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Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington 2018.jpg
Washington in 2018
Denzel Hayes Washington Jr.

(1954-12-28) December 28, 1954 (age 69)
Education Fordham University (BA)
American Conservatory Theater
  • Actor
  • director
  • producer
Years active 1975–present
Full list
Pauletta Pearson
(m. 1983)
Children 4, including John David
Awards Full list
Honors Presidential Medal of Freedom (2022)

Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. (born December 28, 1954) is an American actor, producer and director. In a career spanning over four decades, Washington has received numerous accolades, including a Tony Award, two Academy Awards, three Golden Globe Awards and two Silver Bears. He was honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016, the AFI Life Achievement Award in 2019, and in 2020 The New York Times named him the greatest actor of the 21st century. In 2022, Washington received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

After training at the American Conservatory Theater, Washington began his career in theatre, acting in performances off-Broadway. He first came to prominence in the NBC medical drama series St. Elsewhere (1982–1988), and in the war film A Soldier's Story (1984). Washington won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for his role as an American Civil War soldier in Glory (1989) and for Best Actor for playing a corrupt cop in Training Day (2001). His other Oscar-nominated roles were in Cry Freedom (1987), Malcolm X (1992), The Hurricane (1999), Flight (2012), Fences (2015), Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017) and The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021).

He established himself as a leading man with starring roles in Mo' Better Blues (1990), Mississippi Masala (1991), Philadelphia (1993), Courage Under Fire (1996), Remember the Titans (2000), Man on Fire (2004), Inside Man (2006), and American Gangster (2007). He starred in The Equalizer trilogy (2014–2023). Washington directed and starred in the films Antwone Fisher (2002), The Great Debaters (2007), and Fences (2015).

Washington made his Broadway debut in Checkmates (1988). He won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for starring in the Broadway revival of August Wilson's play Fences in 2010. He later directed, produced, and starred in the film adaptation in 2016. Washington has since returned to Broadway in the revivals of Lorraine Hansberry play A Raisin in the Sun (2014) and the Eugene O'Neill play The Iceman Cometh (2018).

Early life and education

Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. was born in Mount Vernon, New York, on December 28, 1954. His mother, Lennis "Lynne", was a beauty parlor owner and operator born in Georgia and partly raised in Harlem, New York. His father, Denzel Hayes Washington Sr., a native of Buckingham County, Virginia, was an ordained Pentecostal minister, who was also an employee of the New York City Water Department, and worked at a local S. Klein department store.

Washington attended Pennington-Grimes Elementary School in Mount Vernon until 1968. When he was 14, his parents divorced and his mother sent him to the private preparatory school Oakland Military Academy in New Windsor, New York. Washington later said, "That decision changed my life, 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, he attended Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Florida, from 1970 to 1971.

He 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." Instead, he earned a BA in Drama and Journalism from Fordham University in 1977. At Fordham, he played collegiate basketball as a guard under coach P. J. Carlesimo. After a period of indecision on which major to study and taking a semester off, Washington worked as creative arts director of the overnight summer camp at 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, Washington enrolled at the Lincoln Center campus to study acting, where he was cast in the title roles in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones and Shakespeare's Othello. He then attended graduate school at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, California, where he stayed for one year before returning to New York to begin a professional acting career.


1976–1989: Early roles and rise to prominence

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, which was written for him by incorporating an African-American character/narrator based loosely on the historical figure from early colonial Maryland, Mathias de Sousa.

Shortly after graduating from Fordham, Washington made his screen acting debut in the 1977 made-for-television film Wilma which was a docudrama about sprinter Wilma Rudolph, and made his first Hollywood appearance in the 1981 film Carbon Copy. He 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.

