The professional recognition that had long been due actor Terrence Howard finally arrived when his portrayal of an aspiring musician in 2005's Hustle & Flow earned him an Academy Award nomination. The gritty tale of a Memphis pimp who dreams of rap stardom, Hustle & Flow was a hit with critics and earned comparisons to some classic underdog tales in film history such as Rocky, Saturday Night Fever, and 8 Mile. Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman singled out Howard's lead as "the single most powerful performance I've seen this year," and went on to assert that the actor "inhabits this character with a casual mastery that makes him a world unto himself; we're in touch with his ambition and sadness, his rage and longing, as if they were our own."
Howard was born in 1969 in Chicago, Illinois, and spent the first years of his life in Cleveland, Ohio. His mixed-race father, Tyrone, went to prison for a year when Howard was three years old on a manslaughter charge that made national newspaper headlines as Cleveland's "Santa Line Slaying" during the Christmas season of 1971. Tyrone and Howard's mother Anita had taken their three young sons, including Terrance, age two—to see Santa Claus at a downtown Cleveland department store. The line was a long one, and tensions escalated. Another parent voiced objections when Howard's mother—two months pregnant at the time—returned with his youngest brother to their place in line after sitting down for a time. That man, Jack Fitzgerald, was waiting in line with his own three children, and the argument between him and Howard's father turned into a physical confrontation. Fitzgerald began choking Tyrone Howard, who then brandished a nail file and stabbed Fitzgerald, which he claimed was in self-defense. "All I remember is my father standing over him, screaming, 'Please don't die,'" the Cleveland Plain Dealer quoted the actor as saying years later.
Inspired by Great-Grandmother
The rest of Howard' early years were difficult, even with his father out of prison. His parents divorced, and Anita moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actress. Both remarried, and struggled financially for several years. When Howard was in his teens, he came down with an ear infection, but his father failed to get him medical attention, "although I kept telling him something was wrong," he recalled in an interview with Pamela K. Johnson for Essence. "Come January, I was stone-deaf in both ears." The infection eventually cleared up, and his hearing returned. He later came down with Bell's palsy, which temporarily paralyzed half of his face, and used his own makeshift electrical shock treatment in order to restimulate the nerve endings.
Howard left home for good when his stepmother pointed a rifle at him during an argument. He and his brother moved into an abandoned house their father had bought for a pittance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It had neither electricity nor running water, and the pair began to fix the place themselves. Fortunately, Tyrone Howard was a contractor, and had taught each of his three sons a skill that would enable them to support themselves; Terrence Howard's forte was carpentry.
Howard's interest in acting came from his mother as well as his great-grandmother Minnie Gentry, a New York stage actress who had once appeared in a Broadway production of Lysistrata with Sidney Poitier in the 1940s. In the 1960s and 1970s, she was active in the burgeoning black theater scene in New York City. Howard often stayed with her during the summers, accompanying her to rehearsals and helping her learn lines for her new roles. At age 14, he saw her in a one-act play, and realized that inhabiting another persona was like "magic. She made me believe she was popping green beans in a colander, made me believe she was on stage with five different people, made me believe that she had a glass in her hand full of Coca-Cola," he recalled in an interview with Stephen Whitty, a writer for Newark, New Jersey's Star-Ledger. "And I knew I wanted to be that kind of Houdini."
When Howard finished high school, he returned to New York, ostensibly to study chemical engineering. To that end, he attended the Pratt Institute for three semesters in 1990 and 1991. At the same time he set about visiting the offices of theatrical agents with a padded resume that "was all lies," he confessed to Whitty in the Star-Ledger. "I owe so many people apologies for that. I put down 20 different plays I'd never been in. I put down theaters I'd only walked by. The only true fact on that page was that I'd spent 15 years studying with Minnie Gentry."
Career Faltered Several Times
Howard thought he landed his first break when he earned a guest spot on the hit Cosby Show television series, but his minor part was cut in the editing room. He confronted the series creator and star, Bill Cosby, in what was the first of a series of incidents that gave Howard an industry reputation for being difficult. His real break came in 1992, when he was cast as Jackie, one of the older Jackson brothers, in the made-for-television film The Jacksons: An American Dream. He spent the next few years winning small roles in feature films such as Mr. Holland's Opus and Dead Presidents and guest-appearance television parts on Living Single and other sitcoms.
Howard's breakout role came in the 1999 ensemble comedy The Best Man alongside two other rising new African-American actors, Taye Diggs and Morris Chestnut. The movie was a surprise critical and box-office hit, and its success opened several new doors for Howard. "Studio executives started calling and saying, 'You're going to be the next Denzel,'" he recalled in an interview with New York Times journalist Lynn Hirschberg. His career failed to take off, however, and he was relegated to supporting roles in such movies as Glitter, the 2001 Mariah Carey biography film, and Biker Boyz in 2003.
Hollywood took notice of Howard again with his performance in Crash, the 2004 ensemble piece centering on several interconnected storylines about racism in Los Angeles. He played a successful television executive whose routine traffic stop turns into a horrific incident of sexual abuse for his wife, played by Thandie Newton. Howard's character is powerless to intervene, for he recognizes the sociopath tendencies of the racist cop who has pulled them over, but his life at home and at work slowly begins to unravel as a result. "That was probably the hardest role I've ever had to play," Howard told Johnson in Essence about the traffic-stop scene. "Never in my life, since I was 14, have I allowed myself to be afraid of someone."
