DESPITE HIS PUBLIC PERSONA AS A DIGNIFIED FAMILY man, one of the most buttoned-up in Hollywood, it is possible to catch Denzel Washington with his pants down—or so his best friends say. Take the time two years ago when Washington and a pal, former L.A. basketball star Norm Nixon, were on vacation with their families in Positano, Italy. The hour was late, and the drinking buddies were feeling quite loose as they arrived back at their chartered yacht after a night on the town. “We were laughing and just acting silly. We pulled our clothes off and jumped off the top of the boat into the Mediterranean,” recalls Nixon, who is married to actress Debbie Allen, with a chuckle. “I actually have it all on tape. Debbie videotaped it.”
Good move, Ms. Allen: The sight of Denzel disrobed, while fascinating to contemplate, is a rare and precious thing. For while the Academy Award-winning actor seems ever ready to display his righteous side, and occasionally a darker aspect—as in his current movie, Courage Under Fire, in which he plays an Army lieutenant colonel driven to depression and drink—there is one side of this Adonis unlikely to be bared onscreen anytime soon, and that is his backside.
That very reserve is precisely what helps to make the sinewy six-footer so seductive, all the more so in an era where there is, arguably, too much strip and not enough tease. Experienced Washington watchers suggest staring deeply into his warm, brown eyes. “There’s something going on behind the eyes that is at once very accessible, very vulnerable, but very mysterious,” says Regina Taylor, who plays his wife in Courage. “It’s that mystery that you’re attracted to.” True, but at the same time, it’s no mystery why you’re attracted. Washington’s is not the love-me-because-I’m-beautiful narcissism of an Antonio Banderas, the knowing flirtiness of Brad Pitt. No, at 41, the preacher’s son from Mount Vernon, N.Y., is the hunk you hope would move next door, just so you’d get to watch him mow the lawn with his shirt off.
“He’s just plain, old-fashioned beautiful—but he’s not good-looking to a fault,” says friend Sheryl Lee Ralph, a star of TV’s Moesha, who played his wife in the 1989 movie The Mighty Quinn. “He doesn’t even consider his looks; it’s not like he thinks he’s so fabulous. He’ll say, ‘I got a face. So does everybody else.’ ”
Not like his, they don’t. There’s something heroic about the open visage of this actor who has embodied such giants as Malcolm X and South African activist Steven Biko—and done more for a uniform (in Crimson Tide, Courage and Glory, the movie that brought him 1989’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar) than any guy since Elvis. “There’s a solidness in him as a man,” says Ralph. “It’s something you can really put your hands on. And I’m sure a lot of women would like to do just that.”
Washington’s noble bearing, combined with the mostly upstanding, smart characters he has chosen to play, make him a thinking-woman’s heartthrob. The kind of guy who can get you into trouble just by being on your mind. Alexis M. Herman, assistant to the President and director of public liaison, still remembers when Washington attended a 1995 meeting of community leaders in Los Angeles. Herman was, she says with an embarrassed laugh, so distracted by the actor’s presence that “I managed not to respond when the President called my name. It was like, ‘Alexis, come back to us, we need you here in this meeting.’ ”
For Herman, like so many others, Washington’s aloofness is very much a turn-on. “There is an elusiveness to him that is at the same time alluring,” she observes. “It makes you want to reach out to him and to figure out what he’s thinking, what’s inside.”
Or just plain reach out. Although Washington often goes unrecognized in his offscreen mufti, when he is spotted, stand back. “It was like working with the Beatles,” Julia Roberts told Oprah Winfrey of her experience shooting The Pelican Brief in 1993. “I’d come out of the trailer, and there’d be four guys going, you know, ‘Hey, Julia, babe’…Denzel comes out…and [there were] 200 women just screaming.”
Roberts takes pains to put her former costar’s hunkiness in context. “Referring to Denzel Washington as simply sexy is like saying Ernest Hemingway was a good fisherman,” she recently told PEOPLE. But another actress who has worked with him still sounds a bit breathless. “A lot of times when you have so much sex appeal, the person can be really empty inside, but he’s a complete package,” says Lisa Nicole Carson, who trysted with Washington in last year’s Devil in a Blue Dress. “If I had died after that scene, I would have gone to heaven with a big smile.”
There might well be more reports as ecstatic as Carson’s—had more actresses had the opportunity to get hot and heavy on-camera with Washington. In fact, Washington may well have done the fewest steamy scenes of any sex symbol. And the rub, it appears, isn’t simply Hollywood’s skittishness about interracial romance—other black actors, among them Wesley Snipes (Jungle Fever, Money Train) and Laurence Fishburne (Bad Company, Othello) have made numerous cinematic conquests.
