Forest Whitaker Biography
Forest Steven Whitaker is an American actor, producer, and director. Whitaker won an Academy Award for his performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland. Whitaker has also won a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA. He became the fourth African American male to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, following in the footsteps of Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, and Jamie Foxx.
He has earned a reputation for intensive character study work for films such as Bird and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. However, for his recurring role as ex-LAPD Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh on the gritty, award-winning television series, The Shield, Whitaker merely had to draw on his childhood years growing up in South Central Los Angeles, California.
Whitaker was born in Longview, Texas and his family moved to South Central Los Angeles in 1965, when he was four due to racism. His father, Forest Whitaker, Jr., was an insurance salesman and the son of novelist Forest Whitaker, Sr. His mother, Laura Francis (née Smith), was a special education teacher who put herself through college and earned two Masters degrees while raising her children. Whitaker has two younger brothers, Kenn and Damon, and an older sister, Deborah.
As a teenager, Whitaker commuted from Carson to wealthy Palisades High School on LA's West Side. There, he was all-league defensive tackle on the football team quarterbacked by Jay Schroeder, a future NFL player. While in high school, he also took voice lessons, performed in musicals, and caught the "acting bug"; his first role as an actor was the lead in Dylan Thomas' play, Under Milk Wood. Whitaker graduated from "Pali High" in 1979.
Whitaker then attended Cal Poly Pomona on a football scholarship, but left due to a debilitating back injury when he was hurt in training by defensive end Manny Duran. He was accepted to the Music Conservatory at the University of Southern California (USC) to study opera as a tenor, and subsequently was accepted into the University's Drama Conservatory. He graduated from USC in 1982. He also earned a scholarship to the Berkeley, California branch of the Drama Studio London.
Whitaker has a long history of working with well-regarded film directors and fellow actors. In his first onscreen role of note, he played a football player in Amy Heckerling's 1982 coming-of-age teen-comedy, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He co-starred alongside Nicolas Cage, Phoebe Cates, and Sean Penn. In 1986, he appeared in Martin Scorsese's film, The Color of Money (with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise), and in Oliver Stone's Platoon. The following year, he co-starred with Robin Williams in the comedy Good Morning, Vietnam.
In 1988, Whitaker played in the film Bloodsport alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme and he had the lead role as musician Charlie Parker in the Clint Eastwood-directed film, Bird. To prepare himself for the part, he sequestered himself in a loft with only a bed, couch, and saxophone, having also conducted extensive research and taken alto sax lessons. His performance, which has been called "transcendent," earned him the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe nomination. Whitaker continued to work with a number of well-known directors throughout the 1990s. He starred in the 1990 film Downtown with Anthony Edwards and Penelope Ann Miller. Neil Jordan cast him in the pivotal role of "Jody" in his 1992 film, The Crying Game. Todd McCarthy, of Variety, described Whitaker's performance as "big-hearted," "hugely emotional," and "simply terrific." In 1994, he was a member of the cast that won the first ever National Board of Review Award for Best Acting by an Ensemble for Robert Altman's film, Prêt-à-Porter. He gave a "characteristically emotional performance" in Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's 1995 film, Smoke.
Whitaker played a serene, pigeon-raising, bushido-following, mob hit man in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, a 1999 film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Many consider this to have been a "definitive role" for Whitaker. In a manner similar to his preparation for Bird, he again immersed himself in his character's world—he studied Eastern philosophy and meditated for long hours "to hone his inner spiritual hitman." Jarmusch has told interviewers that he developed the title character with Whitaker in mind; the New York Times review of the film observed that "It's hard to think of another actor who could play a cold-blooded killer with such warmth and humanity."
Whitaker next appeared in what has been called one of the "worst films ever made," the 2000 production of Battlefield Earth, based on the novel of the same name by L. Ron Hubbard. The film was widely criticized as a notorious commercial and critical disaster. However, Whitaker's performance was lauded by the film's director, Roger Christian, who commented that, "Everybody's going to be very surprised" by Whitaker, who "found this huge voice and laugh." BattleField Earth "won" seven Razzie Awards; Whitaker was nominated for Worst Supporting Actor, but lost to his co-star, Barry Pepper.
In 2001, Whitaker had a small, uncredited role in the Wong Kar-wai-directed The Follow, one of five short films produced by BMW that year to promote its cars. He co-starred in Joel Schumacher's 2002 thriller, Phone Booth, with Kiefer Sutherland and Colin Farrell. That year, he also co-starred with Jodie Foster in Panic Room. His performance as the film's "bad guy" was described as "a subtle chemistry of aggression and empathy."
