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By Chris Nickson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1996 Chris Nickson
All rights reserved.
By the end of 1954, America had become the most prosperous country in the world. Though the police action in Korea still cut close to home, it was a muted sound, and the long blare that had been World War II was fading into memory. The Depression had become something they taught in schools. The goal of a chicken in every pot and two cars in the garage finally seemed like a very real possibility as the suburbs and the freeways blossomed all across the land.
At least, that was the case for white America. If you were black, the outlook wasn't quite so rosy. It was still an era of racism and overt prejudice, of water fountains marked "For Coloreds Only" and riding at the back of the bus. In a land where all men were supposedly equal, the black race had yet to find equality.
The first stirrings were there, but it would take several years for any real change to be effected politically, and far longer than that for the hearts of a country to be altered, if that could ever be done.
In Mount Vernon, just north of the Bronx, and more or less a suburb of New York City, lived the Reverend Denzel Washington, with his wife, Lennis. The Reverend had been born in 1910 in Dillwyn, Virginia, a small town in the center of the state, and had migrated as a young man.
The Church was his calling, but never his living. He and Lennis had one child, a daughter, Lorice, and another on the way. So the Reverend Washington worked two jobs, at the Water Department, and also for S. Klein, the department store.
Mount Vernon, in those days, was a fairly middle-class community. And, far more unusually, it had a multiracial mix that existed in harmony.
"The Bronx started across the street from where I lived," was the way Denzel recalled it during an interview with the Associated Press. "It was a good background for someone in my business. My friends were West Indians, blacks, Irish, Italians, so I learned a lot of different cultures."
The family lived well, by local standards. Lennis owned a beauty parlor, and would eventually expand into owning a string of them. Unlike so many others, the Washingtons never had to undergo the constant scrimping and saving to pay bills or find enough to eat.
On December 28, 1954, Lennis gave birth to their second child, a brother for Lorice. It was decided to call him after his father — Denzel Washington.
When they were young, Denzel and Lorice — who would soon be joined by another child, David — didn't see much of their father.
"He was gone when we got up," Denzel recollected in Vanity Fair, "and we were asleep when he got home every day."
The Reverend Washington was an extremely busy man. Apart from the pressure of working two jobs, on the go from six A.M. to midnight, which was more than enough for any human being, he also had his calling.
"He was just a very, very spiritual guy," Denzel said. "If there was one person in church and him, they were going to have a full-out service."
That spirit infiltrated the household, too, for the Reverend wouldn't let his children be exposed to the profane films coming out of Hollywood. Instead, he limited them to Biblical epics, movies like The King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, and the animated Disney features he deemed suitable for kids.
With him gone from the house so much, the day-to-day disciplining of the family fell to Lennis, who was already busy enough herself running the beauty parlors. But though the kids were sensible, it was that added deterrent — "I knew my mother would kill me!" — that kept them out of trouble.
And Denzel, at least, had a place to go that kept him off the streets — the Mt. Vernon Boys' Club, a virtual home away from home throughout his childhood and adolescence, where he could play basketball, talk, or just hang out safely.
By the time he was twelve, Denzel already had a part-time job. Working for your money was a strong part of the ethic in the Washington household; it had been drilled into him, and was something he followed as soon as he could.
He worked in a barbershop, "clean up, hustle, whisk-broom people off, take their clothes to the cleaner's." And if not the most glamorous introduction to the workforce, it was putting some money in his pocket.
When Denzel turned fourteen, though, his entire world changed. His parents, whose marriage had seemed so secure to the boy, divorced.
It rocked him, cut him very deeply. As he told Parade, "I rejected everything."
His outlook on life took a one hundred eighty-degree turn. He started running the streets with the bad boys, and, by his own admission, "beating people up in school."
It was more a form of teenage rebellion than anything, not too serious; he still avoided real trouble, the confrontations with police that could have left him marked for life.
"My mom's love for me and her desire for me to do well kept me out ...," he said in The New York Times. "When it came down to the moment of should I go this way or do that, I'd think about her and say: 'Naahh, let me get myself outta here before I get into trouble.' I think I was more of an actor, even back then."
But if he was an actor, it was purely on an unconscious level. A few more years would pass before he'd discover the joys of the stage.
