Don Cheadle Biography
Found Work Early On, Won Critical Acclaim as Mouse, Appeared on TV, Selected works
Actor, director, writer, musician
Don Cheadle has carved as unique niche for himself in Hollywood. He is, as Esquire dubbed him, "the thinking man's character actor." Cheadle selects his roles with care, relishing the opportunity to try new things. Cheadle has won extensive critical acclaim for his vast array of characters, including his turns as a district attorney on television's Picket Fences, as Denzel Washington's horrifying sidekick Mouse in Devil in a Blue Dress, as a porn star in Boogie Nights, and as a dancing and singing Sammy Davis, Jr., in Rat Pack. But his lead role in Hotel Rwanda catapulted him to stardom. His portrayal of Paul Rusesabagina, the Rwandan hotel manager who protected over 1,000 Tutsis from harm when his country erupted in civil war in 1994, earned him an Oscar nomination and "the luxury of picking and choosing what movies he'll perform in," according to Ebony.
Found Work Early On
Cheadle was born on November 29, 1964, in Kansas City, Missouri, the second of three children of a psychologist father and a schoolteacher mother. His father's pursuit of educational and job opportunities took the family to Lincoln, Nebraska, and Denver, Colorado. The role of Templeton the Rat in a fifth grade production of Charlotte's Web got him interested in acting. "I remember carrying my script around and studying it like I do now—I don't know why, but I was serious about acting even then," Cheadle told Kristine McKenna of the Los Angeles Times. After performing in numerous high school plays and musicals, Cheadle moved on to the California Institute for the Arts in Valencia, California, near Los Angeles. "I loved Cal Arts. I knew I would be acting all the time there. You might not get the part you want, but you know you're going to be in twenty-four plays no matter what," Cheadle told Interview.
Typical struggling actor jobs such as waiting on tables or parking cars are not part of Cheadle's story. "I've been blessed beyond belief. I've only been an actor to support myself. To complain would be sinful," Cheadle told Justine Elias of Interview. Landing his first paying acting jobs while still in drama school, Cheadle has been working steadily in films, television, and theater since 1985. Upon graduation in 1986, Cheadle was given five hundred dollars by his parents to help him start off his professional career. Fortunately, after a about a month, just as the money was running out, Cheadle landed a role in the film Hamburger Hill, a drama about a group of soldiers battling to secure a strategic hill during the Vietnam War. Shot on location in the Philippines, the film was directed by John Irvin and featured a roster of new young performers including Dylan McDermott, Courtney B. Vance, and Steven Weber, along with Cheadle.
Returning from the Philippines, Cheadle quickly found work at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in a production of Jean Genet's The Screens staged by renowned experimental director JoAnne Akalaitis. From there Cheadle moved on to the film Colors, a gritty tale of Los Angeles gang warfare between the Bloods and the Crips. Directed by Dennis Hopper, the film starred Robert Duvall and Sean Penn as police officers investigating a "drive-by" shooting of a gang member. Cheadle played Rocket, the leader of the Crips who dies in a shoot out at the film's end. A happier film project was 1993's The Meteor Man, a socially conscious fantasy about a man who finds himself with superhuman power after being struck by a meteor and uses the new power to clean up his troubled neighborhood. Robert Townsend wrote, directed, and starred in the film. Again, Cheadle played a gang member, only this time for satirical humor.
Cheadle's breakthrough film was Devil in a Blue Dress, a moody "film noir" based on a Walter Mosley mystery novel. Released in 1995, the film starred Denzel Washington as Easy Rawlins, an unemployed aircraft worker turned private detective investigating a murder in Los Angeles' vibrant black community in the 1940s. Cheadle played Mouse, Rawlins' violent and vicious friend who became his partner in the investigation. "Don Cheadle does a frighteningly funny turn as a completely amoral little man who finds it easier to kill someone than to talk to him," wrote David Denby in New York. And film critic Sibylla Nash wrote in the Los Angeles Sentinel that "Cheadle almost steals the show from Washington with his matter-of-fact humor." But Cheadle told Stephen Farber of the New York Times : "At first I was surprised that audiences laughed at Mouse. I wasn't attempting to get laughs. But in any farce, the energy a character spends pursuing a single goal is funny. And it's scary, too. I think one reason people laugh is that they're feeling 'I'm glad I'm not in that room with Mouse.'"
Devil in a Blue Dress was directed by Carl Franklin, in whose American Film Institute student film, Punk, Cheadle had appeared several years before. Initially Franklin did not want Cheadle for the role of Mouse, thinking him too young to play a contemporary of fortyish Washington. Cheadle was refused an audition. Fortunately, an accidental encounter between Cheadle and Franklin at a doctor's office lead to Cheadle being asked to read for the part. A second reading with Washington, during which the two actors clicked, secured the part for Cheadle. "I had six weeks to prepare so I did lots of research that included spending a week in Houston, which is where Mouse is from. I met a few people from the '40s who were of the world Mouse lived in, and having talked with some of them I can tell you that gangsters of that era were different from gangsters today. There was more honor among thieves then, and they had a strong sense of community and all kept each other in check. Crack, of course, has put an end to all that," Cheadle told the Los Angeles Times.
