Bound For Glory

St. Elsewhere's Denzel Washington is on his way to big-screen success... slowly

Two years ago, Denzel Washington earned an Academy Award best-supporting-actor nomination for his portrayal of South African black-consciousness leader Stephen Biko in Cry Freedom. Then he waited for the big offers to pour in. Then he waited some more. And some more . . .

What about the critical acclaim, the magazine covers and the panting female autograph-seekers who had been coming his way? Well, they helped--but verrry slowwwwly, like a time-release cold capsule. All of a sudden, Washington is considered one of the hottest "investments" in the business, and a sure bet to become Hollywood's first black romantic superstar since Sidney Poitier.

Washington had four films released in 1989, and one of them was Glory, in which he plays a runaway slave who serves in the North's first black regiment formed during the Civil War. Last week, the 35-year-old actor won a Golden Globe award for his performance in the picture, probably paving the way to another Oscar nod.

But if it comes, you won't find Washington sitting at home, waiting for the phone to ring.

Eight days after finishing Glory, he was in rehearsals for the action- comedy Heart Condition (opening Friday), about a racist Los Angeles cop (Bob Hoskins) who gets the transplanted heart of a slick black lawyer and is then haunted by the lawyer's ghost. When that shoot was completed, Washington jumped into Spike Lee's tentatively titled More Better Blues. And in between takes, he's been hammering out development deals with half of Hollywood. The top half.

For the moment, though, Washington is in Santa Monica, California, to promote Heart Condition, a film he says he wanted to do for three reasons: "To work with Bob Hoskins; to do something light; and to make a movie at home, near my family." (He lives in L.A. with his wife, actress Paulette Pearson, and their two children.)

One reason Washington didn't want to do Heart Condition, he confesses, was writer-director James Parriott's original script. "It had a lot of very heavy racial stuff I just didn't like. The word `nigger' was used about thirty times. When Jim first showed me the script, I knew it was a film that was very important for him to make; I just didn't want to be in that movie. But he let me chip away at the script until I thought we could do something with it."

Washington admits that he didn't win all the battles. "One scene remained that I think is in very bad taste, but I'm not in it, so . . . "

Could he be referring to the scene where Hoskins awakens from his operation to find that his locker-room pals have placed a huge black dildo between his legs?

"Yeah," Washington says, cringing. "That's the one. I fought with them on that. Initially, they wanted to put Bob in blackface, and I said, `Not with me in this picture.' I don't like that scene, and I don't mind going on record saying it. (Parriott's) argument was, `We'll keep it in the room, just as a joke between these cops.' But they have him running all over the hospital with it! I think it's in bad taste, period."

Washington's frown suddenly explodes into a broad, what-the-hell grin. "But you know, it does get one of the biggest laughs in the movie!"

A native of Mount Vernon, New York, a graduate of Fordham University, and an alumnus of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, Washington is probably best known for his role as Dr. Phillip Chandler on the long-running TV series St. Elsewhere. But in 1981, he won praise and an Obie for his portrayal of the intense young private who murders a malicious sergeant in A Soldier's Play, the Negro Ensemble Company's production.

A year later, he brought the same role to the screen in A Soldier's Story, which got him the attention of Cry Freedom director Richard Attenborough. He's been working steadily, if not too visibly, ever since.

Whatever Washington's displeasures with Heart Condition, he's clearly pleased that it will be seen--which is more than can be said for some of his films.

In last year's The Mighty Quinn, Washington displayed his charm, easy humor and drop-dead good looks as a Jamaican police chief on his first murder case. Though a critical hit, the film was released briefly, with zero fanfare, in only a few markets (Phoenix among them). Washington blames MGM/UA, which "thought it would appeal only to black audiences. They said, `We have another picture. We're putting all our money into a great movie called Leviathan,'"--now remembered as one of the year's larger, noisier flops.

A worse fate awaited For Queen and Country, sort of an up-market, art-house Rambo. One week after its New York opening, the film's independent producer/distributor went belly-up, and the movie vanished. "As far as I know," Washington laments, "it's not even coming out on video."

If Washington is bitter about these experiences, he hides it very well. "For me," he says earnestly, "the greatest thrill, the greatest challenge, is your personal journey. Everything else is just a reflection or a by-product of that. I don't pursue things; I pursue a betterment of myself, and things come."

Lately, those things have included a pending project with Michelle Pfeiffer, as well as a screen biography of Malcolm X, which will reunite him with either Spike Lee or Norman Jewison, director of A Soldier's Story. And theatrical producer Joe Papp wants Washington to star in William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew opposite TV's Tracey Ullman(!).

"I've been acting since I was twenty," Washington says, "and 1989 was the first year I didn't get on the stage. I hope it's the last. If my schedule works out, I'm gonna tackle Shrew."

If his schedule doesn't work out, no one will be surprised. Denzel Washington's phone finally is ringing off the hook.

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