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Forest Whitaker - Biography

The American actor won an Oscar for his portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland

Forest Whitaker smiling in a suit
Phoebe Tatham
Content Writer
Updated: July 6, 2023
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Who is Forest Whitaker?

One of the biggest talents of his generation, Forest Whitaker has shown that despite his boyish features and gentle giant build he can carry off the most diverse roles, from mafia hit-man and Ugandan dictator to gay clothing designer and jazz icon.

Acting, however, wasn't the first talent displayed by the young Forest. Born on July 15, 1961, in Texas to an insurance man father and teacher mother, as a youngster he proved a naturally-gifted athlete. Growing up in a tough LA neighbourhood, he revealed his prowess at American football on his high school team, and went on to win a football scholarship to California State Polytechnic University. 

After suffering a back injury he switched to the University of Southern California to nurture his other big talent - singing. The tenor won a music scholarship to study opera, and was then accepted into the drama conservatory. 

His Career

He graduated in 1982, the year of his first notable on-screen role in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, in which he appeared alongside Nicolas Cage and Sean Penn

The part was a familiar one for the 21-year-old, who found himself portraying a footballer. His debut was quickly followed by big and small screen cameos in series such as Cagney & Lacey, but it was a part in 1986's The Color Of Money that made Hollywood sit up and take notice. It also led to more high-profile films such as Platoon, Stakeout and Good Morning Vietnam and, finally, to his breakout performance in Clint Eastwood's Bird.

Forest's portrayal of tortured jazz icon Charlie 'Bird' Parker won him the Cannes Film Festival best actor nod and a Golden Globe nomination. It was through movies that Forest met his wife Keisha Nash. The actress played his girlfriend in the 1993 flick Blown Away and the couple were married three years later. 

They went on to have two daughters, Sonnet and True. He also has a son, Ocean, from a previous relationship, and a step-daughter, Autumn. In the Nineties Forest branched into directing. Projects included his successful directorial debut Waiting To Exhale, in 1995, and Hope Floats. He also produced a number of films and TV series, but soon decided to return to the other side of the camera. "I was becoming confused about what I was saying as an artist, and getting caught up in the money," he explained. 

His Oscar-worthy Performance

It was a good decision. At 45 he delivered what many described as the performance of his career. His compelling portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin earned him plaudits across the film industry. He had to convince Brit director Kevin Macdonald he was the man for the part, however. Kevin didn't have him in mind for the role and was concerned he would be too sweet and unassuming to play the complicated megalomaniac. 

But the audition changed all that, and Forest went on to thoroughly convince not only the director but the crew and cast, too. He stayed in character for the entire filming process, even eating like Amin and mastering the East African accent. "It was amazing but it was also disconcerting," revealed his British co-star James McAvoy, "Because he was so into it and you didn't always know what he was doing. I didn't want to ask him if he was becoming him or if he was just doing the accent all the time." 

And Forest's dedication paid off, with the actor winning an Oscar for his stunning performance. Forest says he owes his ability to recreate another character so brilliantly to his obsessive nature. "My brother always said I did everything well because I gave myself so much to it," he admits. "I didn't play ball until high school, but I was good at it because I was so obsessive." The actor doesn't plan to rest on his laurels, however. "I honestly believe that the best work of my life is about to happen," he says.

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