8 Milestones in the Evolution of Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington returns to the big screen this weekend with his new unstoppable train movie called, well, Unstoppable. But how did Washington get to the point of bankable action star after his film debut in something called Carbon Copy in 1981? You can always trace a direct line through a handful of roles (not necessarily his best roles, mind you) to illustrate what led to an actor's current success, and with Washington, that line has recently had quite a few more dramatic explosions than it used to. Let's look at eight performances -- including his very first -- that trace the evolution of one Denzel Hayes Washington.

Carbon Copy (1981)

Two words: "Hi, Daddy."

St. Elsewhere (1982)

St. Elsewhere was to Denzel Washinton what ER was to George Clooney; the NBC hospital drama that made him. Washington's role in A Soldier's Story and his Oscar-nominated turn in Cry Freedom don't happen without the help of Dr. Phillip Chandler. And like Clooney, Washington honored his television contract and stayed on St. Elsewhere for all six seasons. (Clooney would leave when his contact expired after season five of ER.) Miraculously or not, Washington found future acclaim despite acting alongside Howie Mandel and the guy who was the voice of KITT on Knight Rider.

Glory (1989)

Denzel Washington's first Oscar win. Washington plays Trip, an escaped slave who fights alongside the reunion during the Civil War. Washington became only the fourth African-American to win an Academy Award for acting, following Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Poitier and Louis Gossett Jr.

Malcolm X (1992)

The second of four Denzel Washington-Spike Lee collaborations (after Mo' Better Blues and before He Got Game and Inside Man), and, of the four, the most culturally relevant. People forget the crossover that this movie had in 1992 (and the amount of people at my Midwestern high school wearing baseball caps with an "X" as the logo was testament to that), and without Washington playing the lead, it's difficult to imagine that happening otherwise. Al Pacino would beat out Washington for Oscar's top acting prize.

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