Denzel Washington was born in Mt. Vernon, New York, in 1954. His father was an ordained Pentecostal minister, and his mother operated a beauty parlor. The day he turned six, Washington joined the Mt. Vernon Boys and Girls Club. He remained an active member for the next 12 years. Washington credits the lessons learned at that club with helping him to stay out of trouble. He began working at 11, helping to sweep the floors in his mother’s beauty shop.
After graduating from high school, he had his career sights set on medicine when he attended New York’s Fordham University. He played basketball at Fordham, and during a summer vacation, he worked as a camp counselor for the Boys Club. While at camp, he participated in a theater production, which he enjoyed so much that he changed his major upon returning to school in the fall. He sought out one of Fordham’s leading drama professors, Robinson Stone, to learn as much as he could about his new passion. He graduated in 1977 with a degree in drama and journalism.
With the help of a scholarship, Washington went to San Francisco to study at the prestigious American Conservatory Theatre. Following an intensive year of study, he returned to New York.
Washington’s professional theater career began with Joseph Papp’s and was quickly followed by several off-Broadway productions, including Where the Chickens Came Home to Roost (in which he portrayed Malcolm X), Othello, and A Soldier’s Play (for which he won an Obie Award).
He was discovered by Hollywood when he was cast in 1979 in the made-for-television film Flesh and Blood. Next, he was cast in the popular NBC television series St. Elsewhere. In 1987, he starred as anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Two years later, he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for playing a defiant, ex-slave in the film Glory.
One of Washington’s most critically acclaimed roles came in the 1992 film, Malcolm X. This film transformed his career, making Washington one of Hollywood’s most respected actors. He became a renowned leading man and went on to star in The Pelican Brief, Philadelphia, Crimson Tide, Courage Under Fire, The Preacher’s Wife, The Siege, The Bone Collector, Remember the Titans, Man on Fire, The Manchurian Candidate, Inside Man, American Gangster, The Great Debaters, and many more.
His performance in The Hurricane—a movie released in 1999 about boxer Rubin Carter—earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. In 2001, he won Best Actor for Training Day.
In 2000, Washington produced the HBO documentary Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks, which was nominated for two Emmy Awards. He was also executive producer of Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, a documentary for TBS, which was also nominated for an Emmy. In 2002, Washington made his feature film directorial debut with Antwone Fisher.
In 2006, he wrote and published a bestseller titled Hand to Guide Me, featuring actors, politicians, athletes, and other public figures recalling their childhood mentors. The book commemorated the centennial of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, a group for which Washington has served as spokesman.