King Kong Ain’t Got Nothin’ on Denzel Washington

Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. has been described as an actor who reconfigured “the concept of classic movie stardom.” Washington has received a Tony Award, two Academy Awards, and three Golden Globe Awards throughout his career. In 2016, he received the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award.

Denzel Washington / Malcolm Washington, Katia Washington, Pauletta Washington, Denzel Washington / Zendaya, John David Washington / Denzel Washington.
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Washington was born in Mount Vernon, New York, on December 28, 1954. His mother, Lennis “Lynne,” was a beauty parlor owner and operator born in Georgia and raised in Harlem. His father, Denzel Hayes Washington Sr., a native of Buckingham County, Virginia, was an ordained Pentecostal minister.

Named After the Doctor Who Delivered Dad

The elder Washington was also an employee of the New York City Water Department and worked at a local S. Klein department store. Senior Washington’s parents named him after Dr. Denzel, who oversaw the delivery. The name stuck and was handed down to Denzel Jr.

A picture of Denzel Washington walking the street.
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Washington attended Pennington-Grimes Elementary School in Mount Vernon until 1968. When he was 14, his parents divorced, and his mother sent him to the private preparatory school Oakland Military Academy in New Windsor, New York. Washington credited the move with changing his life and getting him away from bad companions.

He Played Basketball at Fordham

He attended Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Florida, from 1970 to 1971. He earned a BA in Drama and Journalism from Fordham University in 1977. At Fordham, he played collegiate basketball as a guard under coach P.J. Carlesimo. He had not yet decided on acting as a career.

A studio portrait of a young Denzel Washington.
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Washington told interviewer Charlie Rose that he initially wanted to study medicine. But as he struggled to stay awake during biology class, he realized that it wasn’t for him. He began studying political science, then journalism. He fell into acting by accident.

Took Acting Because It Was Easy

His friends told him to take an acting class because it was easy, and he would get a good grade. It turned out to be true. Moreover, as an actor, Washington could “try on” other careers. His first big break was playing a doctor on St. Elsewhere’s TV series. Washington was also a journalist in The Pelican Brief.

A photo of Washington backstage at the Oscars.
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During a summer break in college, Washington worked as creative arts director of the overnight summer camp at Camp Sloane YMCA in Lakeville, Connecticut. He participated in a staff talent show for the campers and showed an affinity for acting.

Studied Acting at Lincoln Center

Returning to Fordham that fall with a renewed purpose, Washington enrolled at the Lincoln Center campus to study acting. He was cast in the title roles in Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones and Shakespeare’s Othello. He then attended graduate school at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

A dated studio portrait of Washington.
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He stayed at the Conservatory Theater for a year before returning to New York to begin a professional acting career. Shortly after graduating from Fordham, Washington made his screen acting debut in the 1977 made-for-television film Wilma and his first Hollywood appearance in the 1981 film Carbon Copy.

Met Pauletta on the Set of Wilma

Wilma was a bio of U.S. track sprinter Wilma Randolph. It proved a pivotal film for Washington as he met Pauletta Pearson, who played Mae Flaggs on the set. The couple married in 1983 and boasted one of the most successful Hollywood marriages. They have four children.

A photo of Pauletta and Washington at the Oscars.
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Washington shared a 1982 Distinguished Ensemble Performance Obie Award for playing Private First-Class Melvin Peterson in the Off-Broadway Negro Ensemble Company production A Soldier’s Play which premiered on November 20, 1981. His major career break came a year later.

Big Break in St. Elsewhere

In 1982, Washington was cast as Dr. Phillip Chandler in NBC’s television hospital drama St. Elsewhere, which lasted until 1988. He was one of only a few Black actors to appear on the series during its six-year run. He also appeared in several television, motion picture, and stage roles, such as the films A Soldier’s Story (1984), Hard Lessons (1986), and Power (1986).

