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Ving Rhames Biography

Grew up with Gangsters, On Stage and Screen, Won Kudos for Generosity, Selected works



Forging his reputation by playing tough and often frightening characters, Ving Rhames has built a career as a stage, film, and television actor that has had few lulls since he landed his first role in the early 1980s. Many of the characters he has played have been prototypes of real-life thugs and criminals who were commonplace in the gritty urban environment where he grew up. On the Cinemania Web site on the Internet, Rhames is defined as a "character player of stage and screen who has embodied complex and credible heavies, and flawed men of authority."

Grew up with Gangsters

"I grew up in the same neighborhood with drug kings and gangsters," admitted Rhames on the People magazine Web site. Raised on 126th Street in the Harlem area of New York City, he credits his mother with helping him stay on the straight path toward adulthood. "She has been such a strong influence in my life," noted the actor about his mother in press materials from Rogers & Cowan, a public relations firm serving the entertainment industry. "That, in large part, is the reason why I didn't allow myself to fall into the peer pressure of my neighborhood. I just always aimed to be a good son to my mother, who I felt deserved more and far better."

Rhames cited a ninth grade teacher, Miss Goodblatt, as an important catalyst for his future acting career. "When we would do reading in class, Miss Goodblatt would call on me to read," Rhames recalled in People. "She said I had a talent." He auditioned for the prestigious High School of Performing Arts in New York City, and became the only student from his junior high school to be accepted. Rhames's talent blossomed during his years at the High School of Performing Arts, allowing him to earn a drama scholarship to the Juilliard School.

Upon graduation from Juilliard in 1983, Rhames quickly found work. "I graduated on a Friday," he said in People. "By Monday, I was doing Shakespeare in the Park." Rhames's training in the classics landed him numerous roles in plays by Ibsen, Moliere, and others on the regional theater circuit. He also appeared in Off-Broadway productions of Map of the World, Short Eyes, Richard III, and Ascension Day. John Simon remarked in his New York magazine review of Short Eyes that "the only totally successful acting comes from the black contingent, Ving Rhames, Reggie Montgomery, and especially Larry Fishburne." In 1984, Rhames broke into television with roles in daytime soap operas such as Another World and The Guiding Light. He also made his film debut as author James Baldwin's young father in Baldwin's autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain, which aired on PBS. "He delivered a vigorous performance as a young Baptist preacher attempting to escape the strictures of the 1920s South," noted the Cinemania website of Rhames's performance in the film.

On Stage and Screen

Throughout the 1980s, Rhames made frequent appearances on television, in the movies, and on Broad-way. He was cast as a soldier in Vietnam in the Broadway production of The Boys of Winter in 1984, as a guest star on the television war drama Tour of Duty, in Brian DePalma's Casualties of War in 1989, and in Jacob's Ladder in 1990. Also, he appeared in the films Native Son in 1986 and Patty Hearst in 1988. In 1990, Rhames played Whoopi Goldberg's sensitive husband in The Long Walk Home, a film dealing with the early struggle for civil rights. This role offered Rhames an opportunity to expand his range beyond tough, bitter characters. In 1993, Rhames revealed a flair for comedy as well, playing an uptight Secret Service man in Dave.

In 1993, during the filming of The Saint of Fort Washington in New York City, Rhames was unexpectedly reunited with his brother, Junior, a troubled, homeless Vietnam veteran who'd been estranged from the Rhames family for years. Several scenes of the film were shot at a homeless shelter, with Rhames playing a street tough who took advantage of the homeless men. One day, Rhames recognized one of the men at the shelter as his long-lost brother. He brought his brother back to his apartment and helped him find a job. "I realized then, more than ever, that I am my brother's keeper and we as human beings are all our brothers' keepers," Rhames remarked in a Rogers & Cowan publicity release. "We have to take some responsibility in helping those less fortunate."

Rhames enjoyed a great deal of professional success in 1994. Partly due to his friendship with Eriq La Salle, a fellow classmate at Juilliard, he was selected to play La Salle's auto-mechanic brother-in-law on the top-rated television series ER. Acting opportunities for Rhames increased dramatically after his role as an ominous gangster baron in Quentin Tarantino's widely acclaimed film Pulp Fiction. According to Cinemania's review of his performance, Rhames "brought a distinct blend of suaveness and menace to his portrayal of crime boss Marsellus Wallace.…" In 1995, Rhames was cast opposite Nicholas Cage and David Caruso (of N.Y.P.D. Blue) in Kiss of Death. He also landed roles in 1996 as a nightclub bouncer in Striptease with Demi Moore and a hard-edged computer genius in the block-buster film Mission: Impossible with Tom Cruise. Janet Maslin of the New York Times offered special praise for Rhames's performance in Striptease, saying that his "surly, deadpan delivery (as when he complains furiously because a video store is out of 'Free Willy') is the film's biggest treat."