Denzel Washington
Washington at the 62nd Academy Awards (1990), at which he won Best Supporting Actor for the film Glory

A major career break came when he starred as Dr. Phillip Chandler in NBC's television hospital drama St. Elsewhere, which ran from 1982 to 1988. He was one of only a few African-American actors to appear on the series for its entire six-year run. He also appeared in several television, motion picture and stage roles, such as the films A Soldier's Story (1984), Hard Lessons (1986) and Power (1986). In 1987, he starred as South African anti-apartheid political activist Stephen 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 the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of a defiant, self-possessed ex-slave soldier in the film Glory. That same year, he appeared in the film The Mighty Quinn; and in For Queen and Country, where he played 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 lead to vigilantism and violence.

1990–1999: Hollywood stardom

In the summer of 1990, Washington had appeared in the title role of the Public Theater's production of William Shakespeare's Richard III. Mel Gussow of The New York Times praised Washington as "an actor of range and intensity, is expert at projecting a feeling of controlled rage". Also that year Washington starred as Bleek Gilliam in the Spike Lee film Mo' Better Blues. Charles Murray of Empire praised Washington's performance as a "taut portrayal of the driven musician" and "like all Lee’s film, Mo’ Better Blues is a real ensemble piece, and the standard of the performances is uniformly excellent: but Washington [and] Lee deserve extra plaudits."

In 1991, he starred as Demetrius Williams in the Mira Nair directed romantic drama Mississippi Masala opposite Sarita Choudhury. Set primarily in rural Mississippi, the film explores interracial romance between African Americans and Indian Americans. Critic Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times praised the chemistry of the two leads writing, "Washington is an actor of immense and natural charm, and he makes a good match with Sarita Choudhury".

Washington was reunited with Lee to play one of his most critically acclaimed roles, the title character of the historical epic Malcolm X (1992). The New York Times gave the film it's Critic's Pick with Vincent Canby declaring, "In Denzel Washington it also has a fine actor who does for "Malcolm X" what Ben Kingsley did for "Gandhi". Mr. Washington not only looks the part, but he also has the psychological heft, the intelligence and the reserve to give the film the dramatic excitement". His performance as the Black nationalist leader earned him another nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Also that year, he established the production company Mundy Lane Entertainment. The next year, he played the lawyer defending a gay man with AIDS played by Tom Hanks in the Jonathan Demme film Philadelphia (1993).

During the early and mid-1990s, Washington starred in several successful thrillers, including The Pelican Brief with Julia Roberts in 1993, and Crimson Tide with Gene Hackman in 1995, as well as the Shakespearean comedy Much Ado About Nothing directed by Kenneth Branagh. In 1996, he played a U.S. Army officer who investigates a female chopper commander's worthiness for the Medal of Honor in Courage Under Fire, opposite Meg Ryan. Variety wrote, "All of [the] predicaments are palpably and convincingly registered through Washington’s probing, reserved and sensitively drawn performance in a role that, in another era, might have been played by the likes of a Montgomery Clift or William Holden."

In 1996, he appeared with Whitney Houston in the romantic comedy 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 when the prison warden offers him a temporary parole to convince his top-ranked high-school basketball player son (Ray Allen) to sign with the governor's alma mater, Big State. The film was Washington's third collaboration with Lee. The same year he starred in Gregory Hoblit's supernatural horror film Fallen, with John Goodman, James Gandolfini, and Donald Sutherland.

In 1999, Washington starred alongside Angelina Jolie in The Bone Collector. Also in 1999, Washington starred in The Hurricane, a film about boxer Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, whose conviction for triple murder was overturned after he spent almost 20 years in prison. Although less successful at the box office than The Bone Collector, Hurricane had a better reception from critics. He received a Silver Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival for his role as Carter. Roger Ebert, film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, wrote of Washington's performance, "This is one of Denzel Washington's great performances, on a par with his work in Malcolm X."

2000–2009: Established actor and acclaim

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Washington in 2000

At the 57th Golden Globe Awards in 2000, Washington won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama for his work in The Hurricane. He was the first black actor to win the award since Sidney Poitier in 1963. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle declared, "Washington gives a penetrating portrait of life at its most extreme. He takes the viewer into the mind of a man experiencing confinement and physical deprivation. More profoundly, he shows what it's like to deal every day with the torments of wild rage and impotence, despair and hope." In 200o, he portrayed Herman Boone, the high school football coach in the Disney sports drama film Remember the Titans which grossed over US$100 million in the U.S. Andrew O'Hehir of Salon wrote, "Washington is of course the linchpin of Remember the Titans; he's a commanding actor in a commanding role, and as memorable as he was in The Hurricane.

