Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Steven Spielberg

Arguably the most important figure to emerge from the creative ferment of Hollywood cinema in the 1970s, Steven Spielberg has changed the way movies are made and about what they are made. He is perhaps the Western world's most famous living filmmaker; three movies he directed ("E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" 1981; "Jurassic Park" 1993; "Jaws" 1975) are among the top ten highest grossing films of all time.

His former production company, Amblin Entertainment, was also responsible for such hits as "Gremlins" (1984), "Back to the Future" (1985) and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988). Spielberg has succeeded in combining the intimacy of a personal vision with the epic requirements of the modern commercial blockbuster, but his astonishing success invalidated his acceptance as an artist for many years. Marketplace issues aside, Spielberg certainly travels in august creative company: like Orson Welles, he has been celebrated and penalized for precocity; like Alfred Hitchcock, he has been alternately praised and damned as a master of emotional manipulation; and like Frank Capra, he has been criticized for shameless sentimentality. Spielberg's most important spiritual predecessor, however, is Walt Disney, another creative individual who made himself into a brand name while attending to the serious business of making "frivolous" entertainments.

Several Spielberg films have become landmarks in the development of special effects, both in their visual and aural aspects. This filmmaker, however, is no technocrat nor does he display a serious intellectual interest in science fiction. Spielberg utilizes elements of sci-fi and fantasy but tends to eschew heavy ideas in favor of sublime feelings, such as childlike awe and trust. Indeed, his work has decisively influenced the emphasis in late 20th Century sci-fi filmmaking on the sensibility of youth and they succeed in spite of blatant sentimentality through the director's masterful use of emotionally potent visual imagery. If nothing else, Spielberg possesses an uncanny knack for eliciting and manipulating audience response.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Spielberg did not attend a major university film program. Largely self-taught, at age 16, he fashioned his first film "Firelight", a two-hour science fiction movie, that a local movie house in Phoenix, AZ, consented to run for one evening. His short film, "Amblin'" (1969) impressed executives at the television unit of Universal Studios and Spielberg was hired, making his debut directing the formidable Joan Crawford in the TV-movie pilot for Rod Serling's "Night Gallery" (NBC, 1969). He went on to hone his craft helming episodes of such weekly series as "Columbo" and "Marcus Welby, M.D." as well as three TV-movies. One telefilm, "Duel" (ABC, 1972), about a salesman (Dennis Weaver) pursued by a giant diesel truck whose driver is never seen, was released theatrically in Europe, where it enjoyed both critical and commercial success.

Spielberg's first theatrical film, "The Sugarland Express" (1974) was based on the true story of a lumpen Texas woman and her escaped convict husband fighting to regain custody of their baby. The film anticipates the emphasis on family in Spielberg's subsequent work; his choreographed car chases and deft handling of suspense and comedy marked him as a director to watch. Poorly marketed, this entertaining and poignant feature failed at the box office. Spielberg's second, "Jaws", however, helped usher in the modern age of movie blockbusters. This troubled production--a neophyte director and a disgruntled crew with a malfunctioning automated shark--emerged as a classic adventure yarn that propelled Spielberg to the A-list of Hollywood directors.

His transcendent follow-up, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), revealed the first flowering of his cinematic interest in the world of childhood, an affinity shared with the late Francois Truffaut, who played the head scientist in the film. Though initially terrifying, the alien creatures in this revisionist work resemble strange and wondrous children, presenting a more benign representation than the monstrous conquerors of 50s sci-fi films. These beings offer the promise of life beyond the restrictions of middle-class conventions. When Richard Dreyfuss boards the mother ship for unknown adventures, it is the film's final grandiloquent embrace of the possible.

Riding high after two back-to-back blockbusters, Spielberg attempted a colossal big-budget comedy. "1941" (1979) was a loud, sprawling and wildly uneven film about paranoia in a small California town after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Though it ultimately turned a profit, the film was perceived as a huge and indulgent flop. Spielberg next chose to work under the watchful eye of a tough producer, George Lucas, and fashioned what would turn out to be one of his signature films, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). The movie introduced the world to Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford), the celebrated archeologist and intrepid adventurer that became the most popular screen hero since James Bond and spawned two sequels. During the production, Spielberg was so wearied by the rigors of location shooting that he would relax by concocting a story for a little personal film to feature a couple of kids and a lost alien. This set the stage for "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial"--the work for which Spielberg may well be best remembered. An instant classic, this emotionally overwhelming film transformed its maker's career.

In most Spielberg films, anything that threatens the family and its routine existence is evil. In "Jaws", the normally safe harbor of a public beach is threatened by a great white shark. The heroes of "The Sugarland Express" and the Indiana Jones trilogy are transported from normal life to a world of exciting adventure though, in the former, the consequences are tragic. As a young filmmaker, Spielberg seemed to prefer the child's world of harmless adventure (c.f., "E.T.") to the violence and hardships of the real world. Significantly, Spielberg presented WWII through the eyes of a youthful protagonist in "Empire of the Sun" (1987), a transitional work, and he oversaw an Oedipal fantasy as the producer of "Back to the Future", in which a son remakes his parents from nerds into successful yuppies.

The Lucas collaborations—"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984), in particular—have aspects that some find embarrassingly racist, imperialist, and misogynistic. Even his affecting adaptation of Alice Walker's novel "The Color Purple" (1985), although dealing with racism, wife-beating and lesbianism, recreates the air of an old-fashioned Disney film. That Spielberg co-produced and co-wrote "Poltergeist" (1982) and took over directing the film when Tobe Hooper was incapacitated is significant, for it presents the dark underside of suburbia that is only hinted at in his own films.

There was a marked shift in Spielberg's artistic and commercial concerns beginning in the mid-80s, as he began devoting more time to producing. With the notable exception of the continuing Indiana Jones franchise, the projects he chose to direct were departures from his usual material. After "The Color Purple" and "Empire of the Sun", he directed Always" (1989), his first romantic feature in which he also dealt with issues of emotional commitment, loss, and mortality. Even "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989) broke new ground, shifting the locale to Europe and the emphasis to Jones' family dynamics. While the action sequences were largely uninspired, the spiky father-son banter between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery was the film's highlight.

