Isaiah Washington

Isaiah Washington Headshot

Actor

Birth Date: August 3, 1963

Age: 60 years old

Birth Place: Houston, Texas

An intense and gifted Black actor with chiseled good looks, Isaiah Washington forged a successful career in film and television before hitting it big as Dr. Preston Burke on the ABC medical drama, "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC, 2005- ). Honing his dramatic skills on the New York stage, Washington went on to work in more than 30 films, including Spike Lee's "Clockers" (1995) and "Get on the Bus" (1996), and clocked in as guest star on a number of television series. Though reports surfaced in 2006 that Washington's on-set antics had caused conflict, both on the set of "Grey's" and on other projects as well, no one could deny the dedication he had shown his craft.

Born Aug. 3, 1963 in Houston, TX, Washington grew up in the southern city where he graduated from Willowridge High School in 1981. Recovering from a troubled adolescence (during an argument, he was shot in the hip at age 19), Washington went on to serve a four-year tour of duty in the United States Air Force before enrolling at Washington, D.C.'s Howard University to study drama. While studying at Howard, he landed a role in the Ntozake Shange play, "Spell #7." Relocating to New York City after college, Washington became one of the founding members of the City Kids Repertory, a local theater group designed to engage children in the dramatic arts. Pursuing his craft on the New York stage, Washington appeared in productions of August Wilson's "Fences," and Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth."
Making the transition from stage to screen in 1991, Washington made his feature film debut portraying a hustler in the romantic comedy, "Strictly Business," starring Halle Berry and Tommy Davidson. That same year, he debuted on television guesting on an episode of "Law & Order" (NBC, 1990-2010). Landing more substantial roles as the years went by, Washington went on to appear in the Spike Lee big screen comedy, "Crooklyn" (1994), and turned in an affecting performance as Mekhi Phifer's protective older brother in Lee's next film, "Clockers" (1995). On television, Washington showed his versatility by guest-starring on cop dramas such as, "NYPD Blue" (ABC, 1993-2005) and "New York Undercover" (FOX, 1994-98), as well tickling the funny bone with an appearance on the sitcom, "Living Single" (FOX, 1993-98). Re-teaming with director Lee for two more films, Washington starred opposite Theresa Randle in the romantic comedy, "Girl 6" (1996) and portrayed a gay man on his way to participate in the Million Man March in "Get on the Bus" (1996).

After substantial roles in the loyal Lee's films, Washington continued to work on the big screen, taking on smaller roles in films such as the urban romantic comedy, "Love Jones" (1997); Warren Betty's political comedy, "Bulworth" (1998); and acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh's hit, "Out Of Sight" (1998). He went on to guest star on the quirky Fox series, "Ally McBeal" (1997-2002) during its first season as well as up the quality of his work by starring opposite legendary actor and director Clint Eastwood as a man on death row in "True Crime" (1999). In 2000, Washington was nominated for his first NAACP Image Award for his performance as an executive of an upstart television network in "Dancing in September" (2000). That same year, he starred opposite the ill-fated singer/actress, Aaliyah and martial arts star Jet Li in the action flick "Romeo Must Die" (2000). Shifting gears as he could so impressively do, he co-starred with William H. Macy, Sam Rockwell and George Clooney as one of five hapless burglars in the Russo brothers' comedy, "Welcome to Collinwood" (2002) and portrayed the first mate of an unlucky salvage team in the forgettable horror flick, "Ghost Ship" (2002). In 2003, Washington portrayed corrupt record producer Antoine Sartain in the flop, "Hollywood Homicide" (2003), opposite Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett. Though Washington's "Homicide" role was prominent, his character's ultimate fate (being thrown off a building by Ford) led Washington to reevaluate the types of roles he was being offered.

