8 minute read

Forest Whitaker Biography

Selected works


Actor, director, producer

Whitaker, Forest, photograph. © Rufus R. Folkks/Corbis.

"A burly, good-natured Texan, soft-spoken and a little shy, Forest Whitaker doesn't exactly stand out in a crowd," wrote Associated Press correspondent Jay Sharbutt. "But in Hollywood, where unemployment is the rule, not the exception, he does OK." Whitaker, an award-winning actor, has graduated from important cameo roles to leading parts in major films. Not only has he won roles created specifically for a black actor—including jazz legend Charlie Parker in Bird—he has also received the opportunity to portray characters originally written for white actors. Whitaker commented to the Associated Press on his extraordinary range of roles: "I only care about doing characters I can grow from, someone I can learn from, people I can find some truth in. If I can do that, I can be happy."

As much as possible, Whitaker avoids the prying eyes of the Hollywood press. He grants interviews reluctantly and says little about his personal life or his work in the film industry. The actor explained in Ebony that the publicity surrounding his recent starring roles has proven difficult for him to accept. "I really appreciate that people enjoy my work, but most of my life has been in the background," he said. "I'm really just a normal guy, hanging out trying to live my life.… I appreciate the attention and I am growing to understand it and deal with it better, but I would prefer to walk around in total obscurity."

It may be too late for Whitaker to return to the anonymity he longs for, but he zealously guards what privacy is left by offering few details about his childhood or formative years. He was born July 15, 1961, in Longview, Texas, but grew up in Carson and Los Angeles, California. The oldest of three children of an insurance salesman and a special education teacher, Whitaker attended Palisades High School in Los Angeles, where he was a good student and an All-League defensive back in football. He earned a sports scholarship to California State University at Pomona and became a drama and music major. Eventually, though, he felt that his singing talent would be better cultivated at the University of Southern California, and he transferred there to study voice.

Stage work proved tempting, however, and Whitaker began appearing in local equity productions in Southern California. "I was probably going to go to New York and work on stage and that was it," he recalled to the Associated Press. "It just so happens I was working on a play and it turned into an opportunity to do a film." Since 1982 Whitaker has worked regularly in the movies, going from project to project and working his way from the ranks of the "extras" to the very best roles.

In 1982 Whitaker earned his first substantial role in a well-received teen film titled Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The actor's size and robust build helped him land the part of a tough guy whose cherished car gets trashed. That essentially comic role was followed by more important, serious ones; in The Color of Money, for example, Whitaker appeared as a pool shark who tries to beat the best players in the game. Although he was on screen only briefly, Whitaker studied the nuances of pool for months in order to perfect his moves and timing. As a result, observed Robert Wheaton in Ebony, "his one-scene cameo…almost stole the show from high-powered stars Paul Newman and Tom Cruise." Whitaker's performance in The Color of Money brought him to the attention of director Barry Levinson, who gave the actor a substantial part in the big-budget Good Morning, Vietnam. Whitaker was particularly pleased with that opportunity, because the part was not originally written for a black actor; he later portrayed another character intended for a white actor in Johnny Handsome. For all of these roles, Whitaker has done homework—in the form of reading and interviews—in order to assure that his performance would be realistic.

Whitaker put his greatest energy into researching the life of Charlie "Yardbird" Parker—the jazz giant who helped to launch the be-bop era—for his lead role in Clint Eastwood's Bird, a film treatment of Parker's life. In order to ensure he would be believable as a saxophone player, Whitaker took horn lessons and talked to numerous people who knew Parker during the years before the famous musician died an early, drug-related death. Whitaker even interviewed recovering heroin addicts in an effort to better understand the effects of drug abuse and dependency. "The research took on a very large scope," he remarked in Ebony. "I would wake up so depressed some mornings that I would really begin to understand why Charlie Parker tried to kill himself and why he took drugs. He led a very hard life, and it took quite a while to shake his thoughts from my head." Whitaker's portrayal of Parker in Bird won the young actor the top award at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. Jet correspondent Lou Ransom declared that the role was "the crowning achievement in Whitaker's career, which has shown remarkable success." And Wheaton suggested that Whitaker's performance was "exceptional, the kind of acting that makes a star. He lets the late jazzman's self-destructive streak come through but also shows us Parker's charm and intelligence."

The success of Bird proved that Whitaker could handle a principal role. He has been busy ever since, acting in films such as Diary of a Hitman and Article 99. He also took on the task of producing several films. In A Rage in Harlem—a 1991 comedy-drama that he also co-produced—Whitaker played a mild-mannered accountant who falls hopelessly in love with a worldly songstress and subsequently becomes embroiled in danger when he seeks to save her from a sordid scheme involving stolen gold. The actor pointed out to the Associated Press that the film "takes on a kind of fable quality. It's really about being able to believe in something and not be changed and structured by the world, being true to yourself." A Rage in Harlem, which was shot in Cincinnati, Ohio, also featured Gregory Hines, Danny Glover, and Robin Givens.

