One of the busiest actors in Hollywood, the “bad ass” Samuel L. Jackson’s prolific list of credits reflected a career born both in the theatre, and then shaped by the cinema as one of America’s leading African-American actors. Respected on both stage and screen, Jackson’s output seemed to increase almost exponentially as he grew older. Averaging about five features a year since 1992, Jackson began his screen career modestly in commercials, working at the pitchman for a regional fast-food chain called Krystal Hamburgers. Graduating to legitimate theater, Jackson made his bones appearing on stage for nearly a decade as a member of the acclaimed Negro Ensemble Company. Over the years, Jackson’s talents afforded him the opportunity to spread his wings and segue into bit parts in films and TV guest shots – most importantly with stand-out roles in such films as “Do the Right Thing” (1989), “Jurassic Park” (1993) and “Pulp Fiction” (1994). Jackson’s strikingly feline eyes and pitch perfect ear for street dialogue conveyed a scarily effective menace, but his expressive face adjusted impressively to a wide range of material, both dramatic and comedic.
Born in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 21, 1948, Samuel Leroy Jackson grew up in segregated Chattanooga, TN. The only child of a former factory worker-turned-state institutional supply buyer Elizabeth Jackson, young Sam grew up estranged from his father. Raised collectively by his mother, her sister and his maternal grandparents, Jackson flourished under the love of his extended family. Musically talented, Jackson played a number of instruments growing up, including the French horn and trumpet for in the school orchestra. In the mid-1960s, Jackson attended the historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA, where he became active in theatre. A co-founder of the sardonically named all-black acting company called "Just Us Theater,” Jackson would later go on to become a reliable utility player for the famed Negro Ensemble Theatre, alongside such African-American talents as Robert Hooks, Adolph Caesar and Al Freeman, Jr.
In the late 1980s, Jackson’s impressive turn in playwright Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize- winning masterpiece “A Soldier’s Play” so impressed Spike Lee, that the film auteur eventually cast Jackson in a bit part as a local yokel in "School Daze" (1988). The collaboration proved so successful, that Lee enlisted Jackson into service once again for his next project – the explosive urban drama "Do the Right Thing" (1989), in which he played the omniscient street deejay, Mister Senor Love Daddy. Jackson enjoyed his greatest career boost, however, with his brilliant, harrowing portrait of Gator Purify in Lee’s controversial interracial romance drama, “Jungle Fever” (1989). Playing an alternately charming, yet viciously dangerous crack addict, Jackson drew upon his first-hand knowledge of the drug culture to create a character that simply lived and breathed verisimilitude. The role won Jackson a special jury prize as Best Supporting Actor at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival and led to a supporting role in the big-budget techno-thriller “Patriot Games” (1992).
Jackson nearly got a chance to work with his wife, actress LaTanya Richardson, for the first time on-screen in Lee's epic biopic, "Malcolm X" (1992), but reportedly balked at the director's request that he work for scale. Instead, Jackson rode his triumph as Gator to a torrent of small roles in a rapid succession of titles including Ernest Dickerson's "Juice" (1992), the Willem Dafoe-Susan Sarandon thriller "White Sands" (1992) and Brad Pitt’s off-beat "Johnny Suede" (1991). The following year, Jackson graduated to leads in two 1993 comedies – the blank-filled "National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon I" and the well intentioned, but ultimately disappointing comedy, "Amos and Andrew," co-starring Nicolas Cage. Jackson would finish out the year with supporting roles in three wildly different projects: the Hughes Brothers' "Menace II Society,” the Steven Spielberg CGI extravaganza “Jurassic Park," and Tony Scott's iconic "True Romance," scripted by rising star Quentin Tarantino. The following year, Tarentino cast Jackson in his ultimate breakthrough role as the philosophical, Jheri-curled assassin, Jules Winfield, in the critically acclaimed "Pulp Fiction" (1994). Outstanding even amid a stellar ensemble including Bruce Willis, John Travolta and Uma Thurman, Jackson got to utter several immortal monologues that since became a part of pop culture history. For his efforts, Jackson received a richly deserved Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor.
Hedging his bets, the workaholic actor appeared in at least three other films in 1994 including "The New Age" and "Fresh" and also appeared in the high-minded made-for-cable movies "Assault at West Point" (Showtime, 1994) and "Against the Wall" (HBO, 1994). Jackson's choice of roles post-"Pulp Fiction" yielded mixed critical and box office results. His turn as a child-custody lawyer arguing for a poor mother's rights in the modest "Losing Isaiah" (1995) allowed him the chance to finally work with his wife, Richardson, but the result was largely unmemorable. Jackson later played a cop running an undercover operation in the David Caruso-starred flop "Kiss of Death" (1995), but he fared only somewhat better in his next project, playing Bruce Willis' unwilling cohort in the third “Die Hard” installment, "Die Hard With a Vengeance" (1995).