Through Amblin, Spielberg continued to oversee the production of a series of popular escapist fantasies, animated features and conventional genre films into the 90s. He even diversified into TV with the fantasy anthology series, "Amazing Stories" (NBC, 1985-87), which he executive produced and provided with many of its stories. Though lavishly produced and often dealing with Spielberg's characteristic themes, too many of the episodes were slight and unsatisfying, although at least one, "Family Dog," an animated outing with director Tim Burton, was spun off into its own 1993 series . He achieved far greater success with such children's animated series as "Tiny Toon Adventures" (syndicated, 1990-95) which attempted to resurrect the style and sensibility of classic Warner Brothers animation, the knowingly retro "Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs" (Fox, 1993-95; The WB, 1995-1998 ) and its spin-off "Steven Spielberg Presents Pinky and the Brain" (The WB, 1995-1998); along with "Freakazoid" (1995-1997) and the short-lived "Toonsylvania" (1998). Spielberg's involvement with high-quality retro animation stemmed back to his stint producing the 1988 film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" which pioneered effects techonology that allowed live action characters to interact with animated creations.

On the big screen, "Hook" (1991) was Spielberg's long-awaited return to fantasy material. A lavish yet quirky update of the Peter Pan story, the film displayed its maker's increased concern with the responsibilities of parenting, the therapeutic aspects of regression and preparing for death. Budgeted at over $60 million, the film garnered mixed reviews and decently impressive box office but--due to an unprecedented deal brokered by Creative Artists Agency wherein Spielberg and his stars, Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, and Julia Roberts split a huge cut of worldwide revenues up front--failed to make much money for its studio.

The Spielberg of the 90s again made directing a top priority, lending his name to various Amblin products while leaving producing chores to others. "Jurassic Park", a $70 million adaptation of Michael Crichton's dinosaur disaster novel, represented a return to the kind of muscular adventure that served Spielberg so well in the past. The film was a special effects breakthrough and boasted awesome action sequences though the characters were unusually shallow. Intriguingly, Spielberg did relatively little publicity for one of the most aggressively marketed films in history. He had juggled post-production work on "Jurassic Park" in Paris--with George Lucas reportedly lending a hand stateside--with filming his long-awaited WWII Holocaust drama, "Schindler's List" (1993) in Poland.

Filmed in black-and-white, without big stars and few slick stylistics, this bleak version of Thomas Keneally's Booker Prize-winning novel (based on a true story) marked a dramatic change-of-pace for this purveyor of warm WASP visions. For once, he went against his instincts and made an impressively restrained, documentarian drama of Jewish suffering that built to a shattering yet life-affirming conclusion. The resulting film earned Spielberg the most respectful notices of his career. Spielberg was now widely hailed as one of the masters of world cinema. (That the film, which earned seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, also grossed over $100 million domestically didn't hurt either.)

As an encore, he returned to familiar ground with the inevitable sequel "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" (1997) which merely rehashed the story of the far superior original. Spielberg then tackled the tricky historical drama "Amistad" (also 1997), based on a true story of a mutiny on a slave ship that spawned a legal battle in the USA. Meticulously staged, the film was noted for its depiction of the Middle Passage, a harrowing portrayal of the conditions of slavery. The following year, Spielberg returned to WWII for one of his most acclaimed films, "Saving Private Ryan". A nearly three-hour fictionalized look at a unit sent to locate the sole survivor of four brothers serving in the military. the film earned praise for its no-holds-barred depiction of the battlefield, although the characters bordered on cliche. Critics anointed the picture one of the year's best on its release in July and it subsequently earned over $200 million at the box office and received 11 Academy Award nominations. Although favored to take home the Best Picture award, it didn't, but Spielberg was crowned with a Best Director statue.

In the fall of 1994, Spielberg, recording mogul David Geffen and former Disney production head Jeffrey Katzenberg formed a new multimedia entertainment company, christened DreamWorks SKG, which would produce live-action and animated features, TV programs, recordings and interactive computer software in a relatively cost efficient manner. According to Spielberg, DreamWorks would grant its filmmakers "moral rights" to protect the original versions of their films after release. The studio also decided to give its animators and screenwriters contracts that guarantee them a share of a given film's success in defiance of the standard creative bookkeeping for the industry. Spielberg was to oversee the design of the studio's planned physical plant, laid out like a college campus on the old Howard Hughes aircraft site near the wetlands of Playa Vista, California--however, after much back-and-forth the Playa Vista plan was scrapped and DreamWorks ended up being housed on the Universal lot, co-existing with Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment facilities. The game plan was that Spielberg would oversee the production of live-action features, Katzenberg would direct the state-of-the-art animation division, and Geffen would head SKG's independent recording label.

The fledgling studio's first small screen efforts met with limited success; only the Michael J Fox vehicle "Spin City" (ABC, 1996- ) was a hit. Other efforts like "Champs" (ABC, 1996), a male-bonding comedy, and the overly-familiar police drama "High Incident" (ABC, 1996-97) came and went quickly. Even DreamWorks' first major feature "The Peacemaker" (1997), a nuclear war thriller, enjoyed only a modest box office, but the studio eventually came into its own with hits such as "Saving Private Ryan," "Shrek," "The Ring," "Gladiator," "Galaxy Quest," "American Beauty," "A Beautiful Mind," "Meet the Parents" and "Minority Report," which company produced and/or co-produced with other studios.

Spielberg was also not without success on television, being one of the executive producer of the long-running smash hit medical drama "ER" (1994- ) created by Chrichton, and the hugely-rated Sci-Fi channel miniseries "Taken" (2002) and the similarly popular Western-oriented TNT mini "Into the West" (2005). His most impressive accomplishment on the small screen was the HBO mini-series "Band of Brothers" (2001), based on historian Stephen Ambrose's book about Easy Company, the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army. Spielberg produced the powerful 10-episode series with Tom Hanks, and "band of Brothers" earned a multitude of Emmys along with critical and popular acclaim.

But moviemaking with himself behind the camera remained the director's primary passion, and he continued to explore the boundaries of his talents within a commercial context. Although he was unable to fully integrate his own crowd-pleasing filmmaking sensibilities with the more bleak and philosophical viewpoint of one of his idol, director Stanley Kubrick, when he elected to make "A.I. Artificial Intellegence" (2001), a Pinocchio-like sci-fi fable Kubrick had mused over for over a decade, the film was a noble failure, with several arresting moments, eye-popping visuals and fine performances from Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law. But Spielberg returned to top blockbuster form when he adapted Phillip K. Dick's sci-fi novella "Minority Report" (2002) and tapped Tom Cruise, one of the biggest movie stars on the planet at the time, to star. A fast-paced, intense and compelling thriller, "Minority Report" was Spielberg's leanest and meanest film in years, despite its abundant sci-fi trappings, and showed that the director still stood head-and-shoulders above the new wave of video-game style directors of similar action-adventure fare. The director followed that artistic and commercial triumph with yet another impressive achievement that same year, helming "Catch Me If You Can," the true-life story of con man Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), the youngest person ever to make the FBI's Most Wanted list. Not only did Spielberg flawlessly recreate-on both a realistic and nostalgic level-the 1960s setting and coax DiCaprio's most charming and mature performance to date, he cannily cast his close collaborator Hanks against type as the downtrodden, schleppy FBI agent who doggedly pursues the con artist.

