Isaiah Washington has enjoyed a distinguished acting career that includes a wide variety of stage, television, and film roles. He has played gangsters and hustlers, cops and hardworking average Joes, a gay Republican man, and a coolheaded and talented surgeon at a major city hospital. For his costarring role as Dr. Preston Burke on the ABC hit series Grey's Anatomy Washington was honored with the 2007 NAACP Image Award.
Born on August 3, 1963, and raised in Houston, Texas, Washington had boyhood dreams of playing professional football. By his later teens, though, he had shifted his focus to a military career, and after graduating from high school he joined the U.S. Air Force. He completed a four-year hitch but decided not to reenlist, moving instead to Washington, D.C., to study drama at Howard University. Washington fell in love with acting and moved to New York City after finishing college to pursue a career on the stage.
Washington soon began to get roles in major plays, including August Wilson's Fences and Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun. In 1990 he was cast as Reed, a teenaged drug addict, in Michael Henry Brown's Generations of the Dead in the Abyss of Coney Island Madness. Hailing the play as a "threatening portrait of urban insanity," New York Times critic Mel Gussow observed that Washington's performance was "permeated with authenticity." Washington again attracted notice as the character Foos in the debut production of Kevin Heelan's Distant Fires at the Atlantic Theater in New York in 1991. Gussow, reviewing the play in the New York Times, praised it as a "perceptive group portrait of men at work" that was enhanced by the acting of its ensemble cast. The following year Washington landed the part of Henry in the Goodman Theatre of Chicago's production of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth.
By the early 1990s Washington had begun to busy himself with film roles as well as stage plays. He began with small parts in such films as The Color of Love and Strictly Business, but soon caught the attention of director Spike Lee, who cast him in a supporting role in his 1994 comedy, Crooklyn. Washington went on to appear in Lee's acclaimed cop thriller Clockers in 1995, playing Victor, the uptight and hardworking brother of the drug-pushing main character, Strike. Level-headed and law-abiding, Victor shocks the cops by confessing to a murder that they suspect Strike of having committed. Though the role was relatively small, Washington's performance was considered powerful. Washington worked with Lee again in 1996 when played the shoplifter in Lee's comedy, Girl 6. Also in 1996, Washington was cast in Get on the Bus, Lee's ensemble film about a group of black men who take a bus to Washington, D.C. to join a rally roughly based on the Million Man March. Washington played Kyle, a gay Republican who is traveling with his lover.
Through the 1990s Washington continued to add to his film roles and to work with other major directors. He was cast as Darnell in Warren Beatty's comedy 1998 Bulworth, and played the role of Frank Beechum, a death-row inmate, in Clint Eastwood's True Crime in 1999, a performance that New York Times contributor Anita Gates described as "breathtaking." At the same time, Washington was doing a substantial amount of television work. He had begun working on the small screen in the early 1990s with small guest parts on Law and Order, Homicide: Life on the Street, NYPD Blue, and New York Undercover. In 1996 he appeared in several episodes of Living Single, and in 1998 appeared in two episodes of Ally McBeal.
Joining the cast of Grey's Anatomy in 2005, Washington quickly achieved star status. He was attracted to the show, he told Jet writer Melody K. Hoffman, because he found it "the best-written script, probably since Love Jones, that I've ever been a part of. All I have to do is open my mouth and act." The series, set in fictional Seattle Grace Hospital, follows the experiences of a group of young doctors who deal with typical patient crises as well as off-hours romance. As Matthew Fogel described it in New York Times, Seattle Grace is a "frenetic, multicultural hub where racial issues take a back seat to the more pressing problems of hospital life: surgery, competition, exhaustion and—no surprise—sex." The series has been widely admired for its no-nonsense casting of African Americans, Asian Americans, and women in roles of authority and power. As New York Times reviewer Alessandra Stanley put it, "There are no token blacks on Grey's Anatomy. The three top surgeons who rule the interns with princely authority are all African Americans, and that sign of social advancement is presented as a given, without fanfare or comment."