Whitaker took on the challenge of assuming the role of Joe Louis—the heavyweight boxer who won a world championship against Germany's Max Schmeling in 1938. In order to prepare for this portrayal, Whitaker went into a gym and worked with boxing trainers. The actor expressed in the Los Angeles Daily News that he is particularly excited about the opportunity to play Louis. "I love boxing," he said. "Joe Louis was the beginning. He gave pride to the black community." More than that, the actor added, "Joe Louis united the country."

At a Glance …

Born on July 15, 1961, in Longview, TX; son of Forest Jr. (in insurance sales) and Laura (a special education teacher) Whitaker; married Keisha Whitaker, 1996; children: two. Education: Attended California State Polytechnic University and University of Southern California.

Career: Actor on stage and in feature films, 1981–.

Awards: Cannes Film Festival award for best actor, 1988, for Bird; International Critics' Award for best new director, Toronto Film Festival, 1993; Emmy award for best Made for Television Move, for Door to Door, 2003.

Addresses: Agent—David Eidenberg, S.T.E. Representation, 9301 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 312, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.

Whitaker also began directing films in the early 1990s. His directing debut was in 1993 with Strapped, an original film for HBO, for which he won the International Critics' Award for best new director at the Toronto Film Festival in 1993. He has also directed such feature films as Waiting to Exhale in 1995, Hope Floats in 1998, and First Daughter in 2004.

To support his efforts, Whitaker established his own multimedia company called Spirit Dance Entertainment. Based in both the United States and the United Kingdom, Spirit Dance Entertainment, includes film, television, and music production. In London, the company mentors black and Asian filmmakers. His work continued to earn acclaim throughout the industry. In 2001 Whitaker produced his first feature film through Spirit Dance, Green Dragon. Soon, his television efforts were winning awards; Door to Door, a made for television movie about a man's efforts to become a successful salesman despite his cerebral palsy, won an Emmy award in 2003. In 2004, Whitaker was one of the first two directors selected for the First Amendment Project, a collaboration between the Sundance Channel and Court TV. For the project, Whitaker will direct a film that will portray an aspect of the First Amendment in a creative, fresh, innovative way.

Whitaker lives quietly in Los Angeles near his retired parents. He remains devoted to music, especially singing and playing the saxophone, and has been writing screenplays to support his own productions. Married in 1996, Whitaker is rarely seen on the Hollywood party scene—he shuns the limelight whenever possible. Ebony contributor Rhoda E. McKinney noted that despite his hard work and success, "Whitaker is truly a reluctant star. He is a humble man who shies from excess and pretense." Pressed about his views in Ebony, the star would only reply: "I hope through my work to help people understand themselves and others better."

Selected works


Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982.

Platoon, 1986.

Stakeout, 1987.

Good Morning, Vietnam, 1987.

Bird, 1988.

Bloodsport, 1988.

Johnny Handsome, 1989.

Downtown, 1990.

Diary of a Hitman, 1991.

A Rage in Harlem, 1991.

Article 99, 1992.

The Crying Game, 1992.

Consenting Adults, 1992.

Body Snatchers, 1993.

Bank Robber, 1993.

Blown Away, 1994.

Jason's Lyric, 1994.

Ready to Wear, 1994.

Smoke, 1995.

Species, 1995.

Phenomenon, 1996.

Body Count, 1998.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, 1999.

Light It Up, 1999.

Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000, 2000.

Four Dogs Playing Poker, 2000.

Green Dragon, 2001.

The Hire: The Follow, 2001.

The Fourth Angel, 2001.

Panic Room, 2002.

Phone Booth, 2002.

Jiminy Glick in La La Wood, 2004.

First Daughter, 2004.



Associated Press wire reports, October 16, 1988; September 6, 1990; May 5, 1991.

Business Wire, January 15, 2004.

Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1988; May 3, 1991.

Daily News (Los Angeles), May 7, 1991.

Ebony, October 1988; November 1988.

Jet, November 7, 1988.

Journal and Constitution (Atlanta), November 5, 1988.

Los Angeles Times, May 3, 1991.

New York Times, May 24, 1988; September 11, 1988; May 3, 1991.

Phoenix Gazette, June 8, 1991.

Post and Courier (Charleston, SC), March 6, 2003.

Washington Post, August 2, 1990; May 3, 1991.

—Mark Kram and

Sara Pendergast

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