11 Fascinating Facts About Washington!

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.

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