Call him the original McDreamy—24 years ago, DENZEL WASHINGTON caused serious arrhythmia on St. Elsewhere. He went on to become one of Hollywood's biggest stars (he has two Oscars) and the proud dad of four grounded kids. Now starring in the thriller Déjà Vu as a time-traveling detective, Washington, 51, is "a real mensch," says the movie's producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Recently, the actor had his very own déjà vu moment—reminiscing over old photos with PEOPLE's Alexis Chiu. In fact, he enjoyed his flashback so much he insisted on keeping the pics!

THE WAY HE WAS

1960s
"I was police commissioner for a day," says Washington (second from left) of this Boys Club field trip to his hometown Mount Vernon, N.Y., police station. Noting his "official badge and very serious look," Washington recalls being "p——off because I wanted to be mayor."

1993
"That's my girl!" says Washington of his Pelican Brief costar Julia Roberts. "She's a hoot. I stole one of her quotes: 'I'm an ordinary person with an extraordinary job.' I like that." The Pretty Woman, he adds, is "just a nice person."

ca. 1982
"This was the first year, judging by that tie," says Washington of his first big gig, as Dr. Phillip Chandler (1982-88) on St. Elsewhere. "It was 4,000 bucks a week!" Besides learning "doctor gibberish," he recalls producer Bruce Paltrow (Gwyneth's late dad) giving him time off to make movies, paving the way for 1989's Glory, which brought him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

1996
2005
He's been married to wife Pauletta, 56 (at the Courage Under Fire premiere in 1996), for 23 years. The secret? "Do what your wife tells you and keep your mouth shut," says Washington. Eldest son John David (left), 22, a college football star, is a running back for the St. Louis Rams. "I'm very proud of all my kids," he says, including Katia, 19, and twins Malcolm (below) and Olivia, 15. "There's life, and there's making a living. Family is life."

JET-SET DAD

1999

THEY GOT GAME

2005
"I threw a Laker hat on his head," he says of courtside clowning with longtime pal Spike Lee. "A photographer caught it and he caught heck when he went back to New York!"

1996
"I don't take myself too seriously," Washington says of being PEOPLE's Sexiest Man Alive in '96. Did it go to his head? It "beats a sharp stick in the eye [but] I don't stop in the mirror and go, 'Hey, Sexy Man.'" Still, he does cringe at that old Magnum, P.I. mustache—and those clothes. "That looks so corny," he says, laughing. "Those are definitely some '80s jeans. One word: embarrassing."

2002
"Not too bad to look at!" Washington says of Halle Berry (at the '02 Academy Awards where he won Best Actor for Training Day). "I never made a movie with her." Maybe it's not too late. "Where is Halle now? I haven't seen her!" he says. "Tell her to call me!" And where does he stash his two Oscars? "Next to each other," says Washington. "In the library or something. Where all the stuff is."

2006
"A good story with a good twist," says Washington of Déjà Vu, the first feature film shot in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. "We put a lot of local folks to work. I was glad to lend a hand in some small way."

To hear Denzel talk about his life in pictures, go to PEOPLE.COM/DENZEL