Forest Whitaker

Also Credited As:

Forest Steven Whitaker
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Biography

Though actor Forest Whitaker started college on an athletic scholarship, the charismatic and award-winning performer made the unlikely shift from football to studying to become a classical tenor and eventually, an actor. After gaining some attention in several stage musicals, Whitaker made an immediate impression with a small, but memorable role in his feature debut, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982). Following a quick succession of …
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Job Title

Actor, Director, Producer, Writer, Music

Born

Forest Steven Whitaker on July 15, 1961 in Longview, Texas, USA

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Though actor Forest Whitaker started college on an athletic scholarship, the charismatic and award-winning performer made the unlikely shift from football to studying to become a classical tenor and eventually, an actor. After gaining some attention in several stage musicals, Whitaker made an immediate impression with a small, but memorable role in his feature debut, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982). Following a quick succession of supporting roles in features and on television, he earned his first wave of critical accolades for his portrayal of drug-addicted jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker in "Bird" (1988). Once he was established as a viable leading man, Whitaker easily oscillated between low-budget and studio projects, earning equal acclaim for his performances. Taking his career to the next level, he made several earnest, but ultimately mediocre forays into feature directing - most notably "Waiting to Exhale" (1995) - but continued to churn out one sterling performance after another until finally reaching new heights with his Oscar-winning portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland" (2006), which came hot on the heels of another mesmerizing performance as an obsessive internal affairs officer on season five of "The Shield" (FX, 2002-08). Both roles only confirmed what many had already known - that Whitaker was one of Hollywood's most versatile, surprising and talented actors of his day.

Born on July 15, 1961 in Longview, TX, Whitaker was raised by his father, Forest, Sr., an insurance salesman and his mother, Laura, a special education teacher. When he was just six weeks old, his parents moved the family from Longview to South Central Los Angeles, where he stayed until he was 11 when they moved again to nearby Carson. By the time he was in his teens, his parents - particularly his mother - wanted him to attend high school somewhere other than in Carson or next door Compton. So he was bused instead to Palisades High School - a two-hour commute each way - where he was an all-league defensive tackle on the football team and used his rich tenor voice to perform in school musicals. After graduating, Whitaker earned a football scholarship to California Polytechnic Institute in Pomona, but opted instead to attend the University of Southern California Conservatory on a vocal scholarship. Meanwhile, he began performing in several productions around Los Angeles, including "School Talk" at the Mark Taper Forum, as well as "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "The Beggar's Opera," both at the California Youth Theater.

After an agent saw him performing, Whitaker dedicated himself fulltime to acting. He secured another scholarship, this one for the Berkley branch of the Drama Studio London, then landed his first onscreen role, playing an enraged football player in Cameron Crowe's classic teen comedy, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982). Whitaker was briefly sidetracked from features with a string of television appearances, including the six-part miniseries "North and South" (ABC, 1985), as well as episodes of "Diff'rent Strokes" (NBC, 1978-1985; ABC, 1985-86), "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1981-87), "Cagney and Lacey" (CBS, 1982-88), and "Amazing Stories" (NBC, 1985-87). Back in features, Whitaker appeared in the sports-themed drama, "Vision Quest" (1985), then gained considerable notice as a charmingly duplicitous billiards opponent of Paul Newman in Martin Scorsese's "The Color of Money" (1986). More supporting feature roles followed, including "Platoon" (1986), "Stakeout" (1987) and "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987), in which he more than held his own opposite Robin Williams as his likeable sidekick. Whitaker graduated to leading-man status under the direction of Clint Eastwood for the dark biopic "Bird" (1988), earning Best Actor honors at the Cannes Film Festival for his compelling portrayal of doomed jazz legend Charlie Parker.

Building off his first critically acclaimed role, Whitaker played a kindly plastic surgeon in "Johnny Handsome" (1989), then followed with an unhurried performance that subtly suggested the naiveté of his Mama's Boy character in "A Rage in Harlem" (1991). He next conveyed skeptical intelligence of his insurance investigator in "Consenting Adults" (1992), which rounded out a trio of projects in which Whitaker showed how easily he could rise above otherwise bland material. He displayed a mesmerizing depth in "Diary of a Hitman" (1992), the feature directing debut of acting coach Roy London. Hired to knock off the wife (Sherilyn Fenn) and child of a born-again commodities broker who claims his wife is a drug addict and the infant crack baby not his, Whitaker goes about saving the intended victim (and himself) when he discovers the broker lied in this modest, expertly-acted indie. He was also quietly, irresistibly sympathetic as a British soldier kidnapped by the Irish Republican Army in Neil Jordan's highly praised and notorious political thriller, "The Crying Game" (1992).