A deft comic performer, Jackson played a Don King-like boxing promoter in "The Great White Hype" (1996), but the effort was again largely wasted in the mediocre vehicle. On the other hand, Jackson fared well riding the roller coaster of Renny Harlin's "The Long Kiss Goodnight," as well as starring as a low-rent private eye and earning substantial critical kudos for his heart-wrenching turn as a father out for revenge following the rape of his little girl in director Joel Schumacher's adaptation of "A Time to Kill" (1996), based on the best-seller by novelist John Grisham.
The Jackson juggernaut pressed on at full throttle with starring roles in three 1997 movies. As Trevor Garfield, the dedicated teacher driven over the edge into violence in "187" – cop speak for a homicide – he found himself in a vehicle that for all its good intentions, was little more than "Death Wish" visits the public schools. Jackson got to show off more of his deep talents with "Eve's Bayou,” an intensely emotional, well-made family drama by first-time writer-director Kasi Lemmons. Revealing a suave romantic side to his versatile talent, Jackson also served as executive producer and paterfamilias for the predominantly female cast surrounding him. Finally, Jackson returned to Tarantino country as arms merchant Ordell Robbie in "Jackie Brown,” adapted from Elmore Leonard's novel, "Rum Punch," moving deftly between comedy and malice; by now, a trademark Jackson style. As a seductively personable villain with positively no moral center – unlike his “Pulp Fiction” character, Jules – Jackson ended up killing Robert De Niro in the film’s denouement – a sure sign that he had arrived as an actor.
In 1998, Jackson shared the spotlight with Dustin Hoffman and Sharon Stone, playing a brainy mathematician in Barry Levinson's lackluster sci-fi thriller "Sphere.” He next appeared as a violin expert in "The Red Violin,” an absorbing tale involving the centuries-long travels of a violin made by a 17th century violin maker; a part that gave Jackson "a great opportunity to play a role you don't normally see an African-American portraying. He then starred opposite Kevin Spacey in the much bigger-budgeted "The Negotiator,” playing a hostage negotiator who takes his own hostages when he is falsely accused of murder and embezzlement. The following year saw him as Jedi Knight Mace Windu in George Lucas' long awaited "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace," – due in no small part for his campaigning for the part based on his well-known “Star Wars” franchise obsession – as well as rejoining Harlan for "Deep Blue Sea.” On a roll, Jackson, showing no inclination for slowing up his workload, also signed to play a Marine Colonel embroiled in controversy in "Rules of Engagement" (2000) and followed Richard Roundtree as the cool private eye in "Shaft" (also 2000), John Singleton's riff on the 1971 blaxploitation classic. For him, work (plus golf) remained the addiction that had replaced the narcotic substances kicked at the beginning of the decade.
In 2002, Jackson was at a high-water mark, willing to tackle a variety of challenging roles, both large and small. As a leading man, he co-starred with Ben Affleck in the effective sociological thriller "Changing Lanes," in which he turned in a nuanced, commanding performance as recovering alcoholic Doyle Gipson, fighting to stay in his children's lives even as his own life is almost undone due to the aftereffects of a simple fender-bender. He then delivered an action-packed supporting turn, reprising his role as Jedi Master Mace Windu for George Lucas' blockbuster "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones" (2002); this time, more in the thick of the plot with a mean purple light saber – with the actor/fan choosing the color so he would stand out in the crowded action scenes. He then helped launch a hit action franchise, appearing as the mysteriously scarred NSA Agent Augustus Gibbon in "xXx" (2002) – perhaps the only actor who could out-intimidate about-to-be A-list action star, Vin Diesel.
In the lackluster military potboiler "Basic" (2003), Jackson employed his hard-as-nails persona to play a feared, often hated Special Forces sergeant, who mysteriously disappears along with the team of Army Rangers he commands during a training exercise during a hurricane in the jungles of Panama. Spinning that persona to a more heroic bent, the actor then tackled the role of Lt. Dan 'Hondo' Harrelson for the big-budget, straight-faced screen adaptation of the 1970s cop drama, "S.W.A.T." (2003), starring opposite Colin Farrell. The film was an action extravaganza in which the special tactics team led by Jackson's character must transport an incarcerated drug kingpin who is offered $100 million to anyone who can free him. Jackson's career choices continued to run the gamut in terms of quality: he played second fiddle to Ashley Judd in one of the actress' characteristic, unchallenging thrillers, "Twisted" (2004), but rebounded strongly as the voice of the frustrated, ice-powered superhero Frozone in Disney/Pixar's delightful CGI-animated superhero spoof, "The Incredibles" (2004). He also cameoed in Tarantino's "Kill Bill, Vol. 2" (2004) as an organist at the wedding of The Bride.