The director re-teamed with Hanks a third time for a seemingly unlikely project, "The Terminal" (2004), in which Hanks plays an Eastern European immigrant who, due to a political regime change and passport snafu, is forced to reside in a New York City airport terminal until his documentation glitch is resolved. Although the film had its share of wonderful moments, overall it was one of the director's more artificial-feeling efforts. Much more effective was Spielberg's riveting remake of the H.G. Wells sci-fi classic "War of the Worlds" (2005), adding a contemporary spin on the familiar tale while also culling inspiration from some of the best elements of earlier incarnations, including Wells' novel, Orson Welles' radio broadcast and the 1950s film version, bouyed by a spectacular array of special effects. The director re-teamed with Tom Cruise, casting the actor as a working class deadbeat dad who must step up and protect his two children during a horrific alien invasion (The film was nearly overwhelmed by the controversial morass of publicity that surrounded the seemingly erratic behavior of Cruise in the weeks prior to the release).

By year's end, Spielberg, who had begun favoring a fast-paced production schedule for his projects, launched into his long-gestating project "Munich" (2005), a tense chronicle of the clandestine team charged with seeking retribution against the terrorists responsible for the slaying of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The director collaborated closely with two of the film's primary screenwriters, Eric Roth and, later, Tony Kushner in the hopes of crafting a script and story that would offer a balanced look at the politically charged events that were certain to polarize special interest groups on either side of the issue (particularly Israeli, Mossad and Palestinian leaders), and with a cast that included Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Geoffrey Rush and a host of emerging unknown talents, Spielberg assembled a three-hour epic that, despite external criticisms over its politics and psychology, stood as one of the director's masterworks, utilizing all of his talents as a cinematic storyteller to dizzying effect. Although Spielberg tred carefully in the media to avoid any messy backlash, the film was unquestionably an artistic triumph. He was honored with several award nominations, including an Academy Award for Best Director. Meanwhile, as the year closed, the director reached the end of his run with another pet project with the sale of DreamWorks to Paramount Pictures, having failed to fully flower as a full-fledged movie studio.

Spielberg's success has allowed him to pursue numerous philanthropic and cultural pursuits. He refused to accept any earnings from "Schindler's List"--calling it "blood money"--and channeled those millions into the Righteous Persons Foundation, which has granted money to a range of projects that impact on modern Jewish life. He also served as chairman for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, an ambitious project devoted to filming interviews with Holocaust survivors. Back in the entertainment world, Spielberg lent his name and clout to several organizations devoted to film preservation and artists' rights. In addition, the director also made a habit of buying back Oscars that were put on the auction block by the heirs of now-deceased recipients such as Clark Gable, and returning the trophies to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, free of charge. The once awkward outsider has become the ultimate insider, generally considered as one of the most powerful individuals in Hollywood.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Kevin Spacey

A chameleonic actor equally at home on stage or in film and as a hero or a villain, Kevin Spacey first gained notice with several strong stage performances. Although born in New Jersey, he spent most of his life in Southern California, struggling through what has come to be seen as a "troubled" childhood. As a youngster, he reportedly set fire to his older sister's tree house and was asked to leave a couple of schools, including the very strict Northridge Military Academy. It was only when he settled on performing and found his niche at Chatsworth High School that Spacey (then Kevin Fowler) seemed to come into his own, particularly alongside classmates Val Kilmer (at whose insistence Spacey later attended Juilliard) and Mare Winningham (with him he shared the stage and the honor of being class valedictorian).

While still in school, the compact, average looking Spacey tried his hand at stand-up comedy, garnering some notice for his impressions, but an ill-fated audition for "The Gong Show" curtailed his pursuit of comedy. Instead, he enrolled at NYC's prestigious Juilliard School of Drama but conflicts with his teachers and a desire to get on with his career led to his dropping out after just two years. Spacey was doing office work at Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival (NYSF) when he landed the role of a soldier in the company's production of "Henry VI, Part I" in 1981. Other roles soon followed and Papp one day "fired" the office worker so he would be free to find employment as an actor. It wasn't long thereafter that Spacey made his Broadway debut opposite Liv Ullman in "Ghosts" (1982) which effectively launched his stage career. After appearing in regional theater, Spacey auditioned for the national touring company of "The Real Thing" but director Mike Nichols instead suggested he try for a role in "Hurlyburly", another Nichols-directed play. After understudying the role of Mickey (originated by Harvey Keitel), Spacey went on to serve as standby for two of the other male roles. Nichols later gave the actor his first screen breaks as a subway rider who mugs Meryl Streep's Rachel in "Heartburn" (1986) and as a Wall Street broker in "Working Girl" (1989).

In between those two parts, Spacey earned plaudits (although ironically was the only one of the four principals not nominated for a Tony Award) as Jamie Tyrone in Jonathan Miller's controversial staging of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (1986; the production was taped for airing on Showtime in 1987). He also called on his background in stand-up to essay an aspiring comic in "Rocket Gibralter" (1988) and created the memorably creepy and mercurial villain Mel Profitt who with his equally kinky sister Susan (Joan Severance) dominated a 1987-88 story arc on CBS' cult hit "Wiseguy.”