Washington starred in the Antoine Fuqua directed crime thriller Training Day (2001) acting opposite Ethan Hawke. He portrayed Detective Alonzo Harris, a corrupt Los Angeles cop. Roger Ebert wrote of his performance, "For Denzel Washington, [its] a rare villainous role; he doesn't look, sound or move like his usual likable characters...he's like a monster from a horror film, unkillable and implacable." Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor becoming the second African-American actor to win the category after Poitier, who was presented with an Honorary Academy Award the same night. He also received nominations for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role.

In 2002, he starred in the Nick Cassavettes directed healthcare-themed drama John Q. (2002) portraying John Quincy Archibald. Washington acted opposite James Woods, Robert Duvall, and Ray Liotta. The film was a financial success but received mixed reviews with critics praising Washington's performances. BBC film critic Neil Smith wrote, "What credibility there is comes from Washington's intense, humane performance and the supporting players' sterling attempts to rise above the stereotypical roles with which they have been saddled." That same year Washington directed his first film, a well-reviewed drama called Antwone Fisher (2002), in which he also co-starred as a Navy psychiatrist. Stephen Holden of The New York Times praised his direction writing, "Mr. Washington shows a confident grasp of cinematic narrative in a hearty meat-and-potatoes style. But the most remarkable aspect of his behind-the-camera debut is his brilliantly surefooted handling of actors." He also praised his acting adding, "[He] is so sensitively reactive that his performance seems more lived than acted".

Washington after a performance of Julius Caesar in May 2005

Between 2003 and 2004, Washington appeared in a series of thrillers that performed generally well at the box office, including Carl Franklin's Out of Time opposite Eva Mendez and Tony Scott's Man on Fire alongside Dakota Fanning. In 2004 he acted opposite Meryl Streep in the remake of the 1962 film of the same name, The Manchurian Candidate. In 2006, he starred in Inside Man, a Spike Lee-directed bank heist thriller co-starring Jodie Foster and Clive Owen. Todd McCarthy of Variety wrote, it's "flashy cast, clever script and vibrant showcasing of New York City are strong plusses for Spike Lee's most mainstream studio venture". Later that year he starred in the time travel movie Déjà Vu released in November.

In 2005, he was back onstage again as Brutus in a Broadway production of Julius Caesar. Theatre critic Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote, "Washington does not embarrass himself, as leading citizens of Hollywood have been known to do on Broadway. But even brilliantined in the glow of his inescapable fame, he can't help getting lost amid the wandering, mismatched crowd and the heavy topical artillery that have been assembled here." Despite mixed reviews, the production's limited run was a consistent sell-out.

In 2007, he co-starred with Russell Crowe for the second time (the first was 1995's Virtuosity) in Ridley Scott's American Gangster for which he received a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama nomination. He also directed and starred in the drama The Great Debaters with Forest Whitaker. He next appeared in Tony Scott's 2009 film The Taking of Pelham 123 (a remake of the 1974 thriller of the same name), where he played New York City subway security chief Walter Garber opposite John Travolta's villain.

2010–2019: Return to theatre

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Washington with Anne Hathaway at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in 2010

Washington returned to Broadway playing Troy Maxson, opposite Viola Davis, in the revival of August Wilson's Fences (2010). Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Washington has the fluid naturalness we associate with good screen actors... face and stance alone provide fascinating (and damning) glimpses into Troy’s attitudes toward his son from an earlier relationships". Washington won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play on June 13, 2010. That same year, Washington starred in The Book of Eli (2010), a post-apocalyptic action-drama set in the near future. Also in 2010, he starred as a veteran railroad engineer in the action film Unstoppable, about an unmanned, half-mile-long runaway freight train carrying dangerous cargo. The film was his fifth and final collaboration with director Tony Scott, following Crimson Tide (1995), Man on Fire (2004), Déjà Vu (2006) and The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009).

