Sexy, though, isn't even half of it. Living by the rules of a previous generation, Sidney Poitier played it safe. Today, Eddie Murphy plays it funny and Wesley Snipes plays it cool. But Washington, 38, plays it smart and sexy, being the first black man to give leading men such as Gibson, Cruise and Costner a run for their matinee-idol money, and often going them one better. Not content with screen romance, he has consistently chosen roles rife with social conscience, including South African activist Stephen Biko in Cry Freedom (1987), his Oscar-winning turn as a proud Civil War infantryman in Glory (1989) and this year's tour de force in Malcolm X.
Looking back on his reality-rich résumé, Washington has jokingly dubbed himself History Man. He first played Malcolm X in the 1981 off-Broadway play When the Chickens Came Home to Roost, yet before tackling Malcolm X this go-round, he pored over the controversial leader's writings, conversed with Nation of Islam security men and temporarily gave up alcohol and pork, according to Islamic dietary law. "What makes Denzel's performance so great is to see the changes that Malcolm X goes through," says director Lee.
In contrast, Denzel himself seems immutable, a man of concrete personal habits, values and goals. Most weekends this son of a Mount Vernon, N.Y., Pentecostal minister attends church with his L.A.-based family and coaches peewee sports teams. The Little League games he presides over can be revealing. "A 6-year-old made an out and was crying," recalls league recreational director Brian Cox. "Denzel took him aside, told the kid about how he'd messed up on a film and made him laugh." Washington has said he enjoys working with young minds: "I love feeding them with positive energy."
"He's a plain, unassuming person," says Bishop Charles Blake, the pastor at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, where Washington, his wife of 10 years, Pauletta, and their four children can often be found at the 10 A.M. Sunday service. Certainly Denzel, when he speaks of worldly temptation, sounds like he has pondered the subject a bit. "There are only four women in the world," he has said. "The one you marry, your mother, your daughter and all the rest of them. As long as you keep that perspective, you'll be all right." And a very worthy idol for the '90s.