Who would have thunk it?
The actor who, three decades ago, played the imposing football player Jefferson in Fast Times at Ridgemont High–goings medieval on the opposing team after they wreck his Camaro Z-28– has become a movie multi-threat, acting, producing and directing.
Forest Whitaker, all six foot two, 230 pounds of him, is a big talent in a big frame. Already the owner of the Academy Award for Best Actor for his tour de force turn as Uganda dictator Idi Amin in 2006’s The Last King of Scotland, Whitaker has a shot to garner a nomination this year, as well: He has won rave reviews for the title role of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, playing the real-life Cecil Gaines, the White House domestic who served eight different presidents during some of the most tumultuous times in American history.
But that’s not all for this year. The indefatigable Whitaker has two other films in theaters this holiday season: Out of the Furnace, an intense drama about drug dealing and bare-knuckle fighting set in a depressed Pennsylvania steel town in which he plays a sheriff who has taken up with Zoe Saldana while boyfriend protagonist Christian Bale was in prison; and Black Nativity, in which he gets a chance to sing as a minister who cares for the trouble-making grandson who has come to live with him and spouse Angela Basset.
Whitaker, 52, a Longview, Texas native, played football in high school, moved with his family to South Central Los Angeles when he was four years old, and attended USC, where he focused on opera and drama.
One of his first film roles was in Fast Times, sharing the screen with Sean Penn, Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nicolas Cage, Judge Reinhold and Eric Stoltz.
Standing out among such a talented cast because of his attention-getting turn and unique looks (he has a condition called strabismus, or “lazy eye” in his left eye), the parts came fast and furious to the then-21-year-old actor, including TV work in such series as Cagney & Lacey and Hill Street Blues, the popular miniseries North & South Books I& II and in the big-screen wrestling drama Vision Quest, in which he played a character named Balldozer.
Lots of higher-profile parts in big pictures followed, all earning praise and catching attention. There was Amos, the loquacious pool shark out-hustling Paul Newman’s “Fast” Eddie Felson in The Color of Money; Big Harold, the medic, a member of Oliver Stone’s Platoon; and PFC Edward Garlick, the Saigon-based ally of Robin Williams’ motor-mouthed disc jockey in Good Morning, Vietnam.
It was Whitaker’s work in the last—a popular hit that got Williams got a Best Actor nomination—that spurred his rise in the billings.
For his title performance as troubled jazz great Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood’s moody 1988 epic Bird, Whitaker received rave reviews. For example, Hal Hinson in the Washington Post wrote: “Forest Whitaker’s brilliance is the force that holds the scattered pieces of ‘Bird’ together. Only rarely in movies do characters achieve this sort of palpability, and then only when presented to us by a remarkable performer. And this is a remarkable performer giving a gentle, exuberant, charismatic performance.”
While the film hit melodic notes with critics but sour notes at the box-office, Whitaker’s career continued to pick up steam and he worked at a steady clip. Most memorable were the good doctor that transforms deformed criminal Mickey Rourke into Johnny Handsome (1985); the bumbling undertaker smitten with sexpot Robin Givens in the retro gangster film A Rage in Harlem (1991); a British soldier taken captive by IRA operatives in Neil Jordan’s Oscar-winning The Crying Game (1992); one of the several memorable characters who populate Wayne Wang’s ensemble-oriented Smoke (1995); and the empath helping to track gorgeous but vicious alien Natasha Henstridge in Species (1995).
Whitaker’s experience led to an alternate career in directing. His first assignment was helming the 1993 urban drama Strapped for HBO, while his theatrical debut came with 1995’s adaptation of Terry McMillan’s best-seller Waiting to Exhale, a major undertaking for a first-time big-screen director. The film received mixed reviews, but strong-box-office results, showcasing Whitaker’s sensitive handling of women’s issues. He went on to call the shots for other female-oriented pictures, like Hope Floats (1998) with Sandra Bullock; Black Jaq (1998), with Nia Long as a spy in New Orleans; and First Daughter (2004) featuring Katie Holmes as the US President’s college-aged offspring.
Whitaker, who is a regular practitioner of yoga, has also had his hand in producing several films and TV projects, including this year’s highly acclaimed true-life indie Fruitvale Station. And when a TV role seems right, the actor has taken to the small screen for acting stints in such TV series as The Twilight Zone reboot in 2002-2003, ER, The Shield and the short-lived spinoff Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior.
While Whitaker’s physical presence made an ideal match for playing brutal African leader Idi Amin in the Last King of Scotland, his typical onscreen demeanor—specializing in characters usually compassionate or vulnerable—made the decision to cast him seem like a long shot for success.
In interviews, director Kevin MacDonald said he didn’t feel the actor “had the aggression, the anger or fury to do this. He (Whitaker) said ‘You probably don’t feel like I can do this, that I don’t have the anger.’ He said, ‘You’ll be surprised how much anger I have in me.’ He read the script and came back and he was extraordinary. From there on, there was no doubt (he could do it).”
Whitaker adapted the method to get his portrayal of the dictator right, remaining in character before, during and after the shoot. He reportedly developed a diet like Amin (minus the alleged cannibalism. of course) and learned to speak Swahili so he could interact with Ugandans in coffee shops when the production filmed on location there.
Of course, The King of Scotland didn’t mark the only time that Whitaker—a vegetarian who acts as an ambassador for UNESCO–played it bad. His role in David Fincher’s intense Panic Room, as the criminal with a hint of a conscience who terrorizes Jodie Foster and daughter Kristen Stewart, is one of the thriller’s highlights.
Another role worth noting is Whitaker’s title effort in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), in which the actor is cast a meditative, Zen-inspired mob assassin who works for old school Mafioso members and uses ancient Samurai methods to take care of business. When he allows a witness to live during an assignment, Ghost Dog finds his life in danger.
Writing in the Village Voice, film critic J. Hoberman noted: “To a large degree, Whitaker’s state of grace is the movie’s subject. From The Color of Money through The Crying Game, the actor has created some of the most vivid character performances of the past 15 years. Ghost Dog is Whitaker’s first chance since Bird to carry an entire movie—although (director) Jarmusch, as is his wont, uses him more as an icon than a performer, trading heavily on Whitaker’s mournful yet impassive bearing.”
Even with the raves and the Oscar, much of Whitaker’s credits in recent years have been in support or as part of ensemble casts where his performance and persona anchor the proceedings. There have been actioners (like Catch .44 with Bruce Willis and The Last Stand with Arnold Schwarzenegger), sports dramas (Hurricane Season) and even voicework (American Dad, Where the Wild Things Are).
But with three films currently in theaters and three more on the way, Forest Whitaker continues doing things his own distinctive way.
“As an actor, I’ve always wanted to do characters that would help me find my connection with others and connect all of us together,” Whitaker has said. “You always want the energy of the character, the spirit of the person, to enter you.”