Spacey was fast moving to the ranks of respected character actor. The O'Neill drama had inaugurated a collaboration with Jack Lemmon (whom Spacey had met as a teenager) which encompassed the NBC miniseries "The Murder of Mary Phagan" (1988) and the maudlin feature "Dad" (1988). As the 90s dawned, he offered dazzling starring turns as disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker in "Fall From Grace" (NBC, 1990) and as noted lawyer Clarence Darrow in a 1991 PBS docudrama, both of which preceded his Tony-winning featured performance as a gangster wannabe in Neil Simon's nostalgic play "Lost in Yonkers". With the added cachet of his stage accolades, the actor was determined to no longer be reduced to window dressing in films (as he felt had happened to his part in "Henry & June" 1990). Al Pacino had been impressed with Spacey in "Lost in Yonkers" and lobbied for him to be cast as one of the competing real estate wheelers and dealers in "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992). Later that year, he visited a suburbia riddled with dark secrets for the first time in Alan Pakula's not entirely successful tale of wife swapping and murder, "Consenting Adults". In both these films, Spacey held his own amidst a pool of powerful actors (e.g., Pacino, Lemmon, Kevin Kline) and proved a strong screen presence. 1994's underrated black comedy "The Ref" paired him with the equally formidable Judy Davis as battling spouses whose home is burglarized while that year's "Swimming With Sharks" (on which he also served as a co-producer) allowed him to fully display his venal side as a Hollywood executive.

Hitting his stride as slightly nasty or villainous characters, Spacey offered a truly chilling turn as serial killer John Doe in David Fincher's atmospheric "Seven" and stole the proceedings as fast-talking con man 'Verbal' Kint in Bryan Singer's noirish "The Usual Suspects" (both 1995). Along with his work as an army major coping with a potential health threat in "Outbreak", these two performances proved his versatility and screen charisma. Spacey won that year's Best Supporting Actor award for "The Usual Suspects" but it was clearly a nod to his body of work. Switching side of the law, he undertook the role of a smugly crusading prosecutor in the Joel Schumacher-directed "A Time to Kill" (1996), adapted from John Grisham's novel.

Like many performers, Spacey had also longed to direct and he stepped behind the cameras for "Albino Alligator" (1997), a drama about three petty crooks mistaken for big-time bank robbers. What the film lacked in visual flourishes, it more than made up for in its cast. Spacey clearly had much to learn about camera placement and movement but he clearly knew how to deal with actors, eliciting fine work from Gary Sinise, Matt Dillon and Viggo Mortensen. But the film's claustrophobic setting and its mixed critical reception doomed it to modest box office returns. While Spacey the director suffered a setback, Spacey the actor offered one of his finest screen performances as the smarmy but sexy celebrity cop Jack Vincennes in "L.A. Confidential" (1997). Similarly his Jim Williams, the homosexual Savannah resident accused of murder, in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" (also 1997) allowed the actor to plumb the depths of what Dwight Garner at Salon.com (September 19, 1997) called his mastery of "radiating woozy insincerity". Both characters traded in facades, Vincennes as a mildly corrupt cop who comes to redemption and Williams as an upstanding citizen who succumbs to the dark side. In both cases, Spacey etched memorable roles, although only the former enjoyed relative box-office attention.

His successful turn as Jim Williams merely fueled speculation about his private life which peaked with an October 1997 Esquire cover story by Tom Junod that intimated that the actor was coy about his private life. The matter proved a double edged sword for Spacey: He earned sympathy from those who felt the journalist and the magazine had crossed a line but scorn from those who felt he should offer comments on his private life. (The actor later addressed those concerns in a 1999 Playboy interview.) The profile, however, had no effect on his career: Spacey turned hero to essay a cop who excels at excising hostages from their kidnappers in "The Negotiator" (1998). Paired with Samuel L. Jackson (who played a good cop suspected of wrongdoings), he proved a mesmerizing presence and matched Jackson's intensity; the pair meshed well and elevated a somewhat pedestrian mystery into an enjoyably watchable film. After a turn voicing the evil Hopper in the animated "A Bug's Life", Spacey committed his stage role of the amoral and cynically sarcastic casting agent to film in "Hurlyburly" (both 1998). As has been his ilk, he imbued what on the surface could be an unlikable person with a sly charm.

Unlike many stage-trained actors who make a success in Hollywood, Spacey returned to the theater amidst much fanfare. He undertook the difficult role of Theodore Hickman, 'Hickey' to his friends, in Eugene O'Neill's mammoth "The Iceman Cometh", originally staged at London's Almeida Theatre in the spring of 1998, Undertaking a role that had become associated with Jason Robards (Jr.), Spacey made it his own, offering an unique perspective on the hardware salesman by fashioning "Hickey anew as an evangelist offering up tidings far grimmer than they are glad. He show[ed] an erstwhile prophet of hope hollowed out by guilt and pain, embarked on a path to redemption that leads him straight to hell", according to Matt Wolf in Daily Variety (April 16, 1998). The production transferred to London's West End where he scooped up virtually every accolade, so it came as no surprise when the production was remounted on Broadway the following year. As the play ran some four hours plus, production costs were high and the producers charged $100 per ticket, but at the star's insistence, a block of seats was held daily to be sold to students at the deeply discounted price of $20. Spacey charmed the NYC critics and earned a Tony Award nomination but lost the medallion to Brian Dennehy (who ironically had starred in a Chicago production of "Iceman Cometh").

Also in 1999, Spacey returned to the big screen as Lester Burnham in "American Beauty", a character who ranks among his best and most fully realized screen creations. In delineating the mid-life crisis of a man who moves from a defeated schlub (henpecked by an overbearing wife, dismissed by his teenage daughter and rendered impotent at his dead-end job) to an empowered, take-charge guy, the actor undertook a risky role that firmly vaulted him from esteemed character actor to leading man. His take on the role was to show Lester's hardening, in both the physical (he pumps iron) and the abstract (he asserts himself as head of the household). Even enacting his fantasies about his daughter's cheerleader classmate, while verging on bad taste is redeemed by the actor's earnestness and skill. Spacey earned critical huzzahs and his second Oscar, this time as Best Actor. Returning to his more conventional persona as a slickster, he teamed with Danny DeVito to star as a smooth-talking salesman in "The Big Kahuna"—a dazzling performance in an otherwise little-seen film—before starring in "Ordinary Decent Criminal" (both 2000), a fictionalized biography of Irish master thief Martin Cahill (played by Brendan Gleeson in 1998's "The General"). Playing juicy roles in small films didn't affect Spacey's reputation as one of the premiere actors working in Hollywood, but the actor lost some steam when he starred in the mawkish "Pay It Forward" (2000) playing a scarred schoolteacher who opens himself up to love when his young student devises a system of paying good deeds forward to three people. Spacey's affected manor and overdone makeup did little to aid this already over-sentimentalized tale. In 2001, Spacey received mixed reviews when he teamed with Jeff Bridges in "K-PAX", playing a man who claims to be an alien from outer space. Later that year, he was cast--many would argue miscast—as the milquetoast hero of the screen adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning "The Shipping News," which also suffered from tepid reviews and indifferent audience response.