Washington’s slim onscreen sex life seems largely his choice. A number of the characters he has selected, including the race-neutral heroes of Courage and the submarine thriller Crimson Tide, are the kind of leaders who leave their supportive wives at home while they march off to glory. And in many movies, like last year’s Virtuosity, romances that were originally in the script seem to evaporate once Washington signs on.
One notable exception was Spike Lee’s Mo’Better Blues (1990), the story of a jazz trumpeter who callously toys with two women. But as Washington balked over just how far he’d go in love scenes, relations between him and the director, says an insider, “got a little heavy sometimes.” At one point, Washington refused to take off his shirt. “He’d say, ‘I’m a family man. I don’t want to do that,” Lee told USA Today. “Like most of us, Denzel is not an exhibitionist,” a friend observes. “I think he’s just being the preacher’s son.”
Washington grew up the second of three children of a strict Pentecostal minister and a hardworking beautician in Mount Vernon, a suburb with a large black population just north of New York City. Self-conscious about the gap between his front teeth—which he later had covered up with caps—”he was always extremely shy,” remembers Dena Cook, a cheerleader for the Boys Club where Washington played football. “But what he didn’t know was that he had lots of girls who liked him.”
When he was 14, Washington’s parents divorced, and both his grades and behavior began to suffer. To get him back on track, his mother sent him to a private, all-boys high school about an hour from their home. Later, at Fordham University, he discovered acting and earned raves for his Othello. Still, Washington told Jet last year that he was ” ‘socially retarded’—I just had no clue of how you talk to girls.”
That seemed less of a problem by 1977, when shortly after graduation, Washington tackled his first professional acting gig in Wilma, a made-for-TV biography of track star Wilma Rudolph. On the Los Angeles set he met Pauletta Pearson, now 45, an actress, singer and pianist who had appeared on Broadway. “I thought he was cute, but I fell in love with his spirit,” she said on The Oprah Winfrey Show of the man she had married in 1983. “And then I thought, ‘Hmmm, not a bad package.’ ”
Others agreed. “People were turned on by his charisma,” says a friend who hung out with the couple during the actor’s early days on the New York City theater scene. “You could feel the energy in the room when he was there.”
Soon, Washington’s energy was evident across the country, thanks to his breakthrough on NBC’s St. Elsewhere as Dr. Chandler, whose lab coat he filled for six seasons. Before the show wrapped in 1988, he played the first of what he would call his History Man roles—Steven Biko in Cry Freedom—and earned an Oscar nomination.
For the last few years, Washington has been what Hollywood calls a player, the kind of actor who now earns $10 million per role and works in such high-profile projects as Malcolm X (1992) and Philadelphia (1993). And the rumor mill also has him as something of a playboy. The actor himself fueled that speculation during a 1993 interview with Barbara Walters when, asked about fidelity, he replied, “I haven’t been perfect.”
“Tales of Denzel’s many conquests are greatly exaggerated,” says one female friend. “If he made some mistakes, who hasn’t? But there is no way you can convince me that he doesn’t love his wife and children above all others. He thanks God every day for giving him Pauletta and those kids.”
These days, Washington seems to be working hard on his role as model family man. When filming, he seeks a five-day work schedule so that he can spend as much time as possible with his children. “He and Pauletta both play an active part in their children’s activities,” says one parent who knows the brood: John David, 12, Katia, 8, and 5-year-old twins Malcolm and Olivia. “I’ve seen some brats among celebrity kids, but these parents won’t allow any of that.”
The Washingtons live in a gated, $1.1 million English country-style home, once owned by actor William Holden, in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Toluca Lake. Next year they hope to move to a grander house overlooking Beverly Hills; construction is soon to begin on land that Washington purchased for $6.5 million from Disney chairman Michael Eisner. The family regularly attends a West Angeles Pentecostal church, to which Washington recently donated $2.5 million for a new building, and his charity doesn’t stop there. On a visit to South Africa last summer, during which Washington and his wife renewed their marriage vows before Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the actor pledged $1 million to Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Fund.
Usually, though, Washington’s life is low-key and simple. He enjoys hosting barbecues for friends, shooting hoops in his yard and cheering the Lakers from his courtside season seats. Washington can often be seen hanging out at Georgia, the hip, southern-style restaurant he co-owns with friends. His is a life of gourmet food, fine wine and, whether he likes it or not, hungry attention wherever he goes.
Pauletta knows how many women want her man. Does it bother her, Oprah asked on a recent show, when all the hot honeys brazenly walk up and try to slip her husband their numbers? “No,” Pauletta replied. “Because, you know why? He’s coming home.”
Oh, yeah, sure—it’s easy for her to be cocky.
She’s got Denzel Washington.
LYNDA WRIGHT, TOM CUNNEFF, KAREN BRAILSFORD and DANELLE MORTON in Los Angeles, SABRINA McFARLAND in New York City and SARAH SKOLNIK in Washington