The unexpected commercial success of "The Crying Game" led to increased interest in Whitaker's long-form directorial debut after he had previously directed only music videos - "Strapped" (HBO, 1993). Filmed on location in Brooklyn's notorious Fort Greene district, the gritty urban drama about an African-American teenager (Bokeem Woodbine) struggling to survive in a Brooklyn housing project screened at various international film festivals and earned the director's award for Best First Feature in Toronto. Deluged with offers to direct, Whitaker remained a familiar face on screen while pondering his filmmaking future, segueing effortlessly from big-budget Hollywood genre fare, like "Blown Away" (1994) and "Species" (1995), to small-budget indies like "Body Snatchers" (1993). His ability to evoke audience empathy continued undiminished as he affectingly portrayed physically and mentally maimed fathers in both "Jason's Lyric" (1994) and "Smoke" (1995). Admirably unafraid to play gay characters, Whitaker fared well as a down-to-earth fashion designer in Robert Altman's satirical misfire, "Ready to Wear" (1994) before returning to the world of jazz, playing trumpeter Buddy Chester, who was stricken with a fatal brain tumor in Showtime's "Lush Life" (1994).

Whitaker chose to make his feature directing debut with "Waiting to Exhale" (1995), the black female ensemble drama adapted from Terry McMillan's best seller. Boasting a large cast headlined by Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett, the film opened to mixed reviews - mostly complaints about the episodic nature of the story - but ultimately healthy box office. He returned to the other side of the camera as John Travolta's best friend in "Phenomenon" (1996), then returned to the director's chair for "Hope Floats" (1998), a sappy romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock. Though similar to "Waiting to Exhale" in its story of a character trying to regain belief in herself, Whitaker's sophomore effort was far less compelling, while Bullock - who also executive-produced - had little help from her mostly muted and wooden fellow actors. Although he admittedly preferred directing to acting, the demand for him to do the latter has kept him primarily in front of the camera since "Hope Floats," though he did executive-produce and helm a busted ABC pilot "Black Jaq" in 1998.

Following the thoughtful, if too-often predictable teen drama, "Light It Up" (1999), in which he was a school security guard ("a $5 cop with a $50 attitude") who ends up being taken hostage by a group of students, Whitaker played a Federal Marshal who gets his kicks watching low-lifes squirm in "Witness Protection" (HBO, 1999). He then stepped back into the shoes of a hit man as the titular character of Jim Jarmusch's whimsical "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" (1999), imparting a dignified gravity to the character's meticulously ordered existence defined and regulated by an 18th-century text, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. Whitaker's complete immersion in and dead-on rendering of Jarmusch's anachronistic antihero - coupled with The RZA's high-voltage, hip-hop score - went a long way toward making commercial what was arguably Jarmusch's most accessible film to date. Whitaker then reunited with producer-star John Travolta to play the evil dominators of the remnants of mankind in the notoriously awful sci-fi opus "Battlefield Earth: The Saga of the Year 3000" (2000), adapted from the novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and widely considered to be one of the worst movies of all time.

Following a supporting turn in Vietnamese refugee tale "The Green Dragon" (2001) and a stint as Daguerreotypist Picard in the television miniseries "Feast of All Saints" (CBS, 2001), based on the Anne Rice horror novel, Whitaker made a believably reluctant villain as part of the team of home invaders who trap Jodie Foster in a secured zone in the David Finch thriller, "Panic Room" (2002). He also made the most of what might have been a clichéd role in "Phone Booth" (2002), playing an empathetic police captain who comes to the aid of a man (Colin Farrell) trapped in a telephone booth by a mysterious sniper. Whitaker next moved into television, taking the reigns from Rod Serling as the host of the revival of "The Twilight Zone" (UPN, 2002-03), executive-produced the acclaimed original film "Door to Door" (TNT, 2002), starring William H. Macy, then appeared in the fact-based telepic "Deacons for the Defense" (2003) as the founder of the segregation-opposed organization of the 1960s who took up arms to oppose racial discrimination and battle the Ku Klux Klan. "Door to Door" won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Made for Television Movie.