In between projects, Spacey distinguished himself as a champion of both actors and acting, become actively involved with the activities of the Screen Actors Guild, launching the website Triggerstreet.com as a means for aspiring, creative people without agents to form an online community to get their ideas and projects in front of Hollywood decision- makers, and in 2003 he was named as the artistic director of London's historic Old Vic Theater, a stage he had fallen in love with during a childhood trip to England, and where he appeared in his triumphant 1998 production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Ice Man Cometh.” Despite being a celebrity—guaranteeing not giving him the anonymity enjoyed past artistic directors—Spacey’s tenure at the Old Vic was a rocky one. He was criticized for not putting on enough of the classics, though his “Richard II,” in which he starred as the immature and detached king, was critically acclaimed. While the press had a field day lambasting his choices, Spacey cited his success in bring the theater back into public prominence. Several productions—notably “National Anthems” (2005) and “Philadelphia Story” (2005)—brought in the audience, but reviews were savage. Then Spacey hit a bona fide disaster with Arthur Miller’s “Resurrection Blues,” which suffered a poor performances and attendance that failed to reach even half-capacity. But Spacey remained unapologetic—he claimed the press was out to get him because of his celebrity and promised to astonish doubters with a stronger program.

The actor was next seen as an academic with strong views on capital punishment who finds himself accused of murder in director Alan Parker's film "The Life of David Gale" (2003). Again slipping into a now-familiar martyr role, Spacey found his performance praised despite the movie's many flaws, which included an overwrought and unconvincing story and an anti-death penalty message delivered with complete overkill. Changing gears, Spacey returned beyond the camera to helm (and co-write and star in) "Beyond the Sea" (2004), a project he had long dreamed of: a biopic surrounding the popular 50s and 60s singer Bobby Darin, whom the actor had idolized and imitated since he was a child. Ironically, the heart-impaired singer died an early death, and by the time Spacey got the project into production he was nearly too old to play Darin; fortunately a clever script device had Darin looking back at his life and plugging his late-years self into his memories, which allowed audiences to easily forgive Spacey's age. The actor provided a tour de force performance and provided all of the Darin-like vocals himself (he even subsequently embarked on a multi-city concert tour singing Darin standards to promote the film), and as a director he excelled at visually the film's lavish and energetic musical sequences, although only Spacey could sell some of the clunky dialogue, and his chemistry with the much-younger Kate Bosworth, playing Darin's real-life wife Sandra Dee, was lacking. Still, despite being an obvious vanity project there was much to admire about the film, and Spacey delivered one of his finest performances.

Spacey made headlines when he agreed to reunite with Bryan Singer for the director's revival of the original comic book film franchise, playing the Man of Steel's brilliant nemesis Lex Luthor in "Superman Returns" (2006). With a shaven head and flashy suits, Spacey exuded a much more subdued evil than did predecessor Gene Hackman in the 1978 version. Nonetheless, Luthor’s plot this time around was no less dastardly—he plans to use Superman’s own technology from Krypton to create a new land mass in the Atlantic Ocean so he can destroy the United States, sending Superman (Brandon Routh) on an epic journey through the depths of the ocean and into the reaches of outer space.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Meryl Streep

Almost from her first screen appearances, Meryl Streep proved to be one of the premiere actresses of her generation. Over her career, the blonde New Jersey native has demonstrated an astonishing range, equally comfortable with comedic material as with heavy dramatic fare, and has become noted for her facility with foreign accents. Even before she was in her teens, Streep was studying classical voice. While in high school, she appeared in musicals and went on to major in drama and English at Vassar.

After working with a traveling theater company in Vermont and her NYC stage debut in 1971, Streep enrolled at the prestigious Yale School of Drama where she distinguished herself in numerous productions. Following graduation, she quickly found employment with Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival. In 1976, Streep appeared in a double bill of "27 Wagons Full of Cotton" and "A Memory of Two Mondays". It is a tribute to her skills that many audience members did not realize that she was featured in both plays. For her performance as the blowzy simple-minded wife in the former, Streep received a Tony Award nomination as Featured Actress in a Play. Subsequent theatrical roles included three Shakespeare in the Park performances including Isabella in "Measure for Measure" (1976), opposite John Cazale, and "The Taming of the Shrew" (1978), co-starring Raul Julia.

Streep appeared in the CBS TV-movie "The Deadliest Season" (1977) as the wife of a professional hockey player accused of manslaughter and earned an Emmy Award as a Catholic who marries into a Jewish family in the NBC miniseries "Holocaust" (1978). She debuted in a small role as a caustic woman friend of Jane Fonda's Lillian Hellman in "Julia" (1977) but it was her strong turn as Christopher Walken's de facto girlfriend who learns to assert herself in "The Deer Hunter" (1978) that made critics and audiences take notice. The following year, Streep offered a dazzling display of versatility in three high profile roles: as the acerbic lesbian ex-wife of Woody Allen in "Manhattan", the Southern mistress of Alan Alda's callow politician in "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" and the dissatisfied wife of Dustin Hoffman in "Kramer vs. Kramer". Sweeping the critics' prizes, the actress walked off with an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for the latter.

Segueing to leading roles, Streep displayed her ear for dialects in the dual role of actress and character in the uneven adaptation "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1981). The following year, she delivered what is still thought of as one of her best screen portraits--the Polish concentration camp survivor in "Sophie's Choice". Offering a display of flawless technique coupled with raw emotionality, Streep was heartbreakingly realistic. Critics fell over themselves for superlatives, comparing her to Garbo (and just about every other major actress of the 40s and 50s) and proclaiming her the foremost contemporary dramatic screen actress. For her performance, Streep was awarded a richly-deserved Best Actress Oscar.

Having cemented her reputation as a film actress, Streep went on to offer a gallery of portraits that proved her mastery of idiom, accent or social milieu. She proved effective as the blue-collar whistle-blower in "Silkwood" (1983), was believable as the unstable British woman who had been the Resistance worker in "Plenty" (1985) and delivered another tour de force as author Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen in the sweeping epic "Out of Africa" (also 1985). Streep more than held her own against Jack Nicholson as the abandoned and very pregnant wife out for revenge in "Heartburn" (1986) and a homeless alcoholic in "Ironweed" (1987). "A Cry in the Dark/Evil Angels" (1988) cast her as the dour real-life Lindy Chamberlain whose claim that a dingo took her baby made her the most-maligned woman in Australia.

