Family & Companions
Though actor Forest Whitaker started college on an athletic scholarship, the charismatic and award-winning performer made the unlikely shift from football to studying to become a classical tenor and eventually, an actor. After gaining some attention in several stage musicals, Whitaker made an immediate impression with a small, but memorable role in his feature debut, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982). Following a quick succession of supporting roles in features and on television, he earned his first wave of critical accolades for his portrayal of drug-addicted jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker in "Bird" (1988). Once he was established as a viable leading man, Whitaker easily oscillated between low-budget and studio projects, earning equal acclaim for his performances. Taking his career to the next level, he made several forays into feature directing - most notably "Waiting to Exhale" (1995) - but continued to churn out one sterling performance after another until finally reaching new heights with his Oscar-winning portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland" (2006), which came hot on the heels of another mesmerizing performance as an obsessive internal affairs officer on season five of "The Shield" (FX, 2002-08). Both roles only confirmed that Whitaker was one of Hollywood's most versatile, surprising and talented actors of his day. His work as a producer on films like "Fruitvale Station" (2013) and "Dope" (2015) helped shepherd a new generation of African-American filmmakers while his work in hits like "The Butler" (2013), "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" (2016) and "Black Panther" (2018) kept him firmly in audiences' minds.
Born on July 15, 1961 in Longview, TX, Forest Whitaker was raised by his father, Forest, Sr., an insurance salesman and his mother, Laura, a special education teacher. When he was just six weeks old, his parents moved the family from Longview to South Central Los Angeles, where he stayed until he was 11 when they moved again to nearby Carson. By the time he was in his teens, his parents - particularly his mother - wanted him to attend high school somewhere other than in Carson or next door Compton. So he was bused instead to Palisades High School - a two-hour commute each way - where he was an all-league defensive tackle on the football team and used his rich tenor voice to perform in school musicals. After graduating, Whitaker earned a football scholarship to California Polytechnic Institute in Pomona, but opted instead to attend the University of Southern California Conservatory on a vocal scholarship.
After an agent saw him performing, Whitaker dedicated himself fulltime to acting. He secured another scholarship, this one for the Berkley branch of the Drama Studio London, then landed his first onscreen role, playing an enraged football player in Cameron Crowe's classic teen comedy, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982). Whitaker was briefly sidetracked from features with a string of television appearances, including the six-part miniseries "North and South" (ABC, 1985), as well as episodes of "Diff'rent Strokes" (NBC, 1978-1985; ABC, 1985-86), "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1981-87), "Cagney and Lacey" (CBS, 1982-88), and "Amazing Stories" (NBC, 1985-87). Back in features, Whitaker appeared in the sports-themed drama, "Vision Quest" (1985), then gained considerable notice as a charmingly duplicitous billiards opponent of Paul Newman in Martin Scorsese's "The Color of Money" (1986). More supporting feature roles followed, including "Platoon" (1986), "Stakeout" (1987) and "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987), in which he more than held his own opposite Robin Williams as his likeable sidekick. Whitaker graduated to leading-man status under the direction of Clint Eastwood for the dark biopic "Bird" (1988), earning Best Actor honors at the Cannes Film Festival for his compelling portrayal of doomed jazz legend Charlie Parker.
Building off his first critically acclaimed role, Whitaker played a kindly plastic surgeon in "Johnny Handsome" (1989), then followed with an unhurried performance that subtly suggested the naiveté of his Mama's Boy character in "A Rage in Harlem" (1991). He next conveyed skeptical intelligence of his insurance investigator in "Consenting Adults" (1992). He displayed a mesmerizing depth in "Diary of a Hitman" (1992), the feature directing debut of acting coach Roy London. He was also quietly, irresistibly sympathetic as a British soldier kidnapped by the Irish Republican Army in Neil Jordan's highly praised and notorious political thriller, "The Crying Game" (1992).
The unexpected commercial success of "The Crying Game" led to increased interest in Whitaker's long-form directorial debut after he had previously directed only music videos - "Strapped" (HBO, 1993). Filmed on location in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood, the gritty urban drama about an African-American teenager (Bokeem Woodbine) struggling to survive in a Brooklyn housing project screened at various international film festivals and earned the director's award for Best First Feature in Toronto. Deluged with offers to direct, Whitaker remained a familiar face on screen while pondering his filmmaking future, segueing effortlessly from big-budget Hollywood genre fare, like "Blown Away" (1994) and "Species" (1995), to small-budget indies like "Body Snatchers" (1993). His ability to evoke audience empathy continued undiminished as he affectingly portrayed physically and mentally maimed fathers in both "Jason's Lyric" (1994) and "Smoke" (1995). Admirably unafraid to play gay characters, Whitaker fared well as a down-to-earth fashion designer in Robert Altman's satirical "Ready to Wear" (1994) before returning to the world of jazz, playing trumpeter Buddy Chester, who was stricken with a fatal brain tumor in Showtime's "Lush Life" (1994).
