we were the Red Raiders. So when I was in high school, I wanted to go to Texas Tech in Lubbock just because they were called the Red Raiders and their uniforms looked like ours.” Washington earned a B.A. in Drama and Journalism from Fordham University in 1977. At Fordham he played collegiate basketball as a freshman guard under coach P. J. Carlesimo. After a period of indecision on which major to study and dropping out of school for a semester, Washington worked as a counselor at an overnight summer camp, Camp Sloane YMCA in Lakeville, Connecticut. He participated in a staff talent show for the campers and a colleague suggested he try acting.
Returning to Fordham that fall with a renewed purpose and focus, he enrolled at the Lincoln Center campus to study acting and was given the title roles in both Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and Shakespeare’s Othello. Upon graduation he attended graduate school at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, where he stayed for one year before returning to New York to begin a professional acting career.
Washington spent the summer of 1976 in St. Mary’s City, Maryland in summer stock theater performing Wings of the Morning, the Maryland State play. He also filmed a series of commercials in the Fruit of the Loom ensemble, as Grapes. Shortly after graduating from Fordham, Washington made his professional acting debut in the 1977 made-for-television film Wilma with his first Hollywood appearance in the 1981 film Carbon Copy. Washington shared a 1982 Distinguished Ensemble Performance Obie Award for playing Private First Class Melvin Peterson in the Off-Broadway Negro Ensemble Company production A Soldier’s Play which premiered November 20, 1981.
A major career break came when he starred as Dr. Phillip Chandler in the television hospital drama St. Elsewhere which ran from 1982 to 1988 on NBC. He was one of only a few African American actors to appear on the series for its entire six-year run. Washington also appeared in several television, film and stage roles such as the films A Soldier’s Story (1984), Hard Lessons (1986) and Power (1986). In 1987 Washington starred as South African anti-apartheid political activist Steven Biko in Richard Attenborough‘s Cry Freedom for which he received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In 1989 Washington won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for playing a defiant self-possessed ex-slave soldier in the film Glory. Also that year he appeared in the film The Mighty Quinn, and as the conflicted and disillusioned Reuben James, a British soldier who, despite a distinguished military career, returns to a civilian life where racism and inner city life leads to vigilantism and violence in For Queen and Country.
1991, Washington starred as Bleek Gilliam in the Spike Lee film Mo’ Better Blues. In 1992, he starred as Demetrius Williams in the romantic drama Mississippi Masala. Washington was reunited with Lee to play one of his most critically acclaimed roles as the title character of 1992‘s Malcolm X. His performance as the black nationalist leader earned him another nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. The next year he played the lawyer of a homosexual man with AIDS in the 1993 film Philadelphia. During the early and mid 1990s, Washington starred in several successful thrillers, including The Pelican Brief and Crimson Tide, as well as in comedy Much Ado About Nothing and alongside Whitney Houston in the romantic drama The Preacher’s Wife.
In 1998, Washington starred in Spike Lee’s film, He Got Game. Washington played a father serving a six year prison term who is propositioned by the warden to a temporary parole on the terms that he must convince his top-ranked high-school basketball player son (Ray Allen), into signing with the governor’s alma mater, Big State. The film also marked the third time that Spike Lee and Washington worked on a film together.
In 1999, Washington starred in The Hurricane a film about boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter whose conviction for triple murder was overturned after he had spent almost 20 years in prison. A former reporter who was angry at seeing the film portray Carter as innocent despite the overturned conviction began a campaign to pressure Academy Award voters not to award the film Oscars. Washington did receive a Golden Globe Award in 2000 and a Silver Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival for the role.
When Washington won a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Dramatic Movie in 2000, as he noted: “No African-American has won best actor in the Golden Globes since Sidney Poitier, until I did”. That made him the first Black actor to win the award in 36 years.
He won an Academy Award for Best Actor in his next film, the 2001 cop thriller Training Day as Detective Alonzo Harris, a rogue Los Angeles cop with questionable law-enforcement tactics. Washington was the second African-American performer to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, the first being Sidney Poitier who happened to receive an Honorary Academy Award the same night that Washington won. Washington holds the record (five so far) for most Oscar nominations by an actor of African descent, along with Morgan Freeman since 2009.
Between 2003 and 2004, Washington appeared in a series of thrillers that performed generally well at the box office, including Out of Time, Man on Fire, and The Manchurian Candidate. In 2006, he starred in Inside Man, a Spike Lee-directed bank heist thriller co-starring Jodie Foster and Clive Owen, and Déjà Vu released in November 2006.
In 2006, Denzel worked alongside multi-talented Irish off-rock band The Script on their new project combining music and Hollywood. The hybrid of genres was critically acclaimed but didn’t receive much mainstream attention due to a legal conflicts between The Script’s record label and Denzel’s studio commitments.
In 2007, he co-starred with Russell Crowe in American Gangster. Washington directed and starred in the drama The Great Debaters with Forest Whitaker. Washington next appeared in the 2009 film The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, a remake of the 1974 thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, directed by Tony Scott as New York City subway security chief Walter Garber opposite John Travolta.
 Return to theater
Washington was last seen onstage in the summer of 1990 in the title role of the Public Theater‘s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III and in 2005, after a 15-year hiatus, he appeared onstage again in another Shakespeare play as Marcus Brutus in Julius Caesar on Broadway. The production’s limited run was a consistent sell-out averaging over 100% attendance capacity nightly despite receiving mixed reviews.
In February 2009, Washington began filming The Book of Eli a post-Apocalyptic drama set in the near future which was released in January 2010. Also the same year, he starred as a veteran railroad engineer in the action film Unstoppable, about an unmanned, half-mile-long runaway freight train carrying a dangerous cargo. The film was directed by Tony Scott, and was the fifth collaboration between the two, after previous films Crimson Tide (1995), Man on Fire (2004), Déjà Vu (2006) and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009).
On June 13, 2010, Washington won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for his role in the play Fences. Washington co-starred with Ryan Reynolds in the 2012 film Safe House, and will star in The Matarese Circle.
On June 25, 1983, Washington married Pauletta Pearson, whom he met on the set of his first screen work, the television film Wilma. The couple have four children: John David (b. July 28, 1984), who signed a football contract with the St. Louis Rams in May 2006 and is currently playing with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the United Football League (John David also played college football at Morehouse); Katia (b. November 1987), who is attending Yale University; and twins Olivia and Malcolm (Malcolm attends the University of Pennsylvania). In 1995, the couple renewed their wedding vows in South Africa with Archbishop Desmond Tutu officiating.
Washington is a devout Christian, and has considered becoming a preacher. He stated in 1999, “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.
Washington has served as the national spokesperson for Boys & Girls Clubs of America since 1993. As such, he has been featured in several public service announcements and awareness campaigns for the organization. In addition, he has served as a board member for Boys & Girls Clubs of America since 1995.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia named Washington as one of three people (the others being directors Oliver Stone and Michael Moore) with whom they were willing to negotiate for the release of three defense contractors that the group had held captive from 2003 to 2008.
On May 18, 1991, Washington was awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Fordham University, for having “impressively succeeded in exploring the edge of his multifaceted talent”. In 2011 he donated $2 million to Fordham for an endowed chair of the theatre department, as well as $250,000 for a theatre-specific scholarship to Fordham. He also was awarded an honorary doctorate of humanities from Morehouse College on May 20, 2007.
In 2011, Washington received an honorary degree from the University of Pennsylvania, serving as the keynote speaker for commencement.