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James Woods - Biography

Award-winning actor James Woods has appeared in several acclaimed movies

James Woods at the 2017 Writers Guild Awards
Chloe Best
Chloe BestLifestyle Features Editor
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"People are either good at what they do or bad at what they do," says actor James Woods. "And usually they're bad; not for lack of talent, but for lack of dedication. And that drives me crazy. My attitude is when you make a film, you eat, drink, and sleep it. And be thankful that you can go 22 hours a day, because if you're spending less time than that, you're probably not giving it your best shot."

The man New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael called "the most hostile of American actors", certainly has earned himself a reputation for being obsessive. Known as perhaps the best "manic" on-screen since Anthony Perkins, he has, almost without exception, played con men, murderers, degenerates and loud-mouthed mavericks. 

His eyes project a menace that transfixes the audience as soon as he appears. The nervousness, the fidgeting and the obsessive visage all work to rivet attention. He may not be pretty, but James certainly is captivating.

Born in Vernal, Utah, on April 18, 1947, James is the son of a US Army Intelligence officer father Gail and his teacher wife Martha. The family moved frequently because of Gail's Army career, but eventually settled in Warwick, Rhode Island. After his father's death during a routine operation, the actor helped raise his brother Michael, ten years his junior. 

Meanwhile, he was turning in straight As at high school, and earned himself a scholarship at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to major in Political Science. Having discovered in high school that he had a talent for acting, James joined MIT's Drama Workshop, and by his senior year had notched up 36 leading roles in plays in both Boston and New York. 

To the surprise of his peers he dropped out of MIT in 1968, just a few months shy of graduation, and moved to New York City to pursue a career in acting. After several years treading the boards and appearing in minor films, James attracted widespread attention for his starring role as psychotic cop killer Gregory Powell in 1979's The Onion Field. It was a performance which contained many of the elements associated with the actor grim humour, intelligence, energy, and an unpredictable anger. 

He quickly became typecast, and similar roles followed: William Hurt's disturbed friend in Eyewitness; a manipulative and dangerous nightclub owner in Taylor Hackford's Against All Odds; and the childhood friend and fellow gangster of Robert De Niro in Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In America.

As an actor James has always been willing to risk alienating audiences, and is often able to find glimmers of moral dignity and pathos in the most loathsome characters. His part as a dangerously irresponsible journalist in Oliver Stone's 1986 Salvador for which he earned his sole Best Actor nomination is a case in point.

His TV roles, on the other hand, have often allowed the actor to explore less hard-bitten characters. He won the first of two Emmy Awards for his role as James Garner's schizophrenic younger brother in the 1986 TV movie The Promise and won a second for his portrayal of Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1989's My Name Is Bill W

In the Nineties he remained true to form as Lester Diamond, the pimp to Sharon Stone's call girl in 1995's Casino. The following year he won a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for his role in Ghosts Of Mississippi and in 2002 teamed up with Denzel Washington to make the hit thriller John Q.

Despite his high profile, James has yet to become the mega-star some think him capable of being. His love of risky, eccentric films, less-than-glamorous personas and reputation for obsessive behaviour have hampered his career. The actor, however, seems to relish his image. "If I'm obsessed, thank God," he says. "I hope I stay that way."

In his personal life, despite having been married twice once in 1983 and again in 1989 at heart James seems to be a consummate bachelor. His relationship with Blade Runner actress Sean Young broke down in the late Eighties and he has since been romantically linked with actresses Heather Graham, Nicollette Sheridan and Ashley Madison.

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