Washington poses in a publicity portrait for the show.
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In 1987, he received his first Oscar nomination for portraying South African anti-apartheid political activist Steven Biko in Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom. In 1989, Washington won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for portraying a defiant, self-possessed ex-slave soldier in the Civil War film Glory.

Begins Relationship With Spike Lee

That same year, he appeared in the film The Mighty Quinn and For Queen and Country. He played the disillusioned Reuben James, a British soldier in the second. Despite a distinguished military career, the latter returns to a civilian life where racism and inner-city life lead to vigilantism and violence.

A still of Washington in a scene from the movie For Queen and Country.
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Washington began his relationship with director/producer Spike Lee in the 1990 film Mo’ Better Blues. It was the beginning of a productive relationship. The pair reunited in 1992 when Lee tapped Washington to play one of his most critically acclaimed roles, the title character of 1992’s Malcolm X.

Philadelphia Sets a New Standard

As the Black nationalist leader, his performance earned him another nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. The next year, he starred in another ground-breaking film as the lawyer of a gay man with AIDS, played by Tom Hanks, in the critically acclaimed film Philadelphia.

A still of Washington and Tom Hanks in a scene from the film.
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During the early and mid-1990s, Washington starred in several successful thrillers, including The Pelican Brief with Julia Roberts in 1993, Crimson Tide with Gene Hackman in 1995, and the Shakespearean comedy Much Ado About Nothing.

Lee and Washington Together Again

Lee and Washington united for the third time in 1998 for He Got Game. Washington played a father serving a six-year prison term when the prison warden offered him temporary parole to convince his top-ranked high-school basketball player son (Ray Allen) to sign with the governor’s alma mater, Big State.

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In 2000, Washington appeared in Disney’s Remember the Titans, which grossed more than $100 million in the U.S. At the 57th Golden Globe Awards, Washington won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama for his work in The Hurricane. He was the first Black actor to win the award since Sidney Poitier in 1963.

Wins the Oscar for Training Day

Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor for the 2001 cop thriller Training Day, where he played Detective Alonzo Harris, a corrupt Los Angeles cop. He was the second Black actor to win the category after Poitier, who was presented with an Honorary Academy Award the same night.

Washington and Halle Berry pose backstage at the Oscars.
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Like other creative people, Washington’s horizons have expanded beyond acting. He established the production company Mundy Lane Entertainment to give himself creative control. In 1996, Mundy produced the romantic comedy The Preacher’s Wife starring Washington and Whitney Houston – a remake of the 1947 Cary Grant comedy The Bishop’s Wife.

Mundy Lane Entertainment Productions

Mundy has released popular films starring Washington, including Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). In 2020, the company teamed with Netflix to produce Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a critically acclaimed movie with Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Washington served as producer.

A scene from the movie Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
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After appearing in the 2002 box office success, the healthcare-themed John Q., Washington directed his first film and a well-reviewed drama called Antwone Fisher, in which he also co-starred. In 2007, he directed and performed in the drama The Great Debaters with Forest Whitaker.

Inside Man Brings Spike Back

Spike Lee and Washington reunited in 2006 for Inside Man, a bank heist thriller co-starring Jodie Foster and Clive Owen. In 2007, Washington starred in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster with Russell Crowe.

A still from the movie Inside Man.
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He next appeared in Tony Scott’s 2009 film The Taking of Pelham 123 (a remake of the 1974 thriller of the same name), where he played New York City subway security chief Walter Garber opposite John Travolta’s villain.

Live Theater Performances Continue

Washington has maintained his love of live theater. In the summer of 1990, he appeared in the title role of the Public Theater’s production of William Shakespeare’s Richard III. In 2005, he appeared on stage again as Brutus in a Broadway production of Julius Caesar.

Washington speaks on stage.
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In the spring of 2010, Washington played Troy Maxson, opposite Viola Davis, in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Fences, for which he won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play on June 13, 2010.