Jackson kicked of 2005 with "Coach Carter," playing a familiar on-screen archetype – the inspirational coach who helps his students achieve – playing the controversial high school basketball coach Ken Carter who benched his undefeated team due to their collective poor academic record in 1999. Despite its seemingly clichéd set-up, the film resonated, thanks in large part to Jackson's strong, anchoring performance. Jackson played an angry Washington Post reporter in the John Boorman drama, “In My Country” (2005). Sent to cover South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – a public hearing conducted to reconcile the atrocities of apartheid – Jackson butts heads with a white South African poet (Juliette Binoche) over his bitterness and racial agenda, but instead ends up falling in love despite being married to another. He then went on to reprise two of his popular roles – first, Agent Gibbons for the action sequel "xXx: State of the Union" (2005), this time putting Ice Cube in the secret agent hot seat; followed with a final unsheathing that purple light saber for an appearance as Jedi Master Mace Windu in the prequel trilogy-ender, "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" (2005). Jackson had long insisted that George Lucas write him an impressive death scene, and both Lucas and Jackson delivered the goods in Windu's long-anticipated demise, which proved to be one of the most dramatic scenes in the poorly received film.
Jackson's next vehicle was the hackneyed, derivative action/buddy flick, "The Man" (2005), which attempted to drive laughs by pairing Jackson's hard-edged cop with an awkward dentist (Eugene Levy) drawn into a crime scheme. He next starred opposite Julianne Moore in Joe Roth’s “Freedomland” (2006), a crime drama that depicted a police detective (Jackson) called upon by a distraught woman (Moore) to investigate her claims that a black man kidnapped her child; an accusation that stirs racial animosity in a New Jersey suburb.
Jackson’s next movie, “Snakes on a Plane” (2006), became a phenomenon long before it was released – much of it due to fanboy buildup on the Internet. After reading in the trades that friend Ronny Yu was attached to direct, Jackson emailed him, asking to be in it, based on the title alone. Despite the anticipatory fervor for the film, by the time it was released, it proved disappointing at the box office. Yu eventually left the project, making way for David Richard Ellis to take over. Meanwhile, New Line Cinema had changed the name to “Pacific Flight 121” out of fear other actors would not take the project seriously. Furious, Jackson campaigned in public and in private to return the movie to its original title. The studio relented, paving way for serious Internet buzz to gather steam and propelling “Snakes” into the public consciousness before it was done shooting. So influential were the Internet’s denizens that they managed to get filmmakers to reshoot a scene to include a profanity-laden line generated by fans – the now iconic – “I've had it with these motherf*cking snakes on this motherf*cking plane!” Jackson, meanwhile, maintained a high level of enthusiasm for the film as he made the usual promotional rounds, even though he had not seen the movie – and neither did critics.
Jackson continued to work on film after film, as had been his wont over the years. Also in 2006, he starred in “Home of the Brave,” a drama about three soldiers trying to readjust to civilian life after a lengthy tour in the second Iraq war; “Farce of the Penguins,” a mockumentary inspired by the award-winning documentary, “March of the Penguins” (2005); and “Resurrecting the Champ,” about a homeless man who claims to be a former boxing great, but in reality, is only a lesser-known fighter from the same era. Jackson also filmed “Black Snake Moan” in 2006, a low-budget drama about a blues guitarist abandoned by his wife who tries to redeem the soul of a girl addicted to sex in a rural town. Jackson next worked on “Jumper” (2008), a light-hearted adventure about a teenaged boy from a tough family who learns he has the ability to teleport, as well as appeared in “1408” (2007), a psychological thriller about a horror writer who gets a taste of his own fiction while staying overnight in a haunted hotel. Based on a short story by premier horror-meister Stephen King, “1408” received mixed reviews but performed impressively at the box office in its opening weekend. After a turn as an authoritative police officer gone over the edge in “Lakeview Terrace” (2008), Jackson starred alongside Bernie Mac in “Soul Men” (2008), a buddy road comedy about two surviving members of a 1970s soul band who get into one misadventure after another while traveling across the country to attend the funeral of a former band mate.
That is not a ringing endorsement by any means. Perhaps he's decided to stay loyal to the prequels. Maybe he's upset that director J.J. Abrams didn't resurrect Mace Windu and bring him back. At least as a Force Ghost. Samuel L. Jackson is one of the few who hasn't showered the movie with love. But as with everything that is a massive hit, the goodwill train has started to change direction in terms of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Its detractors are growing louder. And some fans have a problem with the sequel's many plot holes and unanswered questions, which some believe will be directly addressed in Star Wars: Episode VIII.
Perhaps he's changed his tune since seeing The Force Awakens. In defense of Daisy Ridley's Rey and John Boyega's Finn, they've never picked up a lightsaber in their lives until their climatic duel against Adam Driver's Kylo Ren (well, Finn did use the saber against that TR-8R Stormtrooper at Maz Kanata's Castle, but that hardly makes him an expert). And Kylo Ren is suffering from a Bowcaster blast courtesy of Chewbacca when we finally see him go against another lightsaber-weilding opponent. These kids aren't supposed to be good with their Lightsabers yet. They aren't master Jedi like Mace Windu. What do you think? Do you agree with his statements? You can check him out live and in person on Popcorn with Peter Travers. He also talks more about Star Wars in his recent interview with Seth Meyers.Read More