No. 1 on the 2002 Entertainers of the Year list

By Dave Karger
Updated December 13, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Denzel Washington: Photograph by Norman Jean Roy

Denzel Washington mad our Entertainers of the Year list

”Antwone Fisher,” the story of a foster child-turned-Navy seaman whose therapist pushes him to confront the abuse he suffered as a child and to find his biological family, not only marks Denzel Washington’s feature debut behind the camera but also caps a remarkable year for the man, who turns 48 on Dec. 28.

His Best Actor Oscar win in March for his villainous turn in ”Training Day” made Washington the only African American to claim that statuette since Sidney Poitier in 1964. He scored his first $20 million paycheck for the upcoming thriller ”Out of Time.” Even the potential throwaway ”John Q.,” in which he played a father who takes an ER hostage, became a $71 million-grossing crowd-pleaser. Add it all up, and there’s simply no one else who could be our Entertainer of the Year.

As his old friend Julia Roberts, who had a hard time masking her glee when she presented him with the Oscar, puts it: ”To watch someone that you know to be an exceptional flier expand their wings just a little bit further, and to know that they can capture just that much more altitude and wind speed — it’s a treat.”

The time has come, naturally, to soar in another direction. Washington says he realized his new career incarnation should begin with ”Antwone Fisher” (opening Dec. 20) when he first perused the raw autobiographical script the real-life Fisher had cobbled together during a five-month stint in 1993 as a security guard at the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City. ”There were tears on those pages when I read it,” Washington says. ”Whether it was a perfect screenplay or not doesn’t matter. The same emotions that people are feeling when they watch the movie now are the same emotions I felt when I read it.”

As the screenplay took shape, Washington wondered if he could also handle the role of psychiatrist Jerome Davenport, a composite character based on several positive forces in Fisher’s life. Though he didn’t want to multitask on his first film, execs at Fox Searchlight, the studio that produced the movie, understandably wanted him to work on both sides of the camera.

Washington soon found himself rehearsing with two unknowns — 28-year-old Derek Luke, who plays the title character, and Joy Bryant, 26, who plays Fisher’s naval-officer girlfriend, Cheryl — as his leads. So he taught them a trick he’d used for several of his own performances. ”I had them write extensive biographies of their characters,” he says. ”I said to Joy, ‘If your father was a Vietnam vet, be specific about it. How was he when he came home? Did he hit you? Did he drink too much?’ We did that with ‘Glory.’ The scene around that fire [when Washington delivers an impassioned going-to-war speech] — what I said wasn’t written. It was based on my biography.”