Nearing 40, the actress, who has been very vocal about the inequities of Hollywood, from its pay scale for women to its treatment of actresses of a certain age, attempted to lighten her image. The misfire "She-Devil" (1989) was hardly her fault--in fact Streep is the best thing in the film, offering a wickedly amusing turn as a self-centered romance novelist. She fared somewhat better as an aspiring singer and actress coping with an overbearing movie-star mother and various addictions in the film version of Carrie Fisher's roman-a-clef "Postcards From the Edge" (1990). While she has admitted that the film is flawed, "Death Becomes Her" (1992) offered her a chance to skewer Tinseltown's youth-obsessed culture as she essayed an aging, vain actress who will do anything to retain her looks.

Taking a cue from Yale classmate Sigourney Weaver, Streep attempted to transform herself into an action heroine with "The River Wild" (1994) but ironically found greater acclaim with the more conventional role of the Italian-born housewife who has a brief love affair with a photographer in Clint Eastwood's film version of "The Bridges of Madison County" (1995). Streep meshed beautifully with co-star Diane Keaton in "Marvin's Room" (1996), in which they played estranged sisters brought together by a potential tragedy. Returning to the small screen, she appeared in the well-meaning TV-movie "...first do no harm" (ABC, 1997) before tackling the role of a journalist's terminally ill parent in "One True Thing" and adding an Irish brogue to her accents as the eldest sibling in "Dancing at Lughnasa" (both 1998). The former, in which she movingly depicted a mother struggling to make peace with her daughter, brought Streep her 11th Academy Award nomination. The following year, she garnered yet another Best Actress Oscar nod for her strong turn as real-life NYC violin teacher Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras (whose life had been the subject of the award-winning 1995 documentary "Small Wonders") in "Music of the Heart".

After that film, Streep took a two-year hiatus from the silver screen, appearing only as the voice of the Blue Mecha in director Steven Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence." But she made a powerful return in 2002, appearing in the artfully off-kilter "Adaptation" as real-life writer Susan Orlean, author of the best-selling novel "The Orchid Thief," who in a heady blend of fact and fiction becomes the object of the obsessions of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played in the film by Nicolas Cage). She near-simultaneously followed up the role with an equally critically-hailed turn in the modern-era segment of "The Hours," playing book editor and conflicted lesbian Clarissa Vaughn planning a farewell party for her AIDS-inflicted former male lover, a famous author who had nicknamed her "Mrs. Dalloway". Her heartbreaking, overwhelmed performance helped anchor the movie and earned her a fresh round of critical adoration, although at Oscar time she was remembered for her "Adaptation" role instead, earning a nomination as Best Supporting Actress. It was her thirteenth nomination, which allowed her to surpass Katharine Hepburn as the most nominated female actor--and the most nominated actor, period--in Academy history.

She next tackled HBO's 2003 miniseries adaptation of writer Tony Kushner's AIDS-themed "Angels in America," under the direction of Nichols and opposite Al Pacino, Emma Thompson and Mary-Louise Parker, in multiple roles--including a male rabbi, Hannah Pitt, Ethel Rosenberg and the Angel Australia--which earned her an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie, and a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television. Streep then agreed to take on a challenging project, director Jonathan Demme's remake of the 1962 conspiracy classic thriller "The Manchurian Candidate" (2004), a rare instance in which the remake stood on its own as a well-crafted film. Streep took on the role played by Angela Lansbury in the original, the doting mother of a vice presidential candidate (Liev Schreiber) programmed to serve as a sleeper agent in the White House--Streep's canny version was a honey-voiced but hard-driving Senator that emerged even crueler and more detestable in the remake. In a more straightforward comedic turn, Streep was charming as the befuddled Aunt Josephine in the otherwise uneven adaptation of the children's classic tale "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" (2004), and she demostrated her comedic gifts again in "Prime" (2005) as therapist Lisa Metzger, whose beautiful but intimacy-challenged patient (Uma Thurman) strikes up an invigorating affair that she discusses in detail--with a much-younger man who happens to be Metzger's son (Bryan Greenberg).

Streep had two juicy and promising projects slated for 2006 release: first was director Robert Altman's multicharacter exploration of the last broadcast of Garrison Keillor's popular radio series "A Prairie Home Companion" in which Streep played country music siren Yolanda Johnson; and the big screen adaptation of the bestselling potboiler "The Devil Wears Prada," as the elite, imperious and demanding New York magazine editor Miranda Priestly.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Samuel L. Jackson

Intense veteran of TV commercials and the New York theater, Samuel L Jackson is one of the busiest actors in Hollywood, averaging five features a year since 1992. After beginning his career in Atlanta where he landed his first commercial (for the regional chain Krystal Hamburgers) and feature ("Together for Days" 1972), he moved north and spent over a decade acting with the acclaimed Negro Ensemble Company, performed with the New York Shakespeare Festival. Although he originated roles in two of August Wilson's plays at the Yale Repertory Theater (Boy Willie in "The Piano Lesson" and Wolf in "Two Trains Running"), he was unable to perform them on Broadway (succeeded by Charles S Dutton and Laurence Fishburne, respectively). Jackson segued to bit parts in films and TV guest shots, often playing creeps and criminals who died violently on-screen. His strikingly feline eyes conveyed menace with scary effectiveness, but his expressive face adjusted impressively to a wide range of material.

Jackson first met Spike Lee when the writer-director visited backstage after a performance of "A Soldier's Play" and years later the director cast him in a bit as a local yokel in "School Daze" (1988). The collaboration continued as he oversaw the neighborhood happenings as the street-level deejay Mister Senor Love Daddy in "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and beat the hell out of Denzel Washington in "Mo' Better Blues" (1990). Jackson enjoyed a major career boost in Lee's "Jungle Fever" (1991) with his brilliant, harrowing portrait of Gator, an alternately charming and dangerous crack addict (based on his first-hand knowledge of the drug culture), winning a special jury prize as Best Supporting Actor at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. He also had a chance to work with his wife LaTanya Richardson in Lee's "Malcolm X" (1992) but balked at the director's request for him to work for scale.