Won Critical Acclaim as Mouse
Though well received by critics, Devil in a Blue Dress failed at the box office. "That was very disappointing because it was a wonderful film, with wonderful performances," critic Orlando Peters explained to the Jacksonville Free Press. "I would have bet a bundle that film would have done well. It had a proven star, and it was based on a popular book. It wasn't even a matter of it failing to cross over, because black people alone could have made that film a success, and the final numbers say black audiences were not interested in the film." For his work as Mouse, Cheadle was named best supporting actor by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and by the National Society of Film Critics. Cheadle's name, however, was not on the list of Academy Award nominees. "Now that I know how [Oscar nominees] get picked, and how the selection process works, I could give a (expletive) if I ever get one. I mean it would be nice because your money goes up, and it shows appreciation on a wide level, but what does my performance have to do with the political lobbying and machinations that go on inside the Academy that I am not privy to? Nothing. If I never get an Oscar, it doesn't mean anything about my work," Cheadle told Mark Ebner of Premiere. Although many critics felt Cheadle's not earning an Academy Award nomination for Devil in a Blue Dress was an outrage, Cheadle tried to take a more practical view of the situation. "My folks sent me a slew of magazine and newspaper articles that asked why I wasn't nominated, so in the end I got more buzz for being overlooked," Cheadle told Elias.
Though Cheadle spent his early years landing distinct supporting character roles, he played the lead in Rebound: The Legend of Earl "The Goat" Manigault. Made for the Home Box Office (HBO) cable channel in 1996, Rebound told the near-autobiographical story of a Harlem basketball wizard of the 1960s whose chance for a career in professional basketball was ruined by his descent into drug addiction and crime. Manigault's eventual recovery from addiction and his work with New York City youth were also depicted. "Cheadle's performance in portraying the once promising basketball star who traded his skills for the foolish pleasures of snorting and injecting his way to a temporary high is superb," wrote Jaime C. Harris in the Amsterdam News. Rebound was directed by actor Eriq LaSalle, of television's ER, and featured James Earl Jones, Forrest Whitaker, and Clarence Williams III.
Another story based on past events in which Cheadle appeared was Rosewood, a look at the burning down by angry, bigoted whites of Rosewood, an African American community in central Florida. Believing a white woman's false accusation that she had been attacked by a Rosewood man, and jealous of Rosewood's prosperity, white residents of the neighboring mill town of Sumner torched the nearly all-black town in 1923. Cheadle played Sylvester Carrier, a piano teacher who risked his life by deciding to stand his ground and not run away from the racist mob. The film was directed by John Singleton. "I had seen Don Cheadle's portrayal of Mouse in Devil in a Blue Dress and was impressed with his performance. I called him up afterward and told him we had to work together. I didn't know what it would be at the time, but when we were casting Rosewood, I realized he would be a great Sylvester," Singleton told the Indianapolis Recorder. Released in 1997, Rosewood garnered some excellent reviews. Joan H. Allen of the Amsterdam News called the film "powerful and compelling." Despite critical praise, Rosewood barely registered at the box office. "It was a hard sell," Cheadle explained to Elias. "Very few movies take on the risk of trying to teach you something, or illuminate something so that people who just want escapism will digest it too …The Rosewood tragedy wasn't that long ago: It took place in our grandparents' day, and the xenophobic attitude it shows is prevalent today. And when the mirror is held up to that attitude, well, I think people feel pretty resentful when they've just paid $7.50," he continued.
Cheadle admitted that money was the primary impetus for his appearance in the disaster film Volcano, in which an unprepared Los Angeles is threatened with an overwhelming flow of lava. His role in the 1997 film as assistant chief of the city's emergency management squad was not written specifically for a black actor. Cheadle said non-race specific roles are relatively rare and not necessarily desirable. "Color blindness is ridiculous …You don't need to ignore your race …There are issues you can't not confront. I'm glad people try to write roles that anyone can do, but I also don't ever want to end up in movies where the fact that I'm a black man is a nonissue. In America, it's always an issue," Cheadle told Interview.
In Boogie Nights, an unsparingly frank examination of the pornographic film industry of the 1970s, Cheadle played Buck Swope, an X-rated movie star. "My backstory on him would be that he's from a broken home, and he's fallen into this family of misfits that have welcomed him," Cheadle said of his character in the film to Ebner. At first, Cheadle was reluctant to accept the part, worried that the film might be tawdry. He requested that he not have to take off his clothes for the camera. "I didn't want to be naked and exploited. I wanted the film to take a deep look at these people and it does," Cheadle recalled in Interview.
Appeared on TV
On series television, Cheadle's most notable work was his two years as a straight-arrow district attorney on the quirky small town life drama Picket Fences. He also had a regular role on the situation comedy The Golden Palace, an unsuccessful sequel to The Golden Girls, and recurring roles on Fame and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. More television is not something Cheadle sees in his future, hoever. "I plan to focus on films and theater because with television you're forced to deal with major script changes every day. There's no time to refine things, and they so often cut things that are key to where you're trying to take your character. I find it very frustrating," Cheadle said in the Los Angeles Times.
