05/08/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
HIS GOLDEN GLOBE-WINNING PERFORMANCE AS WRONGLY imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in last year's The Hurricane
left critics struggling for accolades. It also left moviegoers struggling for air. "When he takes off that boxing robe in the beginning of the film," says director Norman Jewison, "I could hear the gasp from the audience." Denzel Washington
, 45, who also received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for the role, endured 16 months of up to four-hour-a-day workouts so he could convincingly portray the fighter, who is just 27 years old when the movie opens. "I told him he was never again going to look this good," Jewison says, "There wasn't an ounce of fat on him," That wasn't the case when the 6-ft, Washington—who lives in Beverly Hills with his wife of 17 years, actress Pauletta, 49, and their four children (John David, 15, Katia, 12, and twins Malcolm and Olivia, 9)—started preparing for the film. He was 40 lbs. heavier and, says Terry Claybon, his boxing trainer, "He wasn't in shape at all. I told him, 'You have to have six-pack abs.' He didn't have a pack!" Fortunately the Oscar-winning star (he won Best Supporting Actor for 1989's Glory
) has always possessed plenty of other attributes to make fans sweat. "He has breathtaking skin," says Aggie Guerard Rodgers, Hurricane
's costume designer. "It has a golden shine to it." The actor's hairstylist, Larry Cherry, sees something special in Washington's gaze. "When he talks to you, he's looking at you," says Cherry. "His eyes are truthful." Jewison, however, kept his focus during much of the filming on his leading man's nose. "I didn't want it to get broken," says the director. "At one point over 80 punches were thrown in just minutes. I was afraid he was going to get tagged." That wouldn't have been good for Washington's profile, "There's something very noble about his appearance," says Jewison, "like he's stamped on a Roman coin."