Lennis Washington continued to worry about her children, that they'd end up growing wilder, out of control, and that was a fate she wasn't willing to tolerate. So she took the unusual step of sending Lorice and Denzel to boarding schools, putting them in places where she knew they'd receive good educations and be well away from the temptations of the streets. It wasn't an easy decision for her, emotionally or financially. The tuition she paid meant there wasn't too much money left over to live on. But in her heart, she knew it was the right thing to do.
Denzel was enrolled in the Oakland Academy, a boys' prep school in upstate New York. It wasn't a place he loved, and during his time there he proved to be no more than an average student. But he did discover that he had a natural ability at music, playing in the band, and also at sports, excelling at almost everything — track, basketball, baseball, and football.
Still, for someone who wasn't good enough for an athletic scholarship, someone with no real career planned out, it was hardly a preparation for life. So, when Denzel graduated in 1972, and entered Fordham University in the Bronx, he was a little lost. He began as a premed major, only to quickly realize that medicine wasn't for him.
"Not only could I not say the name of one of the courses I had to take — chordaemorphogenesis — but I definitely couldn't pass it," he explained in California.
So he switched to journalism. Still he didn't feel comfortable, as if he'd found his niche. And academically, he continued to have the same problems he'd encountered at Oakland Academy, his work never quite good enough. It reached the point where, toward the end of his freshman year, he made the decision to drop out of school for a while, find a job, and figure out exactly what it was he wanted to do with his life.
What he discovered immediately was that the real workaday world held very few charms for him.
"I was just sort of floundering," he said. "... I worked at the post office for a while. I worked at the sanitation department, collecting trash. I thought, Whoa! I gotta get back in college!"
But since summer had arrived, instead he found a job as a counselor at a YMCA camp in Lakeville, Connecticut. And there, by pure serendipity, he found his vocation.
It came when he took part in a staff talent show. Although Denzel had never acted before, had never even seen that many actors, both the counselors and campers were struck by his ease and presence on stage.
That one appearance was enough to ignite the flame in him. When he returned to Fordham to begin his sophomore year, he registered to take a theater workshop run by an English and dramatic literature professor, Robinson Stone (a man whose professional experience included playing Joey in the film Stalag 17).
Even before class started, Denzel knew that this was what he wanted from his life. To be up there, to become a character, to make people believe. As Stone went around the group of students, asking their goals, Denzel announced that his was to become "the greatest actor in the world."
It seemed like a vain boast for someone who had yet to take part in a real production. But it wasn't long before Stone realized that his pupil just might have the talent to do exactly what he said, even if he still showed no real inclination to the academic side of his studies.
"I had to tell him to get his ass in class 'cause he was cutting so much," Stone said in Time.
He became something of a mentor to the youth, casting him as the lead in a campus production of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones.
Denzel's performance left Stone in no doubt; the young man was a born actor, and he encouraged him to seriously pursue his dream. He went so far as to cast Washington as Shakespeare's Othello when the student was a senior, even though, he felt, "he was much too young for the part."
But Denzel more than rose to the challenge, as Stone told the Chicago Tribune. "He was easily the best Othello I had ever seen, and I had seen Paul Robeson play it (Stone had actually acted opposite Robeson in a production of the play). I remember Jose Ferrer came to look at it. He and I agreed that Denzel had a brilliant career ahead of him."
There was one scene in particular that convinced Stone his casting had been perfect.
"Washington was stripped to the waist," he recalled, "and he turned in the direction of Desdemona and crooked his right arm, and as he talked to her his biceps rose, and he said softly, 'Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her!' Ordinarily, an actor screams that line, but he whispered it. It showed imagination was going on and that he had an ability to understand this very complex character.... I dragged several agents to come and see him."
One of those agents provided the kick that changed his life in the biggest possible way. He helped Denzel land his first professional role, a small part as a boyfriend in the television movie Wilma, about the Olympic athlete and track star Wilma Rudolph. It aired in 1977, just as Denzel was finally graduating from Fordham — with a double degree, in journalism and drama.
Far more importantly, while he was on the set, he was introduced to a young actress, singer, and pianist who was also part of the cast, playing runner Mae Faggs. Her name was Pauletta Pearson, and Denzel was immediately struck by her.
There was little he could do to follow up on his feelings immediately, though. For he was set to move west, to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco where he'd been accepted to study for two years.
Getting into the prestigious school was difficult enough. To have graduated from the program would have assured Denzel of a strong acting career in the theater.
