Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington

UPDATED 05/09/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/09/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

Don't tell Denzel Washington when somebody says something good about his looks or his talent. The devastatingly handsome 39-year-old superstar isn't much interested in all that gushy stuff. "The more you hear it," he has observed, "the more you'll want to hear it." Instead, the New York City-raised actor, who won Oscar Glory in '90 and nods for Malcolm X and Cry Freedom, delights in the ordinary. "I was expecting to feel nervous or starstruck," says Lisa Summerour, who played his wife in Philadelphia. "But he has a way of making you feel comfortable. He doesn't need attention or accolades. It was very refreshing." So was his smile, which she says is his best feature. "He loves to laugh," adds Summerour. "He was just fun."

Too skillful to be judged by skin-deep virtues, Washington lands parts despite scripts that call for white actors. "White or black. Who cares?" said Julia Roberts, who handpicked the preacher's son to be her Pelican Brief costar. "I wanted the best man for the role." Now shooting the mystery Devil in a Blue Dress with Jennifer (Flashdance) Beals, the very private actor spurns the Spago scene to stay close to his wife of 11 years, Paulette, and their four children. To what does he ascribe his paucity of pretensions? Perspective. "My mother," he once said, "helped over the years by telling me, 'It ain't brain surgery that you're doing.' "

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