Michigan Chronicle Show Business Hall of Fame: Denzel Washington

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    In 1989, Tina Turner had a big hit titled “The Best.” She sang about a remarkable gentleman who was “simply the best, better than all the rest.”

    In a different context, she may well have been singing the praises of Denzel Washington, the consummate actor. And “consummate” is the right word because it means “supremely accomplished or skilled.”

    Washington has proven this repeatedly since 1981, and he has two Academy Awards to verify it, the first in 1989 for his amazing performance in “Glory,” the second for his stunning (and scary) performance in “Training Day.”

    One mark of a true actor or actress is the ability to get so far into the character that they literally become that character. Denzel Washington, like Meryl Streep, does it every time. His latest big screen achievement is “Flight,” an action-adventure film in which Washington portrays a pilot with issues, and once again the raves are pouring it.

    NO DOUBT it will wind up designated “great” in the tradition of so many of the others.

    Washington is an “A” list megastar, but has said that he is focused on his acting, not on the glitz and glamor that comes with being a star.

    “I don’t know how to be a celebrity,” he said.

    But, in a manner of speaking, he has to at least pretend he does. After all, in addition to being a highly respected actor whose name on a marquee almost guarantees a movie’s success, Washington was named “Sexiest Man Alive” in 1996 by People magazine. Flattering, but no doubt somewhat embarrassing.

    DENZEL HAYES WASHINGTON, JR. was born Dec. 28, 1954 — he will be 58 next month — in Mount Vernon, which is near New York City. His mother, Lennis Washington, was a beauty parlor owner and his father, Denzel Hayes Washington, Sr., was a Pentecostal minister who also worked at a department store and for the water department.

    Distressed by what was happening in her son’s life, Mrs. Washington, whose marriage had unraveled, enrolled her son in Oakland Military Academy, a private preparatory school. No matter how he may have felt about it at the time, when he was older, he appreciated the fact that the action his mother took was a lifesaver.

    “That decision changed my life because I wouldn’t have survived in the direction I was going,” he said. “The guys I was hanging out with at the time, my running buddies, have now done maybe 40 years combined in the penitentiary.”

    He realized he possessed innate skills as an actor at an early age and knew what he wanted to do with his life career-wise. In 1977 he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Drama and Journalism from Fordham University.

    It was there that he was cast in two important stage productions, Shakespeare’s “Othello” and Eugene O’Neil’s “The Emperor Jones.”

    EVERY ACTOR or actress is always seeking, hoping for and praying for that first big break. For Washington, it proved to be the hospital drama “St. Elsewhere” that aired on NBC from 1982 to 1988. His character was Dr. Phillip Chandler.
    Ironically, at one early stage of his life he wanted to be a doctor.

    There is the old saying, “You’ve got to crawl before you work.” But it is not fully applicable to Denzel Washington. He has worked diligently for everything he has achieved, but is forthright enough to admit, “I never really had the classic struggle.” Instead, he noted, “I had faith, and I remain thankful for the gifts that I’ve been given and I try to use them in a good way.

    “It’s not about what you have. It’s about what you’ve done with your accomplishments. It’s about who you’ve lifted up, who you’ve made better. It’s about what you’ve given back.”

    Washington’s movie career shifted into high gear in 1987 when he caught the attention of critics, the media and the public as Steven Biko, a South African anti-apartheid political activist, in “Cry Freedom.” He received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. That same year he also appeared in “The Mighty Quinn” and “For Queen and Country.”

    TWO YEARS later, Washington actually won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Glory,” which paved the road for his amazing ascension into the Hollywood stratosphere.

    Consider:

    “Mo’ Better Blues,” 1990.
    “Heart Condition,” 1990.
    “Ricochet,” 1991.
    “Mississippi Masala,” 1991.
    “Malcolm X,” 1992.
    “Much Ado About Nothing,” 1992.
    “The Pelican Brief,” 1993.
    “Philadelphia,” 1993.
    “Crimson Tide,” 1993.
    “Virtuosity,” 1995.
    “Devil in a Blue Dress,” 1995.
    “Courage Under Fire,” 1995.
    “The Preacher’s Wife,” 1996.
    “Fallen,” 1996.
    “He Got Game,” 1996.
    “The Siege,” 1998.
    “The Bone Collector,” 1998.
    “The Hurricane,” 1999.
    “Remember the Titans,” 1999.
    “The Loretta Claiborne Story,” 2000.
    “Training Day,” 2001.
    “John Q,” 2001.
    “Antwone Fisher,” 2002.
    “Out of Time,” 2003.
    “Man on Fire,” 2003.
    “The Manchurian Candidate,” 2004.
    “Inside Man,” 2004.
    “Déjà vu,” 2006.
    “American Gangster,” 2006.
    “The Great Debaters,” 2007.
    “The Taking of Pelham 123,” 2009.
    “The Book of Eli,” 2009.
    “Unstoppable,” 2010.
    “Safe House,” 2010.
    “Flight,” 2012.

    In post-production: “2 Guns” which is slated for 2013 release.

    That number of movies surely required a plethora of interviews, press junkets, TV appearances, etc.

    “I know that marketing comes into play when you’re spending 50 or 60 million dollars of other people’s money to make a film,” said Washington. “You have to be involved in marketing that product. But the publicity gets to be boring.

    “How many times can you tell the same story? I understand the importance of doing publicity for a film, so I’m willing to do that, but I don’t want to sit around talking about myself. That’s not a great day for me. That’s not my idea of fun.”
    Once again, complete honesty. — SVH

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