Whitaker chose to make his feature directing debut with "Waiting to Exhale" (1995), the black female ensemble drama adapted from Terry McMillan's best seller. Boasting a large cast headlined by Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett, the film opened to mixed reviews but ultimately healthy box office. He returned to the other side of the camera as John Travolta's best friend in "Phenomenon" (1996), then returned to the director's chair for "Hope Floats" (1998), a romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock.
Following the thoughtful teen drama, "Light It Up" (1999), Whitaker played a Federal Marshal who gets his kicks watching low-lifes squirm in "Witness Protection" (HBO, 1999). He then stepped back into the shoes of a hit man as the titular character of Jim Jarmusch's whimsical "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" (1999), imparting a dignified gravity to the character's meticulously ordered existence. Whitaker then reunited with producer-star John Travolta to play the evil dominators of the remnants of mankind in the notorious sci-fi opus "Battlefield Earth: The Saga of the Year 3000" (2000), adapted from the novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and widely considered to be one of the worst movies of all time.
Following a supporting turn in Vietnamese refugee tale "The Green Dragon" (2001) and a stint as Daguerreotypist Picard in the television miniseries "Feast of All Saints" (CBS, 2001), based on the Anne Rice horror novel, Whitaker made a believably reluctant villain as part of the team of home invaders who trap Jodie Foster in a secured zone in the David Fincher thriller, "Panic Room" (2002). He also made the most of what might have been a clichéd role in "Phone Booth" (2002), playing an empathetic police captain who comes to the aid of a man (Colin Farrell) trapped in a telephone booth by a mysterious sniper. Whitaker next moved into television, taking the reins from Rod Serling as the host of the revival of "The Twilight Zone" (UPN, 2002-03), executive-produced the acclaimed original film "Door to Door" (TNT, 2002), starring William H. Macy, then appeared in the fact-based telepic "Deacons for the Defense" (2003) as the founder of the segregation-opposed organization of the 1960s who took up arms to oppose racial discrimination and battle the Ku Klux Klan.
On the big screen, Whitaker also served as a producer of the Latina-centric comedy "Chasing Papi" (2003), then after coming close to directing a live-action version of Bill Cosby's animated series "Fat Albert" (2004), he moved behind the camera to direct Katie Holmes in "First Daughter" (2004), a tale of a headstrong, rebellious Presidential offspring who goes off to college and finds love with the undercover Secret Service agent (Marc Blucas) assigned to protect her. Whitaker then signed on as a regular cast member for the fifth season of "The Shield" (FX, 2002-08), playing Lieutenant Kavanaugh, a by-the-book cop from internal affairs out to investigate Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and his corrupt Strike Team. Whitaker's zealous portrayal of a clean-cut officer who gets dragged down into the muck by his prey was widely praised by both fans and critics.
Back in features, Whitaker appeared in the Italian-released "Mary" (2005), about the spiritual transformation of an actress (Juliette Binoche) after she plays Mary Magdalene in a film, then "A Little Trip to Heaven" (2005), a low-budget thriller in which he portrayed an insurance investigator who poses as a police officer to investigate possible fraud after a tragic bus accident. In "American Gun" (2005), which told three interwoven stories about the proliferation of firearms in America. After a small voice role in the animated feature "Everyone's Hero" (2006), Whitaker tackled the role of a lifetime in "The Last King of Scotland" (2006), playing Idi Amin, the charismatic, but brutal dictator of Uganda who was responsible for the sectarian slaughter of 300,000 people during the 1970s. Whitaker's Amin vacillated from smooth-talking charm to absolute evil, creating a character that seemed both intensely personal and larger-than-life. Whitaker's eerily accurate portrayal of Amin earned the actor a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture. Then as expected by critics and fans alike, Whitaker won the coveted Academy Award for Best Actor.
Returning to television, Whitaker gave yet another sterling small screen performance, playing a former patient on "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009) who sues the hospital for malpractice and neglect. Meanwhile, Whitaker had a co-starring role as an American tourist who captures footage of the assassination of the U.S. president (William Hurt) in "Vantage Point" (2008). He then appeared in a string of independent films that year, including "The Air I Breathe," "Street Kings" and "Ripple Effect," as well as voiced Lian Chu in the foreign-made animated fantasy "Dragon Hunters." Whitaker later landed a high-profile off-screen gig, voicing the monstrous Ira in Spike Jonze's long-awaited adaptation of the children's classic "Where the Wild Things Are" (2009). He then starred in "Hurricane Season" (2009), the true-to-life story of high school basketball coach Al Collins (Whitaker), who leads his team to the state championship after Hurricane Katrina ravaged their school and displaced many of its students. In 2010, he co-starred with Jude Law in the gritty sci-fi film "Repo Men," but the movie fared poorly in general.