On the big screen, Whitaker also served as a producer of the Latina-centric comedy "Chasing Papi" (2003), then after coming close to directing a live-action version of Bill Cosby's animated series "Fat Albert" (2004), he moved behind the camera to direct Katie Holmes in "First Daughter" (2004), a lightweight tale of a headstrong, rebellious Presidential offspring who goes off to college and finds love with the undercover Secret Service agent (Marc Blucas) assigned to protect her. Whitaker then signed on as a regular cast member for the fifth season of "The Shield" (FX, 2002-08), playing Lieutenant Kavanaugh, a by-the-book cop from internal affairs out to investigate Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and his corrupt Strike Team. Whitaker's zealous portrayal of a clean-cut officer who gets dragged down into the muck by his prey was widely praised by both fans and critics, and mightily contributed to what many considered to be the best and most intense season in the show's history.

Back in features, Whitaker appeared in the Italian-released "Mary" (2005), about the spiritual transformation of an actress (Juliette Binoche) after she plays Mary Magdalene in a film, then "A Little Trip to Heaven" (2005), a low-budget thriller in which he portrayed an insurance investigator who poses as a police officer to investigate possible fraud after a tragic bus accident. In "American Gun" (2005), which told three interwoven stories about the proliferation of firearms in America, Whitaker was a high school principal in Chicago struggling to deal with increasing violence by his students. After a small voice role in the uninspired animated feature "Everyone's Hero" (2006), Whitaker tackled the role of a lifetime in "The Last King of Scotland" (2006), playing Idi Amin, the charismatic, but brutal dictator of Uganda who was responsible for the sectarian slaughter of 300,000 people during the 1970s. Whitaker's Amin vacillated from smooth-talking charm to absolute evil, creating a character that seemed both intensely personal and larger-than-life. His performance generated the first genuine Oscar buzz after the film was shown at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. Though shamefully overlooked by the Golden Globe Awards for his stellar performance as the hectoring Lieutenant Kavanaugh on "The Shield," Whitaker's eerily accurate portrayal of Amin earned the actor a statue for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture. Then as expected by critics and fans alike, Whitaker won the coveted Academy Award for Best Actor.

Returning to television, Whitaker gave yet another sterling small screen performance, playing a former patient on "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009) who sues the hospital for malpractice and neglect. Whitaker earned his second-ever Emmy award nomination, getting the nod for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for the five episode arc. Meanwhile, Whitaker had a co-starring role as an American tourist who captures footage - a la Abraham Zapruder - of the assassination of the U.S. president (William Hurt) in "Vantage Point" (2008). He then appeared in a string of independent films that year, including "The Air I Breathe," "Street Kings" and "Ripple Effect," as well as voiced Lian Chu in the foreign-made animated fantasy "Dragon Hunters." Whitaker later landed a high-profile off-screen gig, voicing the monstrous Ira in Spike Jonze's long-awaited adaptation of the children's classic "Where the Wild Things Are" (2009). He then starred in "Hurricane Season" (2009), the true-to-life story of high school basketball coach Al Collins (Whitaker), who leads his team to the state championship after Hurricane Katrina ravaged their school and displaced many of its students. In 2010, he co-starred with Jude Law in the gritty sci-fi film "Repo Men," but the movie fared poorly in general.

After appearing in a number of largely overlooked films, Whitaker revisited television to star in the procedural drama spin-off series, "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior" (CBS, 2011), but the show met with a quick demise. He then had an odd streak of movies that all garnered little attention, despite the presence of him and other major actors. This unfortunate run included the action films "Catch .44" (2011) with Bruce Willis and "The Last Stand" (2013) with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whitaker finally reversed his career slump with his starring role in "The Butler" (2013), a sprawling look at American history and race relations through a key member of the White House wait staff. Directed by Lee Daniels and featuring a huge ensemble cast, the movie led to serious Academy Award buzz, particularly for Whitaker's nuanced performance.