Jackson's triumph as Gator led to a torrent of small roles in a rapid succession of titles--"Strictly Business" (1991), Ernest Dickerson's "Juice", "White Sands", "Johnny Suede", "Patriot Games", "Jumpin' at the Boneyard", and "Fathers and Sons" (all 1992)--before Jackson graduated to leads in two 1993 comedies, "National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon I" and "Amos and Andrew". He finished out the year in supporting roles in three wildly different projects: the Hughes Brothers' "Menace II Society", Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" and Tony Scott's "True Romance", scripted by rising star Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino, in tribute to 70s blaxploitation flicks, put Jackson in a Jheri-curled Afro wig to play Jules, a philosophical hit man, in the acclaimed "Pulp Fiction" (1994). Outstanding even amid a stellar ensemble including Bruce Willis, John Travolta, and Uma Thurman, he got to utter several killer monologues while going about his grisly work and received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

Hedging his bets, the workaholic actor appeared in at least three other films in 1994 including "The New Age" and "Fresh" and also appeared in the high-minded made-for-cable movies "Assault at West Point" (Showtime, 1994) and "Against the Wall" (HBO, 1994). Jackson's choice of roles post-"Pulp Fiction" yielded mixed critical and box office results. He was a lawyer arguing for a mother's rights in the modest "Losing Isaiah", a cop running an undercover operation in the flop "Kiss of Death" and Bruce Willis' unwilling cohort in the successful "Die Hard With a Vengeance" (all 1995). Jackson tried a comic turn as a Don King-like boxing promoter in "The Great White Hype", rode the roller coaster of Renny Harlin's "The Long Kiss Goodnight" as a low-rent private eye and earned praise as a father accused of killing the men who raped his nine year old daughter in Joel Schumacher's "A Time to Kill" (all 1996).

The Jackson juggernaut pressed on at full throttle with starring roles in three 1997 movies. As Trevor Garfield, the dedicated teacher driven over the edge into violence in "187" (copspeak for a homicide), he found himself in a vehicle that for all its good intentions was little more than "Death Wish" visits the public schools. He faired much better with "Eve's Bayou", an intensely emotional, well-made family drama by first-time writer-director Kasi Lemmons. Revealing a suave romantic side to his versatile talent, Jackson also served as executive producer and paterfamilias for the predominantly female cast surrounding him. He returned to Tarantino country as arms merchant Ordell Robbie in "Jackie Brown" (adapted from Elmore Leonard's novel "Rum Punch"), moving deftly between comedy and malice (a trademark style by now) as the personable villain with no moral center (unlike Jules) who ends up killing Robert De Niro, a sure sign that he had arrived as an actor.

1998 began with Jackson (this time as a brainy mathematician) sharing the spotlight with Dustin Hoffman and Sharon Stone in Barry Levinson's lackluster sci-fi thriller "Sphere". That year's small independent "The Red Violin" gave him "a great opportunity to play a role (as a violin expert) you don't normally see an African-American in," and the much bigger-budgeted "The Negotiator" paid him $5 million to star opposite Kevin Spacey (at $4 million) as a hostage negotiator who takes his own hostages when he is falsely accused of murder and embezzlement. The following year saw him as Jedi Knight Mace Windu in George Lucas' long-awaited "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace", as well as rejoining Harlan for "Deep Blue Sea". Jackson, showing no inclination for slowing up, also signed to play a Marine Colonel embroiled in controversy in "Rules of Engagement" (2000) and followed Richard Roundtree as the cool private eye in "Shaft" (also 2000), John Singleton's riff on the 1971 blaxploitation classic. For him, work (plus golf) remained the addiction that had replaced the substances kicked at the beginning of the decade.

In 2002, Jackson was at a high-water mark, willing to tackle a variety of challenging roles, large and small: As a leading man, he co-starred with Ben Affleck in the effective sociological thriller "Changing Lanes," in which he turned in a nuanced, commanding performance as a recovering alcoholic Doyle Gipson, fighting to stay in his children's lives even as his own life is almost undone due to the aftereffects of a simple fender-bender; he then delivered an action-packed supporting turn reprising his role as Jedi Master Mace Windu for George Lucas' blockbuster "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones," this time more in the thick of the plot with a mean purple light saber (the actor chose the color so he'd stand out in the crowded action scenes); he then helped launch a hit action franchise, appearing as the mysteriously scarred NSA Agent Augustus Gibbon in "xXx," perhaps the only actor who could out-intimidate Vin Diesel; and he took the lead again as kilt-wearing master chemist Elmo McElroy in the Brit indie thriller "Formula 51."

In the lackluster military potboiler "Basic" (2003), Jackson employed his hard-as-nails persona to play a feared, often hated Special Forces sergeant who mysteriously disappears along with the team of Army Rangers he commands during a routine training exercise during a hurricane in the jungles of Panama. Spinning that persona to a more heroic bent, the actor then tackled the role of Lt. Dan 'Hondo' Harrelson for the big-budget, straight-faced screen adaptation of the 70s cop drama "S.W.A.T." (2003), opposite Colin Farrell, an action extravaganza in which the special tactics team led by Jackson's character must transport an incarcerated drug kingpin who's offered $100 million to anyone who can free him.

Jackson's career choices continued to run the gamut in terms of quality: he played second fiddle to Ashley Judd in one of the actress' characteristic, unchallenging thrillers, "Twisted" (2004), but rebounded strongly as the voice of the frustrated, ice-powered superhero Frozone in Disney/Pixar's delightful CGI-animated superhero spoof "The Incredibles" (2004). He also cameoed in Tarantino's "Kill Bill, Vol. 2" (2004) as an organist at the wedding of The Bride.

Jackson kicked of 2005 with "Coach Carter," playing a familiar on-screen archetype--the inspirational coach who helps his students achieve--playing the controversial high school basketball coach Ken Carter who benched his undefeated team due to their collective poor academic record in 1999. Despite its seemingly clichéd set-up, the film resonated thanks in large part to Jackson's strong, anchoring performance. Jackson played an angry Washington Post reporter in the John Boorman drama, “In My Country” (2005). Sent to cover South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission—a public hearing conducted to reconcile the atrocities of apartheid—Jackson butts heads with a white South African poet (Juliette Binoche) over his bitterness and racial agenda, but instead ends up falling in love despite both being married to another. He then went on to reprise two of his popular roles: first, Agent Gibbons for the action sequel "xXx: State of the Union" (2005), this time putting Ice Cube in the secret agent hot seat; then he unsheathed that purple light saber for the final appearance of Jedi Master Mace Windu in the prequel trilogy-ender "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" (2005). Jackson had long insisted that George Lucas write him an impressive death scene, and both Lucas and Jackson delivered the goods in Windu's long-anticipated demise, which proved to be one of the most dramatic scenes in the film.