After appearing in a number of largely overlooked films, Whitaker revisited television to star in the procedural drama spin-off series, "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior" (CBS, 2011), but the show met with a quick demise. He then had an odd streak of movies that all garnered little attention, despite the presence of him and other major actors. This unfortunate run included the action films "Catch .44" (2011) with Bruce Willis and "The Last Stand" (2013) with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whitaker finally reversed his career slump with his starring role in "The Butler" (2013), a sprawling look at American history and race relations through a key member of the White House wait staff. Directed by Lee Daniels and featuring a huge ensemble cast, the movie led to serious Academy Award buzz, particularly for Whitaker's nuanced performance. After starring in ensemble drama "Black Nativity" (2013), Whitaker appeared in Scott Cooper's crime thriller "Out of the Furnace" (2013) and starred in psychological horror drama "Repentance" (2013). The following year, Whitaker starred opposite Harvey Keitel in New Mexico-set "Two Men in Town" (2014), before producing and narrating coming of age comedy-drama "Dope" (2015). Whitaker starred opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in boxing drama "Southpaw" (2015) and Amy Adams in philosophical science fiction drama "Arrival" (2016) before joining the Star Wars universe in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" (2016). After the Ku Klux Klan drama "Burden" (2018) premiered at Sundance, Whitaker co-starred in the Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster "Black Panther" (2018), the film was directed by Ryan Coogler, whose career Whitaker jump-started when he produced the writer-director's indie drama "Fruitvale Station" (2013).
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Music (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Producer (TV Mini-Series)
Made film acting debut as a high school football player in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"
Appeared on various TV series including " Diff'rent Strokes" (NBC), "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, directed by Bill Duke), "Cagney and Lacey" (CBS), and "Amazing Stories" (NBC)
Made TV miniseries debut as Cuffey in "North and South" (ABC)
Appeared in Oliver Stone's "Platoon"
Directed first major stage production "Dreams Across the Realm"
Acted in Martin Scorsese's "The Color of Money"
Cast in high-profile supporting role in "Good Morning, Vietnam" opposite Robin Williams
Directed music video for Cheryl Pepsii Riley ("Thanks For My Child"), also for rappers Low Key, Soula, and M.C. Supreme for Warner Bros. Records
Landed first starring feature role as jazz legend Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood's "Bird"
Feature producing debut (also acted), "A Rage in Harlem"; directed by Bill Duke
Played British soldier kidnapped by IRA terrorists in Neil Jordan's "The Crying Game"
Made TV-movie directing debut on HBO urban drama "Strapped"; earned director's award for best first feature at Toronto Film Festival; Kiefer Sutherland acted in film and Whitaker repaid the favor by appearing that year in Sutherland's directorial debut "Last Light"
Returned to the world of jazz as trumpeter Buddy Chester, a top sideman who discovers he has a malignant brain tumor, testing his friendship with Jeff Goldblum and Kathy Baker in Showtime's "Lush Life"
Made feature film directorial debut in "Waiting to Exhale," co-starring Angela Bassett and Whitney Houston
Helmed second film "Hope Floats," starring Sandra Bullock
Signed development deal with Columbia-TriStar
Played a Federal Marshall in HBO's "Witness Protection"
Starred as the titular character of Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai"
Portrayed Ker in "Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000," based on novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard
Starred opposite Jeremy Irons in the thriller "The Fourth Angel"
Featured in Sundance-screened "The Green Dragon"
Played one of a trio terrorizing a woman and her child while looking for missing money in "Panic Room"
Hosted classic mystery series "The Twilight Zone" (UPN)
Cast as senior officer Captain Ramey in the suspense thriller "Phone Booth"
Appeared in the Showtime movie "Deacons for Defense"; received a SAG nomination for Best Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries
Directed (also produced) Katie Holmes in "First Daughter"
Joined the cast of FX's "The Shield" for the fifth season, playing a cop from internal affairs
Played a principal of a violent inner-city school in Aric Avelino's film debut "American Gun"; earned an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for Best Male Lead
Guest-starred on five episodes of NBC medical drama "ER" as a carpenter who ends up being paralyzed by a stroke after being admitted for a cough; earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series
Gave an Oscar-winning performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland"
Co-stared with Denzel Washington (who also directed) in "The Great Debaters"
Voiced Ira in Spike Jonze's live-action adaptation of Maurice Sendak's children's book "Where the Wild Things Are"
Executive produced Sundance Channel docu-series "Brick City"
Co-starred with Jude Law in futuristic thriller "Repo Men"
Co-starred in action thriller "A Dark Truth"
Cast opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in action feature "The Last Stand"
Led the large cast of "The Butler"
Cast as Fiddler on TV mini-series "Roots"
Had supporting role in sci-fi drama "Arrival"
Played resistance fighter Saw Gerrera in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"
Narrated the documentary "Triumph, the Untold Story of Perry Wallace"
Had a recurring role on "Empire"
Reprised role of Saw Gerrera on animated series "Star Wars: Rebels"
Was featured in Marvel's "Black Panther"