2019 Denzel Washington Tribute

THE 47TH AFI LIFE ACHIEVEMENT AWARD: A TRIBUTE TO DENZEL WASHINGTON will premiere on TNT on Thursday, June 20, 2019 at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT, followed by an encore at 11:30 p.m. ET/PT.

There's a story told by Denzel Washington, of coming backstage after one of my performances as "Oedipus the King" at St. John the Divine. We didn't know each other at the time, but he says we met, and then he lingered around the dressing room and even tried on my character's royal rings.

I have no memory of this.

However, had I known then what we all know now, I would have paid attention. I would have taken note of what greatness looks like in its earliest days. For I had just met the young man who would become "Denzel Washington." An aspiring actor backstage is not a rarity, but for the fact that this one would go on to shine brighter than anyone of his generation, on stage and screen.

What I reflect upon now is how much I deeply appreciate where he was coming from – how hard he was working – taking in shows, watching his peers and honing his craft.

In many ways, what I see today, still, is a young actor – a man whose scale is strictly human, but by creating characters rather than stepping into archetypes, he grows with each performance to be larger than life. His embodiment of each role is so powerful and so universal that he's rightly embraced as an icon.

There was a time when it was rare to find role models in our community that stood tall among the great artists of their time – of all time. For me, Paul Robeson paved the way, and Sidney Poitier lit the path. A pioneer and a contemporary – luminaries both, and exceptions to the rule. Through his work, Denzel carries their work forward – and, in fact, has expanded the appreciation of talent beyond the constraining walls of race. Denzel is a hero to all.

And now that he occupies an inarguable place in our global culture, there's a part of me that smiles to believe I may have played a small role in the man he is today. Which is, of course, not true. Denzel Washington has earned every moment, every ovation and every accolade like this great honor from the American Film Institute.

But where I do find pride is that as the years have passed, Denzel and I have walked in the same shoes – Troy in "Fences" and Hickey in "The Iceman Cometh." Seeing him in those roles felt as if they'd been created just for him because he's an artist first, and one who not only revels in each and every role, but also in the magical journey of walking in another man's shoes – and wearing another man's rings.

Congratulations, my friend.

James Earl Jones

NOTE: Due to licensing restrictions, the telecasts of the AFI Life Achievement Award Tribute are currently not available for distribution or purchase.