Jackson's next vehicle was the hackneyed, derivitive action/buddy flick "The Man" (2005), which attempted to drive laughs by pairing Jackson's hard-edged cop with an awkward dentist (Eugene Levy) drawn into a crime scheme.

  • Also Credited As:
    Sam Jackson, Samuel Leroy Jackson
  • Born:
    on 12/21/1948 in Washington, DC
  • Job Titles:
    Actor, Producer, Security guard, Social worker
Family
  • Aunt: Edna. lived in home with Jackson while growing up in Chatanooga, Tennessee; inspiration for him taking role as teacher in "187"
  • Daughter: Zoe Jackson. born in 1982; mother, LaTanya Richardson
  • Mother: Elizabeth Jackson. began as a domestic and ended career as supply buyer for state mental institution
Significant Others
  • Wife: LaTanya Richardson. born in 1941; married in 1980; met while Jackson was attending Morehouse College; acted together in "Losing Isaiah" (1995)
Education
  • Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia, drama, BA, 1972
Milestones
  • 1972 Acted in first feature, "Together For Days", starring Clifton Davis and Lois Chiles; credited as Sam Jackson
  • 1974 First appearance on a TV series, "Moving On" (NBC)
  • 1976 Moved to NYC from Atlanta; began performing in stage productions, frequently with the Negro Ensemble Company (i.e., "A Soldier's Play" 1981, "Home" 1981, "District Line" 1984, "Burners Frolic" 1990, "Jonquil" 1990)
  • 1978 Appeared in "The Trial of the Moke", for "Great Performances" (PBS)
  • 1981 First met Spike Lee backstage one night after a performance of "A Soldier's Play"
  • 1981 First notable appearance in a major feature, as Gang Member No. 2 in Milos Forman's "Ragtime"
  • 1985 First affiliation with playwright August Wilson, Seattle Repertory Theatre production of "Fences"
  • 1987 Originated the part of Boy Willie in the world premiere of Wilson's "The Piano Lesson" at the Yale Repertory Theater (replaced by Charles S Dutton on Broadway)
  • 1988 First appearance in a Spike Lee film, "School Daze"
  • 1990 Co-starred in world premiere of Wilson's "Two Trains Running" at the Yale Repertory Theater (March 30-April 21); replaced by Laurence Fishburne on Broadway
  • 1991 Breakthrough supporting role, the crackhead Gator in Lee's "Jungle Fever"
  • 1993 Played first feature leads in "National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon I" and "Amos and Andrew"; both comedies
  • 1994 Acted the part of the prisoner Jamaal in acclaimed HBO movie "Against the Wall", directed by John Frankenheimer
  • 1994 Delivered a sensational performance as Jules, the philosophizing hit man and partner of John Travolta, in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction"; earned Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination
  • 1995 Initial foray into action-adventure genre, "Die Hard with a Vengeance"
  • 1996 Admitted to having been addicted to crack cocaine in the mid-1980s in a TV interview with Mary Hart on "Entertainment Tonight"
  • 1996 Appeared as a low-rent private eye in Renny Harlin's actioner "The Long Kiss Goodnight"
  • 1996 Portrayed Carl Lee Hailey, the grieving father accused of killing the men who raped his 9-year-old daughter, in Joel Schumacher's "A Time to Kill"; first film with actor Kevin Spacey
  • 1997 Acted the part of arms dealer Ordell Robbie in Tarantino's "Jackie Brown"
  • 1997 Debut as producer, executive produced "Eve's Bayou"; also delivered a silky performance as a cheating husband
  • 1997 Played a teacher returning to the classroom after nearly being killed by a student in "187"
  • 1998 Co-starred with Dustin Hoffman and Sharon Stone in Barry Levinson's sci-fi feature "Sphere"
  • 1998 Played an evaluator of violins in the small independent "The Red Violin" (released in the USA in 1999)
  • 1998 Received $5 million to star opposite Spacey in "The Negotiator"
  • 1999 Portrayed Jedi Knight Mace Windu in the long-awaited "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace"
  • 1999 Reteamed with Harlin for the action thriller "Deep Blue Sea"
  • 2000 Cast as a Marine Colonel accused of using excessive force in "Rules of Engagement"
  • 2000 Had title role in "Shaft", a loose remake of the 1971 classic directed by Gordon Parks and starring Richard Roundtree
  • 2000 Received star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (June 16)
  • 2002 Cast as Agent Gibbons in the summer blockbuster "XXX"
  • 2002 Co-starred as Doyle Gipson, an alcoholic saleman in "Changing Lanes"
  • 2002 Continued his work as Mace Windu in "Stars Wars: Episode II- Attack Of The Clones"
  • 2002 Reuntied with John Travolta in "Basic"
  • 2002 Starred in "Formula 51" with Robert Carlyle; Jackson also produced
  • 2003 Cast in Quentin Tarantino's film "Kill Bill," which was released in two Volumes "Kill Bill Vol. 1" in 2003 and "Kill Bill Vol.2" in 2004
  • 2003 Starred in the action-packed feature "S.W.A.T."
  • 2004 Co-starred in the thriller "Twisted," about a female police detective is set to a case where she discovers all the murder victims are her past boy friends
  • 2004 Voiced Lucius Best/Frozone in Pixar's animated feature "The Incredibles"
  • 2005 Portrayed Ken Carter, in "Coach Carter" the true-life story of controversial high-school basketball coach, who in 1999 benched his entire undefeated basketball team for poor academic performance
  • 2005 Reprised his role in "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," the final film in the star wars saga
  • 2006 Cast in "Freedomland," a drama directed by Joe Roth and based on Richard Price's acclaimed novel of the same name
  • Debut in TV commercials for Southern fast-food chain Krystal Hamburgers in Atlanta ("It's probably the little cooked onions")
  • Grew up in segregated Chattanooga, Tennessee
  • Performed plays with New York Shakespeare Festival
  • Signed on to narrate an upcoming spoof of the Oscar-winning documentary "March of the Penguins" titled "Farce of the Penguins," written and directed by Bob Saget
  • Spent two years as Bill Cosby's TV stand-in for the NBC sitcom "The Cosby Show"
  • Will co-star with Hayden Christensen in "Poker Night, a thriller about a detective who is subsequently tortured by the serial killer keeping him captive (lensed 2006)
  • Will produce and lend his voice to "Afro Samurai," a five-episode action cartoon to air on Spike TV (lensed 2005)