Whitaker's greatest success to date is the 2006 film, The Last King of Scotland. To prepare for his role as dictator Idi Amin, Whitaker gained 50 pounds, learned to play the accordion, and immersed himself in research. He read books about Amin, watched news and documentary footage, and spent time in Uganda meeting with Amin's friends, relatives, generals, and victims; he also learned Swahili and mastered Amin's East African accent.
His performance earned him the 2007 Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, making him the fourth African-American actor in history to do so. For that same role, he also received multiple other awards, including Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA Awards, and accolades from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Board of Review and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. In 2007, Whitaker also played Dr. James Farmer Sr. in The Great Debaters.
In 2008, Whitaker appeared as a business man known only as Happiness, who likes butterflies, in the film The Air I Breathe, as rogue police captain Jack Wander in Street Kings, and heroic tourist Howard Lewis in Vantage Point.
In 1985, Whitaker played a bully who loses his girlfriend to Arnold on the Diff'rent Strokes episode "Bully for Arnold". That same year, Whitaker also played the part of a comic book salesman in the Amazing Stories episode "Gather Ye Acorns".
In 2002, Whitaker was the host and narrator of 44 new episodes of the Rod Serling classic, The Twilight Zone, which lasted one season on UPN.
Whitaker returned to television in 2006 when he joined the cast of FX's police serial The Shield, as Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh, who was determined to prove that the lead character, Vic Mackey, is a dirty cop. He received rave reviews for his performance — Variety called it a "crackling-good guest stint" — and he reprised the role in the show's 2007 season.
In the fall of 2006, Whitaker started a multi-episode story arc on ER as Curtis Ames, a man who comes into the ER with a cough, but quickly faces the long-term consequences of a paralyzing stroke; he then takes out his anger on Doctors Luka Kovac and Abby Lockhart. Whitaker received a 2007 Emmy nomination for his performance on the series. Also in 2006, Whitaker appeared in T.I.'s video "Live in the Sky" alongside Jamie Foxx.
Whitaker hosted Saturday Night Live, which featured his singing skills in several sketches, including a sketch about a singing waiter who can sing notes that can only be heard by dogs.
Whitaker has lent his voice to three episodes of the animated sitcom American Dad! in 2008 and 2009, as the recurring character Ron Turlington. The character parodies Whitaker's performances in The Shield, and is seen in the episodes "Meter Made", "Chimdale" and "Live and Let Fry".
Producing and directing
Whitaker branched out into producing and directing in the 1990s. He co-produced and co-starred in A Rage in Harlem in 1991. He made his directorial debut with a grim film about inner-city gun violence, Strapped, for HBO in 1993. In 1995, he directed his first feature, Waiting to Exhale, which was based on the Terry McMillan novel of the same name. Roger Ebert observed that the tone of the film resembled Whitaker's own acting style: "measured, serene, confident." Whitaker also directed co-star Whitney Houston's music video of the movie's theme song ("Shoop Shoop").
Whitaker continued his directing career with the 1998 romantic comedy, Hope Floats, starring Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick, Jr. He directed Katie Holmes in the romantic comedy, First Daughter in 2004; he had co-starred with Holmes in Phone Booth (film) in 2002. Whitaker also served as an executive producer on First Daughter. He had previously executive produced several made-for-television movies, most notably the 2002 Emmy-award winning Door to Door, starring William H. Macy. He produced these projects through his production company, Spirit Dance Entertainment, which he shut down in 2005 to concentrate on his acting career.
In addition to the numerous awards Whitaker won for his performance in The Last King of Scotland, he has also received several other honors. In September 2006, the 10th Annual Hollywood Film Festival presented him with its "Hollywood Actor of the Year Award," calling him "one of Hollywood's most accomplished actors." He was honored at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2007, where he received the American Riviera Award. Previously, in 2005, the Deauville (France) Festival of American Film paid tribute to him.
Whitaker was the recipient of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on April 16, 2007.
In 1996, Whitaker married actress Keisha Nash, whom he met on the set of Blown Away. The Whitakers have four children: two daughters together (Sonnet and True), his son (Ocean) from a previous relationship, and her daughter (Autumn) from a previous relationship. Whitaker studies yoga and has a black belt in karate. On Inside the Actors Studio, Whitaker said that a genetic test indicated he was of Igbo descent on his father's side, and Akan descent on his mothers side.
Whitaker, who is a vegetarian, recorded a public service announcement with his daughter, True, promoting vegetarianism on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). In politics, Whitaker supported and spoke on behalf of Senator Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential campaign.
Whitaker's left eye ptosis has been called "intriguing" by some critics and "gives him a sleepy, contemplative look." Whitaker has explained that the condition is hereditary and that he has considered having surgery to correct it, not for cosmetic reasons but because it affects his vision.