Denzel Washington is an icon of American cinema. Since making his acting debut in 1977, he has appeared in more than 50 movies, where he has awed audiences by delivering powerful performances in films like Glory, Malcolm X, Training Day, and Fences. He has also won critical praise and Academy Awards. But there’s so much more to Washington than his movies. In celebration of one of the greatest Black actors in American history, let’s look back at the landmarks, missteps, and successes of Denzel Washington.
1. Before he played a doctor on TV, Denzel Washington planned on becoming one—just like his namesake’s namesake.
Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. was born on December 28, 1954 and named after his father, Denzel Hayes Washington Sr. However, Senior’s first name came from the surname of the doctor who delivered him back in 1909, in Buckingham County, Virginia: Dr. Denzel. But rather than following in the footsteps of his father, who was a pastor, the younger Washington looked to medicine for his vocation. "I went to college to be a doctor," he told PopEater in 2010. "I just took a class in acting because they said you can get an easy and good grade in it and I just liked getting good grades easily. It's still true!" Kidding aside, that one class changed his life. Washington switched focus and graduated from Fordham University with a BA in Drama and Journalism in 1977. Five years later, he got his breakthrough role playing Dr. Philip Chandler on the Emmy-winning hospital series St. Elsewhere.
2. A beauty parlor prophet predicted Denzel Washington’s fame.
On a 2006 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Washington shared the story of how he was told what his future would look like. "I was sitting in my mother’s beauty shop, looking in the mirror,” Washington recounted. “And I see this woman looking at me.” Her name was Ruth Green, and she was believed to be a prophet by the local church community. On a piece of paper, she wrote prophecy, 1975, and 28. Then, she told Washington, who was just 22 years old at the time, “You’re going to travel the world, and you’re going to speak to millions of people.” Because of this encounter, Washington began to see his platform as an actor as his “pulpit,” a means of preaching spirituality in his own way.
3. Denzel Washington met his wife while making a TV movie.
In 1977, Washington and Pauletta Pearson were cast in the made-for-TV movie Wilma, a biopic about the Olympic gold medalist sprinter Wilma Rudolph. They crossed paths playing supporting roles: He was portraying the husband of Rudolph, while she was one of the other runners. It wasn’t until a year later they connected, first at a party and then at a theatrical performance. In a 1996 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show (which you can watch above), Denzel and Pauletta appeared together and revealed their kismet moment. Pearson had been running late to the play, so she snuck in while the lights were down and sat in an open seat: “At intermission, the lights came up, and we were sitting next to each other,” Pauletta said. The couple married on June 25, 1983, nearly 40 years ago.
4. Sidney Poitier gave Denzel Washington some crucial career advice.
Sidney Poitier was a role model for Washington. So when Washington was offered a major role that made him uneasy, he reached out to the veteran actor to get his thoughts. “I got [offered] a part in a movie in 1986,” Washington recalled in a candid 2010 interview with Times Talks. “I called it ‘The N***a They Couldn’t Kill.’ [The character] raped a white woman and they tried to electrocute him but it didn’t work and he became a sort of cult hero ... And I called Sidney and said ‘Man, they offered me $600,000 for The N***a They Couldn’t Kill!” Poitier refused to tell Washington whether or not to take the role, but did say, "The first two or three or four films you do in this business will dictate how you’re perceived in this business." So Washington turned down the part. Six months later he was offered the supporting role in Cry Freedom, which led to his first Oscar nomination.
5. Denzel Washington made history at the Academy Awards.
At present, Washington boasts nine Academy Award nominations—eight are for acting, and one is for Best Picture for his 2016 adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences, which he produced, directed, and starred in. Out of those nine nominations, Washington has won twice—once for Best Actor (for Training Day in 2002) and once for Best Supporting Actor (for Glory in 1990). This puts Washington in league with the likes of Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Jack Lemmon, and Gene Hackman. But that’s not all. His 2002 Oscar win for Training Day marked two historic events: He became the second Black performer to be named Best Actor (the first was Poitier for 1963’s Lilies of the Field). Because his Training Day win followed his Best Supporting Actor victory for Glory in 1990, Washington also became the first Black actor with two competitive Oscars. (In 2018, Mahershala Ali would join him, after winning back two Best Supporting Actor Oscars, one for Moonlight in 2017 and another for Green Book in 2019.) With his long list of Academy Award nods, Washington is still the most nominated Black actor in the history of the Academy Awards.
