Denzel and his wife, Pauletta, have been married 23 years and have four children, John David, Katia, Olivia and Malcolm.
While he says he is a coach to his children, Pauletta is the real mentor. "My wife does the hard work. I'm on the road a lot. I kill the meat and bring it home," Denzel says. "She is everything in terms of their success."
Denzel and Pauletta's oldest son, John David, recently graduated from Morehouse College and is now a running back for the St. Louis Rams. John David taped a video message for his own personal mentor—his dad.
"When you get my father, you're going to get all of him. You don't get half, you don't get the fake, you get him," John David says. "He has that voice. I mean, he's real, he gets to you. He can motivate, he can bring that best out of you—that part you didn't know you had in you. Because of my dad, I want to be the best in what I do. He was tough—a tough dad—but as I've gotten older, he's kind of talking to me man to man. It's a great relationship. I feel like I can go to him about anything.
"He's my agent, my coach, my running back assistant, my eyes, my ears—I mean whatever, everything, all of that. He's on top of it. He just seems to always just have this tough perseverance, this power. I just admire his strength and his belief—I admire that the most. He's a true believer in God. He doesn't talk it, he walks it and he believes."
While Denzel does not make it a large part of his public persona, Oprah says she heard that he "runs a faithful household."
"That's how I was raised, but my wife, Pauletta, has been the one who's been there every day while I was off doing Malcolm X or The Oprah Show or whatever," Denzel says. "They pray, they know their prayers, they say grace, they say, 'Yes, sir.' 'No, sir.' 'Yes, ma'am.' 'No, ma'am.' She's done a brilliant job. She raised them the way we were raised. ... She's the one who's there. She's the consistent one."
At one point in his career, Denzel says he entertained the thought of becoming a preacher, like both of his mother's parents. When he approached his pastor with the idea, he got a surprising reaction. "He said, 'No, no, you're doing good right where you are,'" Denzel says.
"I have always looked at what I do not as preaching, but maybe my pulpit is the roles that I played. I looked at the spiritual evolution of those characters like Reuben 'Hurricane' Carter, Malcolm X and Steven Bieko. Even in Training Day, the first thing I wrote on that script was 'The wages of sin is death.'"
When he goes into character, especially in particularly intense scenes, Denzel says he always prays for strength. Before filming the famous scene in Glory in which he gets whipped, Denzel says, he knew there was only one way to make it through.
"People ask me, how did you prepare? I say I prayed. I got on my knees ... and I prayed to all the spirits. I said, 'Look, fellas, ladies'—I'm talking about those who had been whipped—'I'm just rolling with you all. Just whatever happens, I'm going. Are you with me?'" Denzel says. "And I went out there and what hit me was that I'm in charge."
Denzel credits his mother, Lennis, for keeping him grounded as he was starting to make a name for himself as an actor. "I remember coming home one time and feeling full of myself and talking, 'Did you imagine all this? I mean, I'm a star,'" Denzel says. "And she's, like, 'Negro, please. First of all, you don't know how many people been praying for you and for how long.' Then she told me to get the bucket and the squeegee and clean the windows."
Lennis says she didn't know what would happen to Denzel, but she expected big things. "The thing that I remember most about my mother and my father, who were both ministers, is each night just before she'd go to sleep, she would pray. And her prayer was, 'God bless my children and my children's children.'"
When Denzel was 11 years old, his mom helped him get his first job at Modernistic, a local barber shop run by a man named Jack Coleman.
In addition to the $11 he earned for brushing off collars and sweeping floors, Denzel says he also received his first acting lessons from Jack and his customers. "I learned a lot about acting because the best liars are in the barber shop," he jokes.
Denzel says that Jack also taught him a lot about business and the value of a dollar. "I just watched men be professionals," he says.
After more than 40 years, Jack still remembers his young apprentice. While most Americans know Denzel as an Academy Award®-winning actor, Jack knows him as little Denny from Mount Vernon. "Sometimes his mother used to think of him maybe as being a little bad, but Denzel wasn't bad," Jack says. "He was just a free spirit."
During high school, Denzel played football and dreamed of becoming a star athlete. Then, as a student at Fordham University, his passion shifted to the silver screen thanks to Bob "Robinson" Stone.
Robinson was Denzel's English teacher at Fordham and an accomplished stage actor. During Denzel's junior year, he was cast in the play "Othello." Robinson came out of theatrical retirement to play opposite the student he would later describe as the "finest young actor I have ever known."
When Denzel was 22 years old, Robinson wrote him a letter of recommendation that he still carries in his wallet to this day. Denzel says he reads the letter when he starts to get "too big headed or too small headed."
In the letter, Robinson writes, "[Denzel] has the potential for being one of the outstanding actors of the latter part of the 20th century. ... If there is such a thing as genius, then I assure you, Mr. Washington is one."
A high school English teacher also made a lasting impression on Denzel. To this day, Denzel says he owes his passion for reading to Jonathan Underwood, a teacher who urged his students to read The New York Times every day.
"I went through everything—F. Scott Fitzgerald—just read everybody," Denzel says. "[I] read book after book after book after book because he inspired us to read."
The last time Denzel saw his high school teacher, Jonathan was 24 years old. Today, he is 61, and he's in the audience! "I'm real proud of you," he says to Denzel.
Jonathan has another surprise in store for Denzel. He hands over a book of poems that Denzel's English 11 class composed nearly 40 years ago! For the first time, Denzel reads his poem publicly.
"Waking up new, stretching and yawning. Looking through the window at the great white morning. Dropping back down, as in breaking the sling. The bear says to himself, 'I'll wait 'til spring.'"
When Denzel came on The Oprah Show
almost 10 years ago, Oprah says he inspired her to get involved with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
After five years of planning and building, Oprah opened a Boys & Girls Club in her hometown, Kosciusko, Mississippi. The club is right down the road from where Oprah used to live as a child.Watch Oprah's tour of the Kosciusko Boys & Girls Club.
"As a little girl growing up here in this town, I started dreaming about my own possibilities," she says. "So I wanted to build a place here where other children could start creating their own dreams."
With a library stocked with books, a cutting-edge recreation center and a gorgeous kitchen, Oprah hopes her club will help other Mississippi children make their dreams a reality.
Printed from Oprah.com on
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