Brings Fences to the Big Screen

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Washington plays a former Negro league baseball player working as a garbage collector who struggles to provide for his family and come to terms with the events of his life. Washington directed the film Fences, also co-starring Davis, with a script by Wilson.

A promotional still of Washington and Viola Davis for the film.
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The film was released on December 16, 2016, by Paramount Pictures. Washington was nominated in the Best Actor category for a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award. The film was nominated for three other Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Davis won her first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Leads Raisin in the Sun Revival

From April to June 2014, Washington played the leading role in the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama A Raisin in the Sun, directed by Kenny Leon. The show received positive reviews and won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

The cast greets the audience.
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Beginning March 22, 2018, Washington starred as Theodore “Hickey” Hickman in a Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The production, directed by George C. Wolfe, ran for 14 weeks.

Washington Plays Macbeth

In 2021, Washington played Macbeth in the 2021 film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, titled “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” He received universal acclaim for his performance and was nominated for several awards, including an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Satellite Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award.

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In 2010, Washington starred in The Book of Eli, a post-apocalyptic action drama. Also, in 2010, he starred as a veteran railroad engineer in the action film Unstoppable, his fifth and final collaboration with director Tony Scott, following Crimson Tide (1995), Man on Fire (2004), Déjà Vu (2006), and The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009).

Best Oscar Nomination for Flight

In 2012, Washington was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Flight. He played an alcoholic airline pilot facing investigation for his part in a plane crash. He co-starred with Ryan Reynolds in Safe House, where he prepared for his role by subjecting himself to a torture session that included waterboarding.

A still of Washington in a scene of the film.
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In 2013, Washington starred in 2 Guns alongside Mark Wahlberg. In 2014, he starred in The Equalizer, an action thriller film directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Richard Wenk, based on the Edward Woodward novel. He reprised his role in his first sequel, The Equalizer 2.

Stars in Magnificent Seven Remake

In 2016, Washington starred in The Magnificent Seven, a remake of the 1960 Western film of the same name (which was a remake of the Japanese The Seven Samurai), with Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, and Peter Sarsgaard.

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Principal photography began on May 18, 2015, in north Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The film premiered on September 8 at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Washington plays Sam Chisolm (the Bounty Hunter), a duly sworn warrant officer from Wichita, Kansas. In the 1960 film, his character was called Chris Adams and played by Yul Brynner.

Washington’s First Western Experience

This was Washington’s first Western. Unlike most kids who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, Washington did not watch Westerns. He and his siblings were also barred from going to the movies by their preacher father.

A still of Washington in a scene from the film.
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The little Washingtons grew up watching Biblical films instead, like King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, although Denzel has said that he watched portions of the shows Rawhide and Bonanza. He did not view the American film while preparing to shoot, but he did watch The Seven Samurai.

Producers Weren’t Sure Denzel Would Agree

The producers were skeptical about whether Washington would agree to star in a Western, but director Antoine Fuqua flew to New York City to negotiate with him. The script was based on Akira Kurosawa’s original screenplay. This was not Washington’s first partnership with Fuqua.

Washington attends an event.
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The two paired up for “Training Day” in 2001 (also co-starring Ethan Hawke). Whether or not you’ve seen the movie, you’ve probably heard about the “King Kong speech” toward the end, when Denzel Washington’s Alonzo Harris unleashes a tirade against his former criminal accomplices.

King Kong Speech Ad Lib

Harris’ partner Jake (Hawke), gathers evidence that proves he’s a corrupt cop. Washington shouts the now-famous line, “King Kong ain’t got s*** on me!” and threatens his friends with prison time.

A still from the scene.
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It was a spectacular performance for Washington, who snagged an Academy Award. In 2020, Vanity Fair published a list of the 25 most influential movie scenes and what led to their creation. The “King Kong speech” made the list.

