Denzel Washington Once Told Himself That He’d Never Go Hollywood

Actor Denzel Washington became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. But he didn’t see himself achieving this A-list status in his younger years. Back then, his plan didn’t go beyond just making a living as an actor.

How Denzel Washington became an actor

Denzel Washington posing in a suit at the 32nd Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Denzel Washington | Tibrina Hobson/WireImage

Washington didn’t start out wanting to be an actor. He explored a few potential occupations before realizing that acting was something that he wanted to do. In college, he was a pre-med major before focusing on becoming a lawyer. In the end, he earned a degree in Journalism from Fordham University in 1977.

He revealed that it wasn’t until his stint at a summer camp that he considered a career in acting. But even then, he didn’t see himself becoming the movie star that he turned out to be.

“I worked as a creative arts director at an overnight YMCA summer camp. As a camp leader, we had to put on a talent show, so after our show one of my fellow camp leaders’ told me I should get into acting. So, after the camp I went back to New York and enrolled at Lincoln Center and began studying acting. Then I studied at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. I was a theater snob, and wanted to jet back to New York as soon as possible. I remember saying to myself that I will never go to Hollywood,” Washington once said according to Odyssey.

Washington stuck with theater for a while, doing plays like Coriolanus and A Soldier’s Play. He found himself following in the footsteps of other actors who came before him that didn’t really have a superstar career.

“As a kid, I’d wanted to be a football player. Then, after I got into theater at age 20, I saw James Earl Jones do Oedipus the King at St. John the Divine on 112th Street in Manhattan, and I was like, Wow,” Washington once told Oprah. “I sneaked into his dressing room and looked at his props and his rings while he was meeting people. I thought, ‘One day I’ll make $650 a week and work on Broadway.’ It was never my master plan to go to Hollywood.”

Denzel Washington once revealed the movie that changed everything

Washington would slowly make the transition into the world of television and film. He made his onscreen debut in the 1981 feature Carbon Copy. The film didn’t do too well, but he found success in the medical drama St. Elsewhere. He starred in all six seasons of the series, with the show bringing a lot of eyes to his performance. What made St. Elsewhere even more convenient, however, was that it gave Washington the freedom to pursue film projects outside of the show.

”I remember early on my agent talked to me about not getting caught up in television. She convinced me not to do The Jeffersons, which I’d read for. But St. Elsewhere had so many characters, you could get sort of lost in the sauce and be able to sneak out and do films. And it was a great show,” Washington once told Entertainment Weekly.

But to Washington, it was the feature Cry Freedom which was the game-changer. The 1987 film saw Washington portray South African activist Steve Bitko. It was also a huge opportunity for Washington, earning him his first Oscar nomination. But his career could’ve easily gone in a different direction.

“Sidney Poitier told me the first three or four films you make will determine how you’re perceived in this business. Later on, I was offered another comedy, but it wasn’t funny to me — I thought it was quite racist. I didn’t take it, and I waited about six months and I got Cry Freedom That movie changed everything. I could have taken that bad comedy and had a totally different career,” he said.

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