But as his first year progressed, Denzel's interest in school seemed to fade. The lessons in craft and technique seemed to bore him, one of his acting teachers noted. Having absorbed them, he felt he had no need to keep repeating and refining them. Soon he didn't even bother going to class, and just hung out, wearing an Afro and a goatee, and thought about moving on.
Moving on meant a return to New York, back to auditioning and taking his chances in the theater. But that was what acting meant to Denzel at the time — appearing on a stage, creating a character, and casting a spell over an audience night after night.
It was a good time to make that decision. Normally, a black actor would have had a difficult time finding work — there were very few black roles in plays that were produced, and those tended to be small and menial. But in the late seventies there'd been a proliferation of black theater groups, designed to counter exactly that problem, and give opportunities not only to performers of color, but also to playwrights.
He did make a brief trip to Los Angeles first, to "test the waters," as he put it. But the waters he found there were cold enough to send him back East quickly. And though he spent as much time in the unemployment lines as any other struggling actor, parts did come to him with regularity. He appeared in The Mighty Gents, by Richard Wesley, which focused on adults who'd spent their youth in a Newark street gang, Sharon Pollock's One Tiger to a Hill, Ntozake Shange's Spell #7, A Geechee Quick Magic Trance Manual, and Dark Old Men, by Lonnie Elder the third.
There was also a spell of Shakespeare in the Park, where he performed with the Black and Hispanic Acting Ensemble, playing Aediles in their production of Coriolanus.
Denzel might not have been a star yet, but at least he was being seen often.
Someone who'd seen him on his return, at a party, was Pauletta Pearson, the woman he'd met on the set of Wilma, and who'd made such an impression on him then. Now that he was back to stay, he asked her out, and soon the two were dating regularly. Within a year they were living together — not in some cheap, run-down place, but in Denzel's room in the apartment his mother rented in Mount Vernon, giving the relationship a family seal of approval.
By 1979, a year out of the American Conservatory Theater, Denzel had his biggest break yet. He was offered a featured role in a television movie, an adaptation of Pete Hamill's book, Flesh and Blood, playing a street hoodlum who was being groomed for a shot at the world heavyweight boxing title.
It was a very big deal to him. National exposure, a role to sink his teeth into, and a good paycheck. He did what any struggling actor would have done — he jumped at the chance.
For a little while things looked very good. That part, he was sure, would lead to plenty more, so he wouldn't be scuffling from audition to audition, trying to get work, and living hand to mouth every day with Pauletta, counting every single cent to see if he could afford to spend it.
Unfortunately, things didn't turn out the way he'd hoped. The movie aired, but his phone didn't start ringing. If anything, times became tighter than ever. After a few months that brought rejection after rejection, Denzel finally gave up in disgust, and took a job with the county recreation department. His dream was rapidly fading into thin air.
It was Pauletta who put him back on the right track.
"She was the one who said I should keep going," he said in Ebony. "She was the one who said, just keep trying."
And, luckily, he listened to her advice. One week before he was supposed to report for his new job, a role finally came through. Not just any role, but a plum part in an off-Broadway production, playing Malcolm X in When the Chickens Come Home to Roost, by Laurence Holder. The drama chronicled a fictional meeting between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Suddenly Denzel had a big task on his hands.
He knew little about Malcolm X or his work. "I didn't even have a view of Malcolm then," he told The New York Times years later. "We just didn't listen to that kind of talk in my father's house."
To prepare for the production, he dyed his hair red, the same color as Malcolm's, listened to tapes of him speaking, and pored through film footage of the man to try and gain a sense of him.
"I remember thinking what it must have felt like to be so free to be able to say anything. It must have made for tension."
What it did make for was a startling portrayal. The play only ran for twelve performances, but they were enough to make Denzel's critical reputation.
In his New York Times review, Frank Rich called Denzel's performance, "firm, likable," and "honorable and altruistic without ever becoming a plaster saint."
Word even reached Betty Shabazz, Malcolm's widow, about this young actor portraying her late husband.
"Everyone was saying to me, 'You should go see this kid. He is just absolutely fantastic,'" she recalled. She didn't, because "At the time I couldn't afford emotionally to see it," but Denzel had made a tremendous impact.
Excerpted from Denzel Washington by Chris Nickson. Copyright © 1996 Chris Nickson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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