Washington Improvised the Entire Speech

Director Fuqua revealed that Washington improvised the entire speech. He added that it surprised both the director and the star. Washington went off-script for the emotional rant, which is perhaps why it feels so raw and authentic.

A still of Washington in a scene from the film.
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Based on Fuqua’s comment, even Washington was caught off guard by his ad-lib — further showing just how into the character he must have been at the time. A year later, in a TV interview, Washington wasn’t willing to take full credit for his phenomenal performance.

Washington Speaks Candidly About His Speech

During an appearance on The Graham Norton show to promote his Shakespearean turn in “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Washington spoke candidly about how much of the speech was improvised. He told Norton he added things.

Washington speaks on stage.
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He said he didn’t improvise it from start to finish. He said he was figuring it out as he went along. Washington estimated about 30 or 40 percent of the speech was ad-libbed. But transformed what would have been a good moment into a great and endlessly quotable speech.

Shows the Power an Actor Can Display

It also shows that when an actor truly invests in a role like Washington did with Alonzo, and it can result in an iconic performance that will have people talking over 20 years later.

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In 2017, Washington starred in the legal drama Roman J. Israel, Esq… While the film received mixed reviews, his performance was praised by critics and led to nominations for a Golden Globe Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, an Academy Award, Washington’s ninth Oscar nomination overall, and his sixth for Best Actor.

Mixed Reviews for A Journal for Jordan

Also, in 2021, Washington directed the drama A Journal for Jordan, based on the memoir A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love and Honor by Dana Canedy. It received a wide theatrical release on December 25, 2021, and garnered mixed reviews from critics.

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Pauletta continued her acting career in films like Philadelphia, Genuis, and Antwone Fisher, three of their children, are now in the game. The couple’s son, John David Washington, born in 1984, got his first taste of the acting bug at the age of seven with a brief appearance in Malcolm X.

John David Plays Football for Morehouse

But it seemed like football had his heart. Washington attended Campbell Hall School in Los Angeles, where he was a letterman in football, basketball, and track. He graduated from high school in 2002 and played football for Morehouse College.

Washington attends an event.
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As a Morehouse College senior, Washington led the conference in rushing with 1,198 yards (a school record). He also had a 5.6-yard average, nine touchdowns, and ten receptions for 69 yards. Washington holds the school’s single-game (242 yards) and career (3,699 yards) rushing records in his college career.

Not Drafted in the 2006 NFL Draft

Washington was not drafted in the 2006 NFL Draft, but the St. Louis Rams signed him as an undrafted free agent. After going undrafted in the 2006 NFL Draft, Washington was signed by the St. Louis Rams on May 1, 2006, as an undrafted free agent. the Rams released Washington on August 31.

A photo of Washington during the ESPN Monday Night Football pre-game show.
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Three days later, the Rams resigned him to their practice squad. Washington played in NFL Europe for the Rhein Fire in the 2007 offseason. Washington was drafted by the California Redwoods (later the Sacramento Mountain Lions) of the United Football League in the UFL Premiere Season Draft in 2009.

John David Moves Into Acting

He signed with the team on August 18 and stayed with the team after their move to Sacramento, playing for the Mountain Lions until 2012, when the league abruptly folded that October. When the football dream died, John David returned to his second love – acting.

A portrait of Washington.
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In September 2017, John David Washington reunited with his dad’s partner, Spike Lee. He was cast in the lead role of detective Ron Stallworth in Lee’s thriller BlacKkKlansman, which was based on Stallworth’s memoir. The film premiered on May 14, 2018, at the Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d’Or.

BlackKkklansman: A Commercial Success

BlacKkKlansman did not win the Palme d’Or, but the festival jury awarded the Grand Prix. The film began a U.S. theatrical release on August 10, 2018, a date chosen to coincide with the first anniversary of the Charlottesville rally.