In 2012, Washington starred in Flight, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as an airline pilot facing investigation for his part in a plane crash. He co-starred with Ryan Reynolds in Safe House. In 2013, Washington starred in 2 Guns, alongside Mark Wahlberg.

From April to June 2014, Washington played the leading role in the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry's classic drama A Raisin in the Sun, directed by Kenny Leon. The show received positive reviews and won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. That same year he starred in The Equalizer (2014), an action thriller film directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Richard Wenk, based on the television series of same name starring Edward Woodward. He reprised his role in his first sequel, The Equalizer 2 (2018) and the third and final sequel The Equalizer 3 (2023).

In 2016, Washington starred in The Magnificent Seven, a remake of the 1960 western film of the same name, alongside Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, and Peter Sarsgaard. Principal photography began on May 18, 2015, in north Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The film premiered on September 8 at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, and was released in the United States in conventional and IMAX theatres on September 23, 2016. In The Magnificent Seven, Washington plays Sam Chisolm ("the Bounty Hunter"), a duly sworn warrant officer from Wichita, Kansas. His character was renamed from Chris Adams (played by Yul Brynner in the original film) to Sam Chisolm. It is Washington's first Western film. Washington did not watch Westerns growing up, as it was the end of the Western era in the movies. Moreover, he and his siblings were barred from going to the cinema by his father, a minister in a church. They grew up watching Biblical films instead, like King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, although he has said that he watched portions of the shows Rawhide and Bonanza. He did not view the original film in preparation, but has watched Seven Samurai. Fuqua flew to New York City to negotiate with Washington, who accepted the offer.

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Washington at the premiere of The Equalizer in 2014

In 2016, Washington directed the film Fences, co-starring Viola Davis and Stephen McKinley Henderson and based on August Wilson's play of the same name, with a script by Wilson. Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Washington plays a former Negro league baseball player working as a garbage collector who struggles to provide for his family and come to terms with the events of his life. The film was released on December 16, 2016, by Paramount Pictures. Owen Gleiberman of Variety wrote, "Washington, as both actor and director, gets the conversation humming with a speed and alacrity that keeps the audience jazzed...Washington tears through it with a joyful ferocity, like a man possessed." For his performance, Washington was nominated in the Best Actor category for a Golden Globe Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and an Academy Award. The film was nominated for three other Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and won Davis her first Oscar, in the Best Supporting Actress category.

The following year, Washington starred in the legal drama film Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017). Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wrote, "[He]'s a star player, styling out his character’s complicated and tricky mix of attributes...However contrived, this character is always fully and comfortably inhabited, and Washington brings off the funny moments". While the film received mixed reviews, his performance was praised by critics and led to nominations for a Golden Globe Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award and an Academy Award, Washington's ninth Oscar nomination overall, and his sixth for Best Actor.

Beginning March 22, 2018, Washington starred as Theodore "Hickey" Hickman in a Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. The production, directed by George C. Wolfe, began regular performances April 26 and ran for 14 weeks. Washington received positive reviews with Alexis Soloski of The Guardian writing, " For most of it, Washington is playing Washington, letting his good looks and irrepressible charm do most of the character work, though the play’s most exciting moments are when he lets that charm falter (something he’s also been exploring in his recent film work, too) showing something uglier and more ravaged underneath."


In 2020 he produced the Netflix film adaptation of the August Wilson play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom starring Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis. The film was directed by George C. Wolfe and received positive reviews. The following year he portrayed Deputy Sheriff Joe "Deke" Deacon in the crime thriller The Little Things acting opposite Rami Malek and Jared Leto. The film was released during the Covid-19 pandemic and was released in theatres and on HBO Max. Also in 2021, Washington portrayed the titular character in the 2021 film adaptation of the William Shakespeare tragedy Macbeth. He received universal acclaim for his performance and was nominated for several awards, including an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. That same year, Washington directed the drama A Journal for Jordan, based on the memoir A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love and Honor by Dana Canedy. It received a wide theatrical release on December 25, 2021 and received mixed reviews from critics.

