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Life (Regular), Career (Premium)

Though he may be one of Hollywood's most prominent African Americans, Denzel Washington is really just a regular guy--who happens to be living in world of contradictions.

July 07, 1996|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

Wearing a faded baseball cap and scuffed sneakers, Denzel Washington fits right in with the crowd of wannabe Michael Jordans milling around the hard asphalt at the Venice Beach basketball courts. In fact, he's such a regular guy--or at least acts like such a regular guy--that he goes unnoticed as he stands at the edge of the courts, his watchful eyes hidden behind a pair of sunglasses.

"I used to love to play," he says, watching a bare-chested young hotshot strut downcourt after his 20-foot jumper swishes through the net. "But my knees." He winces. "It was so easy to run up and down, all day long. But no more. My playground days are long gone."

As an actor, Washington has always made it look easy, displaying the same effortless grace as his childhood hero, Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, who could glide past tacklers like a man dodging puddles in a rainstorm. At 41, Washington is a Hollywood prince, the industry's only A-list African American movie star. Nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for "Cry Freedom," winner of one for "Glory" and nominated for a best actor Oscar for "Malcolm X," he has shared the screen with the top actors of his era, from Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia" and Julia Roberts in "The Pelican Brief" to Gene Hackman in "Crimson Tide," while using his star clout to get financing for movies such as "Devil in a Blue Dress" and Spike Lee's "Malcolm X."

Sitting for an interview just an hour after his first viewing of his new film, "Courage Under Fire," Washington is friendly but guarded, hiding his feelings much as his baggy Speedo sweatsuit conceals his sinewy 6-foot frame. His admirers tell you to watch his most expressive feature--his eyes. But even when he tucks away his sunglasses, letting you see his soft, chocolate-hued eyes, he is not an easy man to read. As with many of the characters he plays on screen, his relaxed demeanor masks a complex jumble of emotions.

Whether the topic is racism in Hollywood or his reluctance to play love scenes on screen, Washington doesn't so much dodge a question as wrestle with it--he won't be pinned down to a glib, predictable answer. It's a quality you see in his acting--he's elusive.

"The most interesting thing about Denzel is that you see his work more clearly when it's been edited than when the film is being shot," says producer Sam Goldwyn Jr., who has made three films with Washington, including "The Preacher's Wife," due out this Christmas from Touchstone Pictures. "You're not sure what you're getting when you're shooting the film, but when you go into the editing room, this miraculous transformation has occurred--the whole performance is there. He was acting all the time. You just didn't notice it."

*

Washington hates this image he has as a "private" guy. "Where does that come from?" he wonders, nibbling on some pasta at a Venice eatery one afternoon. "I read that in so many stories. I'm this deep, dark, private guy. Is it just one story and then everyone picks up on it and uses it?"

He pokes a fork into his pasta. "I'm just a regular guy. I don't take myself seriously. I take my work seriously. But there's always this other stuff that gets mixed up with it."

It's hard to get away from that other stuff. To be a black celebrity in a white world is to live a life beset by contradiction. Washington lives in a house once owned by William Holden and has dinner with Michael Jordan after Bulls playoff games, and when he and his wife, Pauletta, visited South Africa last year, they renewed their marriage vows in a ceremony conducted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

But when he's in New York City, heading uptown, he can't always get a taxi to stop for him. He commands $10 million a movie yet maintains that Hollywood is pockmarked by racism, just like the rest of America. When he met Quentin Tarantino on the set of "Crimson Tide," he gave the young director a verbal spanking for his repeated use of the N-word in "Pulp Fiction."

Black celebrities are often held to a higher standard--anyone who is not a crusader must be a sellout. Washington quietly gave $2.5 million to his church in Los Angeles, but when he went back to his old playground in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., he was barraged with job requests and complaints that he was not doing enough for his community. He has the power to insist that his films hire a sizable percentage of black crew members, yet when it came time to choose a director for "The Preacher's Wife," a black-cast remake of a Cary Grant comedy called "The Bishop's Wife," he picked Penny Marshall.

"It wasn't that I didn't think of a black person," he responds, his eyes glinting with a hint of annoyance. "I just saw Penny as the right person for the movie. On 'Devil in a Blue Dress,' I knew it had to be a black filmmaker--that's why we went with Carl Franklin. Carl knew things about the neighborhood that you wouldn't understand, just as Martin Scorsese knows his world better than anyone else."

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