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The film was a commercial success, earning John David both Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations. In 2018, he starred in the films Monsters and Men and Monster, which screened in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Nolan Taps John David for Tenet

After seeing Washington’s work in BlacKkKlansman, director Christopher Nolan hand-picked him to anchor his spy film, Tenet (2020). According to Nolan, as a former football running back, the actor brings a natural athletic grace to the stunts and hand-to-hand combat that forge a bond between his character and the audience. Washington won the Saturn Award for Best Actor.

A promotional still of Zendaya and John David Washington.
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Washington starred alongside Zendaya as the titular character in the drama film Malcolm & Marie (2021), filmed in secret during the COVID-19 pandemic. It has also been announced that John David has been tapped to co-star in a Broadway revival of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson starting on September 19, 2022, with Samuel L. Jackson and Danielle Brooks.

Another August Wilson Play on Broadway

LaTanya Richardson Jackson is slated to direct the play. Like Fences, there is a plan the cast will then star in a film adaptation of the play, with a director still to be named. John David is also scheduled to star in the upcoming film True Love.

A portrait of John David Washington.
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John David has been honest about his rise in Hollywood. He admitted having more work to do as people still see him as “Denzel’s son.” He has felt his father’s shadow still looming while working in Hollywood. But people seem to feel he is relaxing into his new role.

Katia Washington Is a Producer

Denzel and Pauletta’s daughter Katia, born in 1987, is a producer who worked on her father’s movie Fences, producing provocative dramas like Pieces of a Woman and Malcolm & Marie, which starred her brother in a title role. She has a bachelor’s degree from Yale University.

Malcolm Washington, Katia Washington, Pauletta Washington, and Denzel Washington attend an event.
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She is famously known for her cinematographic work. She was featured in Unchained Django and the Nation’s formation. Katia achieved a great deal of success in a short period. She also plays in various films behind the scenes.

Olivia Washington Also Has Acting Chops

Olivia Washington, born in 1991, made her screen debut in 2013’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Since then, she has appeared in many TV shows, including Madoff, Mr. Robot, and She’s Gotta Have It. In 2021, Olivia joined her father on screen in The Little Things crime-thriller.

Olivia Washington attends an event.
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Olivia’s twin brother Malcolm also began as a student-athlete. Although he was majoring in film, he was a point guard for the University of Pennsylvania basketball team his first year. After seeing little playing time behind unanimous All-Ivy point guard Zack Rosen, he bowed out as a sophomore.

Twin Bro Malcolm Also Focusing on Film

After graduating, he decided to focus on films. He began his career in the entertainment industry as a production assistant for the hit movie Chef in 2014. He was promoted to a second assistant director for Trouble Man and finally became an assistant director with The Last Bookstore’s short.

Malcolm and Denzel Washington attend a basketball game.
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He was also Spike Lee’s assistant for the popular series. She’s Gotta Have It in 2017. His breakthrough came with Benny Got Shot’s short film, which he both wrote and directed. The movie was well-received. The Atlanta Film Festival awarded Washington the Filmmaker-to-Watch Award.

Helped Kickstart Chadwick Boseman’s Career

Most people do not realize that Denzel Washington was financially supportive of the late actor Chadwick Boseman. After a four-year battle with colon cancer, he tragically died after completing Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – a Netflix movie produced by Washington’s production company.

A photo of Chadwick Boseman.
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Before he starred in Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman was a Howard University student. Boseman and Washington didn’t know each other, but Boseman was short of the cash he needed to pay his tuition at a prestigious summer acting program.

Phyllis Rashad Lends a Hand

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, including Boseman.

Washington speaks on stage.
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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 that your tuition that summer was paid for and that your benefactor was none other than the dopest actor on the planet.” Boseman added, “There is no Black Panther without Denzel Washington.”

Denzel Remains a Devout Christian

As the son of a preacher, Washington remains a devout Christian and has considered becoming a preacher himself. In 1999, he told an interviewer that a part of him still believes that he is compromised by not preaching. He added that he tries to use his talent for the greater good.