At a Glance …
Born March 11, 1969, in Chicago, IL; son of Tyrone Howard (a contractor) and Anita (an actress) Howard; married Lori McCommas, 1989 (divorced, 2003; remarried, 2005); children: three. Education: Pratt Institute, NY, studied three semesters of chemical engineering, 1990–91.
Career: Actor, 1990s–; PBS, Independent Lens television series host, 2002–; executive producer of films, 2007–.
Addresses: Home—Philadelphia, PA. Agent—ICM, 8942 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA, 90211.
Scored Critical Triumph in 2005
Howard also appeared in Ray, the 2004 Ray Charles biopic, as musician Gossie McKee, but it was for Hustle & Flow a year later that he scored critical triumph. He starred as Djay, a Memphis pimp rapidly approaching middle age who dreams of rap stardom. The movie was writer-director Craig Brewer's first feature film, and took years to come to fruition—studio executives liked the story, but wanted a major rap star in the lead instead. Finally, director John Singleton agreed to produce Brewer's screenplay with Howard in the lead, and Singleton and another producer put their houses up as collateral for the financing. It proved a smart gamble for everyone involved: Hustle & Flow was made for $3.5 million, but took in $8 million at the box office on its opening weekend alone in July of 2005.
The movie was also hailed as the first in a new genre of African-American film that explored urban themes without sensationalizing them. Howard later admitted, however, that he had been uneasy when he first discussed the role, and turned it down twice. "I was afraid that instead of trying to kill a stereotype, they were trying to propagate a stereotype," he explained to Phil Hoad, a journalist with London's Independent. "Blaxploitation, glorification of pimps, glorification of the gangsta life. I didn't want to participate in anything like that." In preparing for Hustle & Flow, however, Howard met with sex workers to talk with them about their lives, and was sobered by what he learned. "They were struggling with nothing left to sell but their humanity and … I couldn't judge them any more," he told Hoad in the same interview. "I judged me. I judged the lack of the infrastructure that was supposed to protect them. I judged the government that disenfranchised them from the American Dream."
Howard's portrayal of the brutish, but oddly appealing Djay won near-unanimous critical accolades. Todd McCarthy, writing in Variety, asserted that his "delivery mixes brooding thoughtfulness with emotional immediacy in a manner that recalls the young Brando." The Variety reviewer went on to note that the actor "dominates with a magnetic performance that will define him with audiences after a varied array of supporting turns in recent years." Time's film critic Richard Corliss offered similar plaudits in his review of Hustle & Flow, declaring that Howard "explodes with coiled energy, intelligence and sexuality. To the simple scheme of Djay's redemption, he lends nuance and magnetic power. Ta-da! A star is born."
Cast as Thurgood Marshall
Howard was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor for his role as Djay, but lost to Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote. Three 6 Mafia, the Memphis crew who provided original music for the film, did win an Oscar that year for Hustle & Flow's theme song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." Following his success in the film, Howard finally seemed to be emerging as the next Denzel Washington with a spate of new, rather hero-figure lead roles. In 2007 he starred in Pride, based on the real-life story of Philadelphia swim coach Jim Ellis and a youth recreation team he turned into champions. He also served as executive producer for the project. Later that year he was also slated to appear as Thurgood Marshall in The Crusaders, the story of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed segregation in public schools in America.
Howard's personal life mirrored, for a time, his uncertain career prospects. He married in 1989, and had three children with his wife, but they divorced in 2003; Howard then spent the next two years trying to win her back, and they remarried in early 2005. By 2007, the couple had yet again separated, however. He divided his time between Hollywood and his home in Philadelphia, where for many years he still took occasional carpentry jobs. Some of his clients would tell him, "'You look just like that actor!'" he told Whitty in the Star-Ledger article. "And I say, 'You know, I hear that every day.' But I like the work, because it's immediately rewarding. You do it, and you can put the level on it afterward, you can feel the wood you've sanded and you know it's right. As an actor, you can only hope."
Who's the Man?, 1993.
Mr. Holland's Opus, 1995.
Dead Presidents, 1995.
Sunset Park, 1996.
The Best Man, 1999.
Big Momma's House, 2000.
Angel Eyes, 2001.
Hart's War, 2002.
Biker Boyz, 2003.
Hustle & Flow, 2005.
Four Brothers, 2005.
Get Rich or Die Tryin', 2005.
The Crusaders, 2007.
August Rush, 2007.
Spring Break in Bosnia, 2007.
The Jacksons: An American Dream (movie), 1992.
Tall Hopes (series), 1993.
The O.J. Simpson Story (movie), 1995.
Shadow-Ops (movie), 1995.
Sparks (series), 1996.
Mama Flora's Family (movie), 1998.
King of the World (movie), 2000.
Boycott (movie), 2001.
Street Time (series), 2001.
Soul Food (series), 2002–03.
Lackawanna Blues (movie), 2005,
Entertainment Weekly, July 29, 2005, p. 47.
Essence, August 2005, p. 116.
Independent (London, England), November 18, 2005, p. 14.
New York Times, December 26, 1971; February 18, 2001.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), October 7, 2005, p. A1; November 8, 2005, p. A1.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), July 24, 2005, p. 4.
Time, July 4, 2005, p. 76; February 13, 2006, p. 6.
Variety, January 26, 2005, p. 20.