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The Real Deal

Denzel Washington passes on the Hollywood star scene for the quiet pleasures of work and family.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

(continued from page 2)

He certainly knows where he likes to smoke, even if he is just beginning to discover what he likes to smoke. "Normally I like to smoke outdoors, like this. I haven't broken the Mrs. in yet and I don't want to smoke around the kids; but it's not just that. I prefer to smoke outdoors. I like the fresh air. I love to smoke on the sea or by the water. I like the quiet that it's about. I like to take a nice mile walk up and down the beach, take a nice toasty single malt with no ice and a good cigar. Walk a bit. Sit down on the sand. Can't beat it. It's odd, because the first time I really smoked a cigar was back before you knew you were supposed to have a good time with them."

The cigar boom has created for some a certain snobbery: a Big Bad Boys Club where the right cigar band is needed to gain entry. It's something that Washington steadfastly refuses to buy into. He wants to learn as much as he can, to educate his palate. He prides himself in finding a new cigar that he enjoys. He doesn't need to wave around a Churchill to feel as if he's part of The Club, either. "I like a smaller cigar, because I like good cigars and I feel like I don't want to waste them. It's like, where I am in the learning curve, I'm going to smoke a little cigar. It also has to do with the amount of time I have in the day and where I like to smoke the cigar. But that Monte No. 2 is great, even if you don't have the time to finish it. I love the taste it gets."

He laughs and ponders for a few minutes and looks down at the Fuente Fuente OpusX in his hand. "Cigars have also made me appreciate time alone. As an actor, you go on the road, you expose your life and your emotions, and you go back to your hotel and you're still wound up. You've released all this energy and you're channel surfing in some great hotel. Everything is top of the line. You've got your private guy that brings you this and drives you there. And you're still alone. All day long you're the center of attention. Everybody recognizes you and all of that. But your family is 3,000 miles away and you call and they're having a great time. You can hear the kids running around and there's noise in the kitchen and you give everybody what they need over the phone and then you're alone. I didn't use to trust that time alone. But a cigar can give you a pleasant time. It's something you can enjoy by yourself and it's OK. It's like taking a luxurious bath instead of a quick shower."

Sipping his wine, he muses, "Just every now and then I like a good cigar, whether it's politically correct or not. What? Don't eat? Don't breathe? Who are those people? What is this politically correct group that controls things? Where is this group?" And a laugh like warm butterscotch catches Denzel Washington's entire body. He looks again at his cigar. "This is like legalized drugs. This is the drug of the '90s. Time stops."

The wine finished, Washington decides he'd like to explore one of Los Angeles' newest cultural offerings, the Getty Center. On the short drive to the museum, he continues to tell his stories while he savors the last of his cigar.

Denzel Washington was raised in Mt. Vernon, New York, the middle child of a Pentecostal preacher and a beautician, who divorced when he was 14. Washington attended Fordham University with hopes of becoming a doctor or journalist, when his life's path switched to acting. After graduating from Fordham, Washington was accepted into the prestigious American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where he studied under Bill Ball. After returning to New York, he began his theater career with Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park. He appeared in many Off-Broadway productions, portraying Malcolm X in When The Chickens Come Home To Roost and winning the Obie Award for his portrayal of Private Peterson in A Soldier's Play. It was through that role that he captured the attention of the producers of the NBC television series "St. Elsewhere" and was cast as Dr. Phillip Chandler. He met his wife, Pauletta Pearson, an actress, pianist and singer, in 1977 while filming the television movie, Wilma, and they are about to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. The Washingtons have four children and make their home in Los Angeles.

Balancing the demands of a high-profile career, raising a large family and maintaining a good marriage are clearly priorities for Washington. He proudly gives most of the credit for the success of his home life to Pauletta. "She puts up with me. I think, also, in a way the traveling helps. We're able to travel together and also be apart sometimes. Not everybody gets to live like that. Twenty years now. It's like you start to pat yourself on the back when you look around you and you see that very few people have 20 years into a marriage."

But a family life does mean occasional sacrifices. "I do miss the theater. I started in the theater and I'm used to the immediate response from the people that are there; but I don't think I'll be able to do a play for a while. It would have to be in a situation where my whole family could go, because I would have to do eight shows a week. There just isn't enough time to fly home. And they're all in school now, so I can't just take off for New York and not get home for two months. I can't do that right now in my life. I've got to be able to get home or them get to me. For a stretch I took four or five jobs just because they were shot in L.A.

"With four children I have to maximize the work I do now financially," he says. "It's like I have to do one film for financial reasons, as opposed to when I was single, or before we had all of these children. I find that I'm not as good at not working as I thought I would be. I get itchy. My wife also says I'm only good for about three weeks of downtime. But I'm learning a decent pace now. I try to take four or five months off between jobs."

One of the newest challenges Washington has created for himself is as a director. Last fall, he took a break from filming He Got Game to direct the music video "In Harm's Way" for Bebe Winans. The first-time director had more than his share of butterflies. "Directing was the newest, most exciting thing that has happened to me as an artist since I started acting. It was like starting over again. It was a new thrill. I didn't know what was gonna happen. But the second I got on the set, from the first moment it was time to go to work--I was off to the races. No problem. I had a lot of fun supporting other people and seeing them do their thing. I really enjoyed myself. I like taking a group of people and watching them excel. It doesn't mean that I don't have an eye behind the camera, but I'm good with people. It was good for me to direct this video because it got me excited again about what I do. And it made me realize, 'hey, you need to get there on time.'" He laughs. "Where is the star? Where is he? He's in the trailer?"

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