A screengrab of Washington speaking via video.
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A Visit for Miss Connie’s 99th Birthday

He does good by showing respect to people who have helped him throughout his life. In 2016, he made a special visit to see Miss Connie, the librarian who gave him his first library card when he was seven and celebrated her 99th Birthday.

A picture of Washington sits next to Miss Connie as they read a book.
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Living in an Atlanta nursing home at the time, Miss Connie said she always cherished the memory of giving Denzel his card and was proud to learn that Washington gave back to the community after becoming wealthy, donating $1 million to the local Boys and Girls Club where he grew up.

A spokesman for Boys and Girls Clubs

Washington has served as the national spokesman for Boys & Girls Clubs of America since 1993 and has appeared in public service announcements and awareness campaigns for the organization. He has also served as a board member for Boys & Girls Clubs of America since 1995.

Washington poses with children from the Boys and Girls Club.
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Due to his philanthropic work with the Boys & Girls Club, PS 17X, a New York City Elementary School, decided to name its school after Washington officially. In 1995, he donated $2.5 million to help build the new West Angeles Church of God in Christ facility in Los Angeles.

Participates in Purple Heart Ceremony

In mid-2004, Washington visited Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) at Fort Sam Houston. He participated in a Purple Heart ceremony, presenting medals to three Army soldiers recovering from wounds they received while stationed in Iraq. He also visited the fort’s Fisher House facilities.

Washington attends an event.
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After learning that the Fisher House had exceeded its capacity, Washington made a substantial donation to the Fisher House Foundation. Washington’s other charitable contributions include $1 million to Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Fund in 1995 and $1 million to Wiley College to resuscitate the college’s debate team.

Negotiated for Release of Defense Contractors

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) named Washington one of three people (the others being the directors Oliver Stone and Michael Moore) with whom they were willing to negotiate for the release of three defense contractors the group had held captive from 2003 to 2008.

A portrait of Washington.
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On May 18, 1991, Washington was awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Fordham University, for having “impressively succeeded in exploring the edge of his multifaceted talent.” In 2011, he donated $2 million to Fordham for an endowed chair of the theater department and $250,000 to establish a theater-specific scholarship at the school.

Honorary Degrees From Morehouse and Penn

He also received an honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Morehouse College on May 20, 2007, and an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania on May 16, 2011. Washington’s older son, John David, graduated from Morehouse, and his younger son, Malcolm, from Penn.

A photo of Washington during the ceremony.
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On October 11, 2021, the United States Army made Washington the 2021 Honorary Sergeant Major of the Army at the Annual Association of the U.S. Army conference for his work with the Fisher House Foundation.

Honored for Work With Fisher House

The Fisher House Foundation is a program that focuses on building homes for military personnel and their families free of charge while they receive medical care. Sergeant Major Michael A. Grinston presented Washington with the award, saying that Washington represented everything he was looking for: humility, dedication to soldiers, and respect for the Army.

Washington looks excited at the camera.
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In Malcolm X, Spike Lee and Washington did an unprecedented act. Lee wanted to portray Malcolm X’s pilgrimage or hajj to Mecca, the holiest city in the faith, as an essential turning point. Worshipping side-by-side with Muslims of all races inspires the activist to reject the Nation of Islam’s ideology of racial separatism, a decision that leads to his death.

Used an All-Muslim Crew to Film Malcolm X

Mecca forbids anyone but Muslims from visiting, so no film crew had ever entered the city before. Denzel Washington filmed his scenes there with an all-Muslim crew to get the footage he needed and respect the country’s customs.

A still of Washington in a scene from the film Malcolm X.
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Today, Washington and his co-stars are still the only actors to ever film in Mecca. The famously conservative Saudi Arabia didn’t produce any films until 2012’s essential coming-of-age story Wadjda. The country’s first public film screening was in 2018 — with The Emoji Movie of all things!