By Ronda Racha Penrice, Urban News Service
Samuel L. Jackson is without a doubt the hardest working man in Hollywood. To date, he’s appeared in well over 100 films with a box office take of $7 billion and counting. That’s a Guinness World Record that Jackson, who appears in about four films each year, isn’t relinquishing anytime soon. In his latest, he reprises his role as Lucius Best, close friend to the Parr family (who also doubles as the superhero Frozone), for Disney’s long awaited animated sequel Incredibles 2. The 2004 original, The Incredibles, grossed over $631 million worldwide.
Playing an animated character who can “shoot ice out of his hands” is very apt for Jackson who is generally considered the coolest cat in Hollywood. However, it’s a long way from his childhood in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Raised during Jim Crow, Jackson, who turns 70 later this year, was very familiar with the color line, spending much of his early life in almost exclusively black environments. His father was absent while his mother was a sporadic presence for many years. So Jackson’s maternal grandparents and aunt had a huge impact on his life. From his grandfather, who worked as a janitor, Jackson learned the value of hard work and that still shows in his work ethic today. His Aunt Edna, a performing arts teacher, actually set him on the path to becoming an actor.
“I was in the house with her and she was generally in charge of the pageant shows or whatever the happenings. She never had enough boys. Boys never volunteered. I lived in the house with her so she made me,” he said, reclining comfortably at the other end of a sofa. “She takes all the credit for this,” he laughed, outstretching his hands to highlight the luxuriousness of his room at the London West Hollywood.
As a student at the iconic Morehouse College in Atlanta, that also counts Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Spike Lee among its alumni, Jackson became ferocious about acting. There he even met his wife of nearly 40 years, LaTanya Richardson, a serious actress attending Spelman at the time. He also appeared in his very first film, the long forgotten 1972 blaxploitation era piece about interracial romance entitled Together for Days, later renamed Black Cream. In 1976 Jackson and Richardson moved to New York.
“I never had a time when acting wasn’t going well,” said Jackson of those days. “I had times when acting didn’t pay as much as something else could have, but I’ve only had like one real job other than actor. I was a security guard…but other than that I’ve supported myself acting since 1978.”
Jackson’s strategy was to keep everything he did in the theater. “I did things I’d learned to do in college that wouldn’t take me out of the theater situation,” he said. “It was easier for me to say I have an audition to people who are in the theater and they go ‘good luck’ than if I had to go to my auditions and be like ‘who’s going to wait my tables?’
“I just didn’t put myself in that situation so I built sets, I hung lights. I did whatever was necessary to make money in the business I wanted to be in. I knew how to do it. It kept me close to the theater. I could watch people rehearse, read lines with them or do whatever. So I was always ready to go.”
Jackson, who came through the theater ranks with Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman and Wesley Snipes was so good at being on stage that it seemed that not even drugs and alcohol could knock him off, but that was not true. When Richardson found her husband passed out, she sent him to rehab. As Jackson left rehab, Hollywood finally did call in the form of Spike Lee. Playing drug addicted Gator Purify in Lee’s 1991 film, Jungle Fever, starring Wesley Snipes, got Jackson recognized. His role as Jules Winnfield, the Jheri curled hitman with a penchant for quoting Bible verses and a flair for dropping a profanity, in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction made him a star.
Over the years, Jackson’s appeal has broadened to point that he has literally gone from last year’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard to an appearance as Nick Fury in Marvel’s recent superhero mash up Avengers: Infinity War, but The Incredibles franchise, which counts Jackson’s daughter Zoe among its many fans, is one of the few films he’s done that’s suitable for all ages.
“I watched cartoons my whole life so being a voice of a cartoon character is kind of great,” he said, “and he’s a superhero. He’s got a superpower.”
Incredibles 2 is in theaters nationwide June 15.