Upcoming projects

In 2023, Washington was cast in Ridley Scott's epic historical drama Gladiator 2 alongside Paul Mescal, Pedro Pascal, and Derek Jacobi. The film is a sequel to Scott's Gladiator (2000). Also in 2023, Washington served as a producer to The Piano Lesson, the Netflix film adaptation of the August Wilson play of the same name starring John David Washington, Danielle Deadwyler, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Personal life

Marriage and family

On June 25, 1983, Washington married Pauletta Pearson, whom he met on the set of his first screen work, the television film Wilma. They have four children: John David (born July 28, 1984), also an actor and a former football player, Katia (born November 27, 1986) who graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor of Arts in 2010, and twins Olivia and Malcolm (born April 10, 1991). Malcolm graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in film studies, and Olivia played a role in Lee Daniels's film The Butler. In 1995, Washington and his wife renewed their wedding vows in South Africa with Desmond Tutu officiating.

Religious beliefs

He is Pentecostal Evangelical Christian and a member of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, located in Los Angeles. He 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 US$2.5 million to help build the new West Angeles Church of God in Christ facility in Los Angeles. Washington says he reads the Bible daily.

Service and recognition

Washington has served as the national spokesman for Boys & Girls Clubs of America since 1993 and has appeared in 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. Due to his philanthropic work with the Boys & Girls Club, PS 17X, a New York City Elementary School decided to officially name their school after Washington.

In mid-2004, Washington visited Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) at Fort Sam Houston, where he participated in a Purple Heart ceremony, presenting medals to three Army soldiers recovering from wounds they received while stationed in Iraq. He also visited the fort's Fisher House facilities, and after learning that it had exceeded its capacity, made a substantial donation to the Fisher House Foundation; this program focuses on building and providing homes for military personnel and their families free of charge while they receive medical care. Washington's other charitable contributions include US$1 million to Nelson Mandela's Children's Fund in 1995 and US$1 million to Wiley College to resuscitate the college's debate team.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) 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 the group had held captive from 2003 to 2008. That effort by FARC went nowhere.

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 US$2 million to Fordham for an endowed chair of the theater department, as well as US$250,000 to establish a theater-specific scholarship at the school. He also received an honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Morehouse College on May 20, 2007 and an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania on May 16, 2011.

On October 11, 2021, the United States Army made Washington the 2021 Honorary Sergeant Major of the Army at the Annual Association of the U.S. Army conference for his work with the Fisher House Foundation (providing free homes for military families while receiving medical care). Sergeant Major of the Army Michael A. Grinston presented Washington with the award and said that Washington represented everything he was looking for in this year's honoree: humility, dedication to soldiers, and respect for the Army. In 2022 Washington received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Awards and honors

Washington has received numerous accolades including two Academy Awards, a Tony Award, three Golden Globe Awards, a Screen Actors Guild Award and two Silver Bears. He has also received nominations for a Grammy Award and two Primetime Emmy Awards. Washington has also received numerous honorary awards such as the Stanley Kubrick Britannia Award in 2007, the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award in 2016 and the AFI Life Achievement Award in 2019. He was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2022. He is also a 13-time NAACP Image Award winner with four consecutive wins in the Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture award category from 1993–1997 and again from 2000–2003.

Over his distinguished career he has been recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the following performances:

  • 60th Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor, nomination, Cry Freedom (1987)
  • 62nd Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor, win, Glory (1989)
  • 65th Academy Awards: Best Actor, nomination, Malcolm X (1992)
  • 72nd Academy Awards: Best Actor, nomination, The Hurricane (1999)
  • 74th Academy Awards: Best Actor, win, Training Day (2001)
  • 85th Academy Awards: Best Actor, nomination, Flight (2012)
  • 89th Academy Awards: Best Actor, nomination, Fences (2016)
  • 90th Academy Awards: Best Actor, nomination, Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)
  • 94th Academy Awards: Best Actor, nomination, The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

See also

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