Denzel Washington received the Cecil B. DeMille Award — which honors extraordinary contributions to the entertainment world — at the Golden Globes on Sunday.
The 61-year-old actor, director, producer, and philanthropist brought his family up on stage with him to accept the award, but forgot his glasses. In a brief, apparently improvised speech, he thanked the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, his agent and manager, his first agent and manager, and his family.
Washington was introduced by Philadelphia costar Tom Hanks, who presented a reel spotlighting his work, from such critical darlings as Malcolm X and Cry Freedom to box office hits like The Pelican Brief and Remember the Titans.
“A single name can define an artist who is a peer and equal of all the legends,” Hanks said, presenting the award. “And if ‘Washington’ doesn’t ring out loud enough, then let that first name carry all the weight: That name is ‘Denzel.’ “
The son of a beauty parlor owner and a Pentecostal minister, Washington grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, and took his first acting class while attending Fordham University in the late 1970s. “It was kind of easy, or I enjoyed it, I should say, and people told me I was good,” Washington told The New York Times in 2012. “When I started out, I was just thinking about the stage; it was never my goal to get to Hollywood.”
Washington certainly went on to grace the stage — including as Marcus Brutus in a Broadway production of Julius Caesar and his Tony-winning turn opposite Viola Davis in 2010’s Fences, among other plays — but he is best known for his silver screen contributions, which have been praised by critics for their authenticity and embraced by audiences for their accessibility.
Sunday’s lifetime achievement honor is Washington’s third award from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. He won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of a boxer wrongfully convicted of murder in 1999’s The Hurricane — a performance Entertainment Weekly described as a “wounding slow burn.” He previously won a Globe for his supporting role in the 1989 Civil War drama Glory, playing an escaped slave and Union Army soldier fighting in the first African-American unit. That role also earned Washington his first Academy Award. He took home Oscar gold for the second time for his turn as a corrupt cop in Antoine Fuqua’s 2001 crime thriller Training Day. (Washington and Fuqua, who teamed for 2014’s The Equalizer, are reuniting for the remake of The Magnificent Seven, due in theaters this September.)
The actor is also known for his frequent collaborations with the late action film helmer Tony Scott (Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Déjà Vu, The Taking of Pelham 123, and Unstoppable) and with Spike Lee, who directed Washington in Mo’ Better Blues, He Got Game, Inside Man, and Malcolm X, which was controversial even before it opened. “We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Washington told EW in 2010. “Spike was bringing up stuff that was touchy — I mean, really touchy — and with lots of different people, so you never knew where it was going to come from. But it worked out pretty good.”
Pretty good, indeed. The film earned Washington a Golden Globe nomination, an Oscar nod, and rave reviews. “Denzel Washington stands at the center of the film, in a performance of enormous breadth,” Roger Ebert wrote. “He never seems to be trying for an effect, and yet he is always convincing.”
Washington made his directorial debut with 2002’s Antwone Fisher, in which he co-starred as a military psychiatrist who helps a naval enlistee (Derek Luke) confront his traumatic childhood. The film earned Washington a Black Reel Award for best director. He also directed and starred opposite Forest Whitaker in the 2007 Golden Globe-nominated drama The Great Debaters, playing real-life debate coach Melvin B. Tolson, who guided his students at the historically black Wiley College to the national championship in 1935 during the Jim Crow era. “You know, the thing that makes me most proud is that I think I have a good eye for young actors,” Washington told EW before the film’s release. “My passion is just to see other people do well.”
It’s a passion that’s evidenced outside of Hollywood in his philanthropic endeavors. Washington served as national spokesman for Boys & Girls Clubs of America for more than 20 years. He has also made substantial donations to the Fisher House Foundation, Wiley College, The Children’s Fund of South Africa, and Fordham University.
Washington is only the third African-American recipient in the history of the Cecil B. DeMille Award, which was established in 1952; Sidney Poitier was honored in 1982, and Morgan Freeman in 2012.
It was Poitier who offered Washington a piece of life-changing advice: “Sidney Poitier told me the first three or four films you make will determine how you’re perceived in this business,” Washington told EW while reflecting on one of his early films, the 1981 comedy Carbon Copy. “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.” The 1987 biopic about South African activist Stephen Biko earned Washington his first Oscar nomination. “That movie changed everything,” he said. “I could have taken that bad comedy and had a totally different career.”