Cheadle's concentration on landing roles that he could dig his teeth into paid off. For his portrayal of Sammy Davis, Jr., in the made-for-television movie the Rat Pack, Cheadle won a Golden Globe award. Cheadle also won critical praise for his lead role in Hotel Rwanda, the real-life story of the 1994 civil war in Rwanda. Hollywood Reporter called it "an African version of 1993's Schindler's List." Cheadle plays hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu, who from April to July 1994 protected 1,200 Tutsis from the rampaging Hutu militias in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Variety lauded his performance as "exquisitely crafted," Interview found it "breathtaking," and Newsweek called it Cheadle's "richest role since Devil in a Blue Dress." Cheadle earned an Oscar nomination for it. Cheadle's five-year experience working on Hotel Rwanda touched him deeply. He became a political activist, raising awareness of the atrocities of the Rwandan civil war and trying to drum up support to stop the ongoing civil war in Sudan.
Cheadle followed Hotel Rwanda with Crash. Crash uses a variety of incidents—including a traffic accident and a burglary—happening in Los Angeles over a 36-hour period to show how different people act toward each other based on first impressions, skin color, and accents. Cheadle, who also produced the film, played an L.A. police detective. The cast included actors Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, and Michael Pena. People film critic Leah Rozen praised the film, writing: "Movies don't come better acted, as lucidly written or, most importantly, more capable of grabbing a viewer emotionally and intellectually than this exceptional ensemble drama about racial and ethnic relations in urban America today."
Although a seasoned professional, Cheadle's work seemed to have only just begun in the early 2000s. He was widely sought after as an actor; he wrote and directed plays; and he continued to produce films. Cheadle also made his feature film directorial debut with an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel, Tishomingo Blues. In the film, which remained in production in 2005, Cheadle plays Robert Taylor, a gangster from Detroit. But as his children grew, Cheadle again eyed television as a good outlet for his talents because it required less traveling than film work. He had taken his daughters to South Africa with him for the filming of Hotel Rwanda, and did not feel that he could ask them to pick up and move whenever he found an interesting film. "I don't want to have them going from place to place just because this is what I want to do," Cheadle told Ebony. Nevertheless, Cheadle did not expect to lower his standards for interesting and compelling roles.
Cheadle, who lives in Venice, California, with actress Bridgid Coulter and their two young daughters, is pleased with how his life and career have evolved. He told Premiere : "When I sit back and think about it, relaxed on my front porch, feeling a breeze and listening to the wind chimes, I go, 'Damn, this came out right. This is really nice.'"
Hamburger Hill, 1987.
Roadside Prophets, 1992.
Meteor Man, 1993.
Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, 1995.
Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995.
Boogie Nights, 1997.
Out of Sight, 1998.
Family Man, 2000.
Ocean's Eleven, 2001.
Hotel Rwanda, 2004.
Ocean's Twelve, 2004.
The Screens and Leon, Lena and Lenz, Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis, MN.
The Grapes of Wrath and Liquid Skin, Mixed Blood Theatre, Minneapolis, MN.
Cymbeline, Public Theater, New York City, 1989.
'Tis a Pity She's a Whore, Goodman Theatre, Chicago, IL.
The Blood Knot, Complex Theatre, Hollywood, CA.
Groomed, New Works Festival, the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, CA, 1997.
Fame, c. 1985.
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, c. 1990.
The Golden Palace, 1992-1993.
Picket Fences, 1993-1995.
Rebound: The Legend of Earl "The Goat" Manigault (television movie), 1996.
The Rat Pack (television movie), 1998.
A Lesson Before Dying (television movie), 1999.
Amsterdam News (New York), November 23, 1996, p. 56.
Bay State Banner (Boston), March 20, 1997.
Ebony, June 2005, p. 178.
Entertainment Weekly, October 10, 1997, p. 66.
Esquire, January 2005, p. 24.
Hollywood Reporter, December 2004, p. 30.
Indianapolis Recorder, February 22, 1997, p. B2.
Interview, August 1997, p. 80-85; December 2004, p. 66.
Jacksonville Free Press, March 5, 1997, p. 13; June 4, 1997, p. 11.
Los Angeles Sentinel, October 4, 1995, p. A3.
Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1995, p. F1.
Newsweek, December 27, 2004, p. 80.
New York, October 2, 1995, p. 82.
New York Beacon, May 14, 1997, p. 26.
New York Times, October 22, 1995, sect. 2, p. 18.
Philadelphia Tribune, January 31, 1997, magazine section, p. 4.
Pittsburgh Courier, February 12, 1997, p. B3.
Sun Reporter, February 20, 1997, p. 9; April 24, 1997, p. 9.
Variety, September 20, 2004, p. 60.
"Movies: Interviews: Don Cheadle," BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/films/2005/02/24/don_cheadle_hotel_rwanda_interview.shtml (June 7, 2005).
" Swordfish Interview: Don Cheadle," Film Force, http://filmforce.ign.com/articles/300/300420p1.html (June 7, 2005).
Information also provided by Huvane, Baum, Halls Public Relations.
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