In 1997, Rhames continued his hot streak by landing a role in Dangerous Ground, a film about a search for a missing person in the underworld of Johannesburg, South Africa. He also appeared in John Singleton's Rosewood, a film about a racially motivated massacre in a primarily black town in Florida during the early 1920s. "In all of his other movies he was a bad, kick-ass guy," said Singleton in a People magazine interview. "In Rosewood he gets to work with kids, gets to dance and sing and be a bad dude. He got so happy about doing this sensitive role."

Won Kudos for Generosity

Although nominated for several awards over the years, Rhames made headlines when he won a Golden Globe Award in 1998. Honored for his portrayal of Don King—a man Rhames called "the American Dream personified," according to the Guardian—in HBO's miniseries Don King: Only in America, Rhames stunned the audience by asking nominee Jack Lemmon onto the stage in order to turn over the award to him. Lemmon remembered it as "one of the sweetest things" ever to happen to him, according to Jet.

Over the next few years, Rhames continued to work steadily in films and on television. Offering solid performances in Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Mission: Impossible II (2000), Baby Boy (2001), as the voice for the character of Cobra Bubbles in Lilo & Stitch (2002), and in Dawn of the Dead (2004). However, in 2005 news of Rhames breathing new life into the 1970s iconic character Kojak made famous by Telly Savalas seemed promising. Rhames never watched the original Kojak, but television executive Jeff Wachtel told Daily Variety that "Ving's a world-class actor who has reinvented Kojak as a prince of his city—a man who will do whatever it takes to make his world a better place."

At a Glance …

Born Irving Rhames on May 12, 1959, in New York, NY; son of Ernest (retired auto mechanic) and Rather (homemaker) Rhames; married Valerie Scott 1994 (divorced 1999); married Deborah Reed 2000; children: Rainbow (daughter), Freedom (son), Tiffany (stepdaughter). Education: Attended State University of New York, Purchase; Juilliard School of Drama, BFA, 1983.

Career: Actor, 1983–.

Awards: Golden Globe Award for best actor in a miniseries, 1998 (handed over his award to Jack Lemmon).

Addresses: Home—Los Angeles, CA.

As Rhames' star continues to rise, he remains grounded in his strong moral principles. "I was never a struggling actor, for which I feel very blessed," Rhames admitted to People. He also credits his strong religious faith as a key to his success. As Rhames stated in a Rogers & Cowan publicity release, "Since God is the foundation of my life, anything that streams from that can only be positive."

Selected works


Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1985.

Casualties of War, 1989.

Jacob's Ladder, 1990.

The Long Walk Home, 1990.

Dave, 1993.

The Saint of Fort Washington, 1993.

Pulp Fiction, 1994.

Kiss of Death, 1995.

Mission: Impossible, 1996.

Striptease, 1996.

Dangerous Ground, 1997.

Rosewood, 1997.

Bringing Out the Dead, 1999.

Mission Impossible II, 2000.

Baby Boy, 2001.

Lilo & Stitch, 2002.

Undisputed, 2002.

Dawn of the Dead, 2004.


The Boys of Winter, Broadway, 1985.


Another World, 1984.

The Guiding Light, 1984.

ER, 1994-96.

Don King: Only in America (miniseries), 1997.

The District, 2002.

Kojak, 2005–.



Daily Variety, October 28, 2004, p. 12.

Guardian (London), March 19, 1999.

Jet, January 27, 2003, p. 66; February 9, 1998, p. 36.

New York, December 10, 1984, p. 80.

New York Times, November 29, 2002, p.B28.

People, June 24, 1996, pp. 77-78.

USA Weekend, October, 1995, p. 14.


"Ving Rhames," Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com/cache/person-exact/a114963 (March 10, 2005).

"Ving Rhames," Microsoft Cinemania, updated November 1, 1996, http://Cinemania.msn.com/Cinemania/Artists/Biographies/VingRhames.htm (January 1997).


Additional information for this profile was obtained from publicity materials of Rogers & Cowan, 1888 Century Park East, Los Angeles, California.

—Ed Decker and

Sara Pendergast

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