Washington's Dr. Burke is a brilliant, ambitious, and compassionate cardio-thoracic surgeon who is strongly attracted to a Korean-American intern, Cristina Yang. As the actor explained to Hoffman in Jet, he finds it "revolutionary" to be able to portray a character who is a complex individual—attractive, intelligent, articulate, and talented, but also flawed—without having to clash with the director about giving life to such a role. Critics have been consistently impressed with Washington's work on the show, for which he won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series in 2007.
Some less flattering publicity haunted the actor that year, however, after he was heard using anti-gay epithets on the Grey's Anatomy set and at the Golden Globe Awards, in reference to his co-star, T.R. Knight. At first Washington denied using the word, but later apologized and announced that he was checking into a psychological treatment facility to learn about why he had behaved in such a way and how he could make sure it would not happen again. The actor also filmed a public service announcement for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network after the incident. The story set off a storm of controversy, including rumors that Washington would be fired from the show. The program's season finale in 2007 featured a plotline that left Dr. Burke's fate undecided.
Washington, who lives in California with his wife and three children, has established a charity to benefit the people of Sierra Leone, the West African nation that, according to DNA tests, was the home of his maternal ancestors. In addition to providing public health materials, such as mosquito netting, the charity is constructing a school scheduled to open in 2007.
At a Glance …
Born on August 3, 1963, in Houston, TX; married Jenisa Marie, February 14, 1999; children: three. Education: Howard University.
Career: Actor, 1991-.
Awards: NAACP Image Award, Best Actor in a Drama Series, 2007.
Addresses: Agent—Innovative Artists, 1505 Tenth Street, Santa Monica, CA 90401.
Strictly Business, 1991.
The Color of Love, 1991.
Girl 6, 1996.
Get on the Bus, 1996.
Love Jones, 1997.
Dancing in September, 2000.
Romeo Must Die, 2000.
Exit Wounds, 2001.
Ghost Ship, 2002.
Hollywood Homicide, 2003.
Wild Things 2, 2004.
Dead Birds, 2004.
Living Single, 1996.
Ally McBeal, 1998.
Soul Food, 2000.
Grey's Anatomy, 2005—.
Boston Globe, January 25, 2007.
Jet, February 19, 2001, p. 59; April 24, 2006, p. 58.
New York Times, December 9, 1990; October 17, 1991, January 4, 2004; March 25, 2005; May 8, 2005; January 22, 2007.
Newsweek, September 25, 1995, p. 92.
People, October 25, 2006.
Grey's Anatomy, http://abc.go.com/primetime/greysanatomy/ (May 22, 2007).
"Rep: Isaiah Washington Remaining on ‘Grey's Anatomy,’" Fox News,www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,274196,00.html (May 22, 2007).
Washington, Isaiah 1963–
Washington, Isaiah 1963–
(Isaiah Washington IV)
Born August 3, 1963, in Houston, TX; married Jenisa Marie (a clothing designer), February 14, 1999; children: two. Education: Attended Howard University.
Addresses: Agent—Innovative Artists, 1505 Tenth St., Santa Monica, CA 90401. Manager—Vincent Cirrincione Associates, 8721 Sunset Blvd., Suite 205, Los Angeles, CA 90069. Publicist—Rogers & Cowan Public Relations, 451 Greenwich St., 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10013.
Career: Actor and producer. Pan African Film Festival, member. Military service: Served in the U.S. Air Force for four years.
Awards, Honors: Image Award nomination, outstanding actor in a television movie, miniseries, or dramatic special, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 2002, for Dancing in September.
Hustler, Strictly Business, 1991.
(As Isaiah Washington IV) Miles, Alma's Rainbow, 1993.
Vic, Crooklyn, Universal, 1994.
Victor Dunham, Clockers, 1995.
Uniformed cop, Stonewall, 1995.
(Uncredited) Andrew Curtis, Dead Presidents, 1995.
Kyle, Get on the Bus, 1996.
Shoplifter, Girl 6, 1996.
Savon Garrison, Love Jones, 1997.
Darnell, Nina's brother, Bulworth, 1998.
Lewis, Mixing Nia, 1998.