Then fate intervened. Cast as renowned cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Preston Burke on the breakout midseason hit, "Grey's Anatomy," Washington found the career change he was looking for and the part of his career thus far. Though he was already a recognizable name with a solid list of credits, "Anatomy" allowed Washington to break out from the thuggish, corrupt characters he had often been cast as. He also enjoyed being one-half of a popular onscreen couple with intern Dr. Christina Yang (Sandra Oh). An unexpected smash hit with viewers, "Anatomy" went on to receive numerous Emmy and Golden Globe nominations - with Washington's work on the series earning him the Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series in 2006. The success of "Grey's" also afforded him a new sex symbol status, when named him one of television's "Sexiest Men."
Washington's new career high did not come with out the inevitable low, however. At the apex of "Grey's" popularity during the show's second full season, tabloid reports surfaced in October of 2006 of an on-set scuffle between Washington and co-star Patrick Dempsey (Dr. Derek "McDreamy" Shepherd), which involved an alleged "choking" of Dempsey by Washington. Worse yet, news reports later surfaced that Washington had reportedly uttered a homophobic slur in reference to one of his "Anatomy" cast mates. In the days following the breaking story, just who that gay co-star was came to light when, after his hand was forced by press reports of the outburst, Washington's co-star, T.R. Knight (Dr. George O'Malley) issued a statement announcing that he was gay. Eventually, Washington took responsibility for the incident and issued a public apology, but some damage had been done. The gay community called for Washington to be fired, but the show's creator, Shonda Rhimes stood behind her actor, insisting no one was getting canned and all was back to normal on set.

Whether or not that was true, any illusions that all was back to normal were smashed in January 2007 when, during a press room interview with the cast following their Golden Globe win for "Best Drama," Washington grabbed the mic to again insist, "I did not call T.R. a faggot." A shocked press corps stood by uncomfortably as Rhimes, tried to move the conversation back to the win at hand, but the damage had been done. Washington's co-star Katherine Heigl (Dr. Izzie Stevens) fumed on the red carpet after the incident that "he (Washington) just needs to not speak in pubic anymore." She went on to vehemently defend her best friend, Knight, insisting that she was not "O.K." with the word being used "again." After the uncomfortable cast moved offstage, Washington denied to "Access Hollywood" (syndicated, 1996- ) that he ever said the word, insisting he would never say anything "so vile" against his co-star or any human being for that matter. Only days later, the heretofore quiet Knight appeared on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" (syndicated, 2003- ) to finally voice his side of the story - that Washington did, indeed call him the f-word. Because of Washington's backstage comment and subsequent denial, the storm stirred up once again, with internet bloggers and mainstream columnists calling for ABC to fire Washington - an online petition even circulating to send a message to the actor and boycott the network which employed him.

Days after the Globes, Washington released the following statement: "I apologize to T.R., my colleagues, the fans of the show and especially the lesbian and gay community for using a word that is unacceptable in any context or circumstance. By repeating the word Monday night, I marred what should have been a perfect night for everyone who works on "Grey's Anatomy." I can neither defend nor explain my behavior. I can also no longer deny to myself that there are issues I obviously need to examine within my own soul, and I've asked for help. I know the power of words, especially those that demean. I realize that by using one filled with disrespect I have hurt more than T.R. and my colleagues. With one word, I've hurt everyone who has struggled for the respect so many of us take for granted. I welcome the chance to meet with leaders of the gay and lesbian community to apologize in person and to talk about what I can do to heal the wounds I've opened. T.R.'s courage throughout this entire episode speaks to his tremendous character. I hold his talent, and T.R. as a person, in high esteem. I know a mere apology will not end this, and I intend to let my future actions prove my sincerity." Washington would go on to film a PSA announcement about the negative power of words, which began airing on TV around the same time ABC Television Studios officials announced, shockingly, that Washington had been fired from the show. The offical word: that his contract was "not renewed" - which came on the heels of the announcement that Knight's contract had been renewed and that he had been given a raise. Washington responded by releasing the statement, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore," through his publicist, Howard Bragman.

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