At 6, Denzel Washington joins the local Boys & Girls Club of America in Mount Vernon, N.Y., a middle-class, primarily African-American suburb of New York City. He later credits the group for keeping him from the dangers of drugs, crime and violence.
Washington's beautician mother and Pentecostal preacher father divorce when he's 14. He loses contact with his father until his 20s, and the teenager starts getting into fights and hanging out on the streets. His mother packs him off to boarding school, where Washington shapes up before starting at Fordham University in the fall of 1973. As a camp counselor at a Boys Club camp in 1975, Washington appears in a variety show and falls in love with acting. He later lands roles in Fordham campus productions of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones and Othello.
After graduating from Fordham University with a B.A. in Journalism, Washington enrolls in San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre and spends the summer filming his first onscreen role in the TV movie Wilma. He meets future wife Pauletta Pearson, an actress/singer/pianist, on set. "I thought he was cute, but I fell in love with his spirit," she tells Oprah Winfrey. "And then I thought, 'Hmm, not a bad package.'"
Washington hits the big screen in the comedy Carbon Copy. He gets more attention on stage for his Obie-winning performance in the off-Broadway, Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier's Play. In 1982, he's cast as Dr. Philip Chandler on the NBC hospital drama St. Elsewhere.
Washington marries Pearson. The two are known around Hollywood as a tight-knit duo dedicated to family life, but Washington has since hinted at past marital infidelities. Washington tells PEOPLE in 2006 that despite any mistakes he's made, he is committed to his wife and children. "There's life, and there's making a living," he says. "Family is life."
First son John David is born. John David goes on to become a college football star at the traditionally African-American college Morehouse in Atlanta and is signed as a running back by the St. Louis Rams in May 2006.
Washington gets time off from St. Elsewhere to tackle the role of Steven Biko, the South African freedom activist, in Cry Freedom. It is the first in a series of martyrs Washington will play to critical acclaim. He scores his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Pearson gives birth to daughter Katia. "There are only four women in the world," Washington says to PEOPLE. "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." Katia will later attend Yale.
The Civil War epic Glory showcases Washington's talent as Trip, an escaped slave who joins the Union army. He also gets a standing ovation from the Academy when he wins a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. "Whatever that mysterious electrochemical process is that makes the camera love someone, he has more of it than any one person should," director Ed Zwick tells PEOPLE.
In the first of four movies he makes with acclaimed director Spike Lee, Washington plays against type as Mo' Better Blues' Bleek Gilliam, a womanizing jazz musician. During a scene in which Washington's character gets into a fight, Lee tells Time he remembers hearing women at a public screening of the movie screaming, "Not the face!"
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): COURTESY BOYS AND GIRLS CLUB; GLOBE; Ron Galella/WireImage; NBC/GLOBE; Ron Galella/WIREIMAGE; RON GALELLA; Everett Collection; Ron Galella; RALPH DOMINGUEZ/GLOBE; Everett Collection