Kenneth, Out of Sight, 1998.
Frank Louis Beachum, True Crime: The Scene of the Crime, Warner Bros., 1999.
Stone, Kin, Regent Entertainment, 1999.
Mac, Romeo Must Die, Warner Bros., 2000.
George Washington, Dancing in September, Warner Home Video, 2000.
Himself, The Making of "Romeo Must Die" (documentary), 2000.
George Clark, Exit Wounds, Warner Bros., 2001.
Roland, Sacred in the Flesh (also known as Sacred), 2001.
Max, Tara (also known as Hood Rat), Universal Studios Home Video, 2001.
Leon, Welcome to Collinwood (also known as Safecrackers oder Diebe haben's schwer), Warner Bros., 2002.
First mate Greer, Ghost Ship, Warner Bros., 2002.
Antoine Sartain, Hollywood Homicide, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2003.
Shane, This Girl's Life, Columbia, 2003.
Terence Bridge, Wild Things 2, Columbia, 2004.
Himself, The Making of "Wild Things 2" (documentary), Columbia TriStar Home Video, 2004.
Todd, Dead Birds, Snp Inc., 2004.
Benny, Trois: The Escort, Columbia TriStar Home Video, 2004.
Bloody on a Happy Face, 2004.
Homer, The Moguls, Newmarket Films, 2005.
Associate producer, Mixing Nia, 1998.
Coproducer, Dead Birds, 2004.
Television Appearances; Series:
Dr. Preston Burke, Grey's Anatomy, ABC, 2005–.
Television Appearances; Movies:
Willie, Strapped, HBO, 1993.
Blue, Mr. and Mrs. Loving, Showtime, 1996.
Adult Willie Mays, Soul of the Game (also known as Field of Honour), HBO, 1996.
Dwight Gooden, Joe Torre: Curveballs along the Way, Showtime, 1997.
Wilfred, Always Outnumbered (also known as Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned), HBO, 1998.
Mac, A Texas Funeral, Starz!, 1999.
Television Appearances; Specials:
Wendal, Rituals, Lifetime, 1998.
Also appeared in Socrates, HBO.
Television Appearances; Pilots:
Derrick, The Player, ABC, 1997.
Dr. Preston Burke, Grey's Anatomy, ABC, 2005.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
Derek Hardy, "Out of Control," Law & Order, NBC, 1991.
Lane Staley, "Black and Blue," Homicide: Life on the Street (also known as H: LOTS and Homicide), NBC, 1994.
O. G., "POWER: The Eddie Matos Story," Lifestories: Families in Crisis, HBO, 1994.
Antonio Boston, "E.R.," NYPD Blue, ABC, 1995.
Andre Morgan, "Sympathy for the Devil," New York Undercover, Fox, 1995.
Andre Morgan, "Andre's Choice," New York Undercover, Fox, 1995.
Dr. Charles Roberts, "I've Got You under My Skin," Living Single, Fox, 1996.
Dr. Charles Roberts, "Virgin Territory," Living Single, Fox, 1996.
Dr. Charles Roberts, "Doctor in the House," Living Single, Fox, 1996.
Michael Rivers, "The Inmates," Ally McBeal, Fox, 1998.
Michael Rivers, "Being There," Ally McBeal, Fox, 1998.
Kenneth, "Out of Sight," Karen Sisco, 1998.
Miles, "The More Things Change," Soul Food, Showtime, 2000.
Miles, "The More Things Stay the Same," Soul Food, Showtime, 2000.
Miles, "Heart of the Matter," Soul Food, Showtime, 2000.
Reverend Davis, "A Death in the Family," Touched by an Angel, CBS, 2001.
Also appeared in As the World Turns; as Rulon Douglas, High Incident, ABC.
Foos, Distant Fires, Atlantic Theatre, New York City, 1991.
Henry, The Skin of Our Teeth, Goodman Theatre, Chicago, IL, 1992–93.
Also appeared in Fences; Police Boys; Raisin in the Sun; Song of the Sad Young Men; Soulful Scream …; Spell 7; Vusumuzi.