6. Denzel Washington left his first Oscars ceremony once he realized he was going to lose.
In 1988, Washington attended the Academy Awards for the first time as a nominee, thanks to his supporting performance in Cry Freedom. He lost to Sean Connery for The Untouchables, which he had figured before the category was even called. “[Connery] was up for The Untouchables,” Washington recalled in a 2018 conversation with Jamie Foxx on Off Script. “He comes out to present an award and got a three-minute standing ovation—for presenting an award. I went to get the coats.” Laughing, Washington continued, “I said, ‘Well, I’ll get the coats, ‘cause I know I ain’t winning tonight.'" Still, Washington didn’t leave empty-handed. On his way out, the actor slipped into where the food was being laid out for the Governor’s Ball. “I see a big tray, and I’m like, ‘I’m leaving here with something.’ ... Then my mother told me to get the flower arrangement. True story.”
7. Denzel Washington turned down the Brad Pitt role in Seven.
David Fincher’s twisted crime-thriller Se7en followed a pair of detectives on the trail of a wickedly smart serial killer whose motive for murder is punishing those who committed the seven deadly sins. “I thought the script was too demonic,” Washington explained on Off Script. "Then, I saw the movie and thought, ‘Oh. I blew it.'" In 1995, Se7en became a critically heralded box office hit, while Washington fronted the hit Crimson Tide, and two bombs: Virtuosity and Devil in a Blue Dress.
8. Denzel Washington ad libbed one of his most famous lines.
In Antoine Fuqua’s acclaimed 2001 drama Training Day, Washington plays a crooked cop who memorably bellows, “King Kong ain’t got sh*t on me.” That line was all Washington. “I made that up,” Washington explained in a 2012 interview with GQ. “The character's ego, he just did not think he could lose. That was his problem.” In the same interview, Washington mentioned that King Kong was among the first movies he remembers having seen as a child.
9. Denzel Washington reunited with his childhood librarian on her 99th birthday.
When he was 7 years old, Washington walked into the library where “Miss Connie” worked and requested a “little, skinny book” that he could easily read over the weekend for a book report due Monday. Decades later, she’d tell her friends at a retirement community about how the major movie star was once a “cute little boy” who lived across the street from the library and came by often to peruse the books and chat. These friends posted videos of her stories to YouTube, where Washington found them.
While doing a press tour for Fences in 2016, Washington made a special trip to visit Miss Connie in Marietta, Georgia. Their reunion came on her 99th birthday, 50 years after they’d first met. A staff member at the senior living facility where Miss Connie lived told People, "Denzel said to us, ‘You don’t know where the road is going to take you, and who you’re going to meet that will have an impact on your life. This lady had an incredible impact on my life, and now here I am.’ So, it started with him reading those skinny little books, and now he’s making big movies.”
10. Denzel Washington’s children have followed in his (and his wife's) footsteps.
Both of Denzel and Pauletta's daughters and their first-born son have gotten into the film industry. Katia Washington is a producer who worked on her father’s movie Fences, then went on to produce provocative dramas like Pieces of a Woman and Malcolm & Marie, which starred her brother in a title role. Olivia Washington made her screen debut in 2013’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Since then, she has appeared in a string of TV shows, including Madoff, Mr. Robot, and She’s Gotta Have It. In 2021, Olivia joined her father onscreen in the crime-thriller The Little Things. As a child, John David Washington earned his first film credits as an extra in some of his father’s films, including Malcolm X and Devil in A Blue Dress. By 2018, he’d become a leading man himself, starring in such notable movies as Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, and Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie.
11. Denzel Washington helped Chadwick Boseman become an actor.
Before he was the star of Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman was a Howard University student, whose tuition for an illustrious summer acting program was paid for by Washington. The two didn’t know each other; The Cosby Show star Phylicia Rashād had reached out to Washington for an education donation that would aid gifted young Black performers who’d been accepted to the program. Washington agreed, paving the way for a new generation of Black excellence in acting.
Boseman revealed this crucial connection on June 6, 2019, when he presented Washington with the 47th AFI Life Achievement Award. In his speech, Boseman said, “Imagine receiving the letter than your tuition that summer was paid for, and that your benefactor was none other than the dopest actor on the planet.” Using the pulpit of the awards’ stage, Boseman proclaimed, “An offering from a sage and a king is more than silver and gold. It is a seed of hope, a bud of faith. There is no Black Panther without Denzel Washington.”
On August 28, 2020, Boseman tragically passed away at the age of 43 following a four-year battle with colon cancer (which he only disclosed to a handful of people). Throughout his illness, Boseman continued to act—Black Panther, Da 5 Bloods, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom were all released and promoted following his diagnosis—and dedicated much of his time to working with a variety of charities.