Whitaker was born in Texas but his family moved to South Central Los Angeles due to ongoing racism problems in the area in 1965, when he was four, but he remembers I spent every summer with my grandparents, and I'd stay with my grandfather on the farm in Longview. He was retired from the railroad, and he had a small farm with some cows and some pigs. I remember part of my youth was feeding hogs and plowing fields and stuff, so that's a part of me. His father, Forest Whitaker, Jr., was an insurance salesman and the son of novelist Forest Whitaker, Sr. His mother, Laura Francis (née Smith), was a special education teacher who put herself through college and earned two Master Degrees while raising her children.
As a teenager, Whitaker commuted from Carson to wealthy Palisades High School on LA's West Side. There, he was all-league defensive tackle on the football team quarterbacked by Jay Schroeder, a future NFL player, until graduation in 1979. While in high school, he also took voice lessons, performed in musicals, and caught the acting bug; his first role as an actor was the lead in Dylan Thomas' play, Under Milk Wood.
Whitaker then attended the California State Polytechnic University at Pomona on a football scholarship, but left due to a debilitating back injury. He was accepted to the Music Conservatory at the University of Southern California to study opera as a tenor, earned two more scholarships training as an operatic tenor and subsequently was accepted into the University's Drama Conservatory. He graduated from USC in 1982. Still another scholarship, this one in the name of Sir John Gielgud, would came Whitaker's way and lead him to the Berkeley, California branch of the Drama Studio London.
A seasoned stage veteran at 21, the baby-faced Whitaker appeared in his first film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in 1982, coincidentally making his debut in the role of a football player. Four years later, Whitaker attracted critical attention in the role of the young pool player who flummoxes 'Fast' Eddie Felson (Paul Newman character) in The Color of Money (1986). This led to more visible roles in the A class films Platoon (1986), Stakeout (1987), and Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), which culminated in his breakout lead portrayal of the tortured jazz icon 'Charlie Bird Parker' in Clint Eastwood's passion project Bird (1988), for which Whitaker won in the Cannes Film Festival the Best Actor Award and a Golden Globe nomination.
Whitaker continued to work with a number of well-known directors throughout the 90s. He starred in the 1990 movie Downtown and Neil Jordan casted him in the pivotal role of Jody in his 1992 film, The Crying Game. In 1994, he was a member of the cast that won the first ever National Board of Review Award for Best Acting by an Ensemble for Robert Altman's film Prêt-à-Porter. In 1995 he costarred in the sci-fi thriller Species and in the adaptation of several Paul Auster's stories in the film Smoke. He earned an even better reputation when he played a serene, pigeon-raising, bushido-following, mob hit man in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, a 1999 Jim Jarmusch's film, that many consider to have been his definitive role.
Whitaker began the 21st century by starring, appropriately enough, in the sci-fi Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 (2000); the movie has been called one of the worst films ever made and accordingly won seven Razzie Awards. Whitaker lost the contest for Worst Supporting Actor.
Although the first half of the decade found Whitaker working primarily in independent films, he did stay in the public eye when he co-starred as a sympathetic burglar in David Fincher's thriller Panic Room (2002), and in Joel Schumacher's 2002 thriller, Phone Booth.
The second half of the decade told a very different tale. Whitaker's 2006 portrayal of Idi Amin in the film, The Last King of Scotland earned him positive reviews by critics as well as multiple awards and honors. To portray the dictator, he gained 50 pounds, learned to play the accordion, and immersed himself in research (reading books about Amin, watching news and documentary footage and spending time in Uganda to meet with Amin's friends, relatives, generals and victims; he also learned Swahili and mastered Amin's East African accent). His performance earned him the 2007 Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, making him the fourth African-American actor in history to do so. For that same role, he was also recognized with a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award, BAFTA Award, and accolades from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Board of Review, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association among others.
In recognition of his stellar career, Forest Whitaker was given a star on the Hollywood Walk in April of 2007. That year he co-starred as Dr. James Farmer Sr. in The Great Debaters and received an Image Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor. In 2008, Whitaker appeared in three films, first as a business man known only as Happiness, who likes butterflies, in the film Winged Creatures. He also portrayed a rogue police captain in Street Kings, and a heroic tourist in Vantage Point.
Whitaker branched out into producing and directing in the 1990s. He co-produced and co-starred in A Rage in Harlem in 1991. He made his directorial debut with a grim film about inner-city gun violence, Strapped, in 1993. In 1995, he directed his first feature, Waiting to Exhale, which was based on the Terry McMillan novel of the same name. Whitaker also directed co-star Whitney Houston's music video of the movie's theme song, Exhale (Shoop Shoop).
Whitaker continued his directing career with the romantic comedies, Hope Floats in 1998 and First Daughter in 2004. Whitaker served too as an executive producer on the latter. He had previously gained experience as the executive producer of several made-for-television movies, most notably the 2002 Emmy Award winning Door to Door. He produced these projects through his production company, Spirit Dance Entertainment, a multimedia company for film, television and music production, which he shut down in 2005 to concentrate on his acting career.
In 1983 started his career in TV guest starring and appearing in many different popular shows, gaining experience with featured spots on Diff'rent Strokes and Cagney & Lacey, not to mention the TV-movie Civil War epic North and South (1985) and its sequel.
Throughout the 1990s, Whitaker mainly had roles in television films, including Criminal Justice, The Enemy Within and Witness Protection.
From 2002 to 2003, Whitaker was the host and narrator of 44 new episodes of the Rod Serling's classic, The Twilight Zone. He returned to television in 2006 when he joined the cast of the police serial The Shield, as Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh. He received rave reviews for his performance and he reprised the role in the show's 2007 season. In the fall of 2006, Whitaker started a multi-episode story arc on ER as Curtis Ames, a man who comes with a cough, but quickly faces the long-term consequences of a paralyzing stroke. Whitaker received a 2007 Emmy Award nomination for his performance on the series.
2010 was the year of his last comeback to the TV world, having accepted the leading role in the spin-off of the show Criminal Minds, which got him to appear in the one episode of the original series that served as backdoor pilot of the new project.
During the years, Forest Whitaker has done extensive humanitarian work. He has been involved with organizations like Penny Lane (provides assistance to abused teenagers), PETA and Farm Sanctuary (protect animals' rights), Human Rights Watch, The Hope North Ugandan Orphanage, Idol Gives Back and Malaria No More. For his efforts he has got recognition in the form of the Humanitas Prize, the Hope of Los Angeles Award and the Cinema for Peace Award 2007. His entire clan received the LA BEST Family Focus Award.
Whitaker portrayed FBI Special Agent and Unit Chief Sam Cooper in the Season Five episode "The Fight". He continued to star in the role in the Criminal Minds spin-off Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior until it's cancellation in 2011.
- Black Panther (2018) - Zuri
- Burden (2018) - Reverend Kennedy
- Empire - 4 episodes (2017) - Eddie Barker
- Triumph, the Untold Story of Perry Wallace (2017) - Narrator
- Star Wars: Rebels - 4 episodes (2017) - Saw Gerrera (voice)
- The Forgiven (2017) - Desmond Tutu
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) - Saw Gerrera
- Star Wars: Go Rogue - 4 episodes (2016) - Saw Gerrera (voice)
- Arrival (2016) - Colonel Weber
- Roots - 3 episodes (2016) - Fiddler
- Southpaw (2015) - Tick Wills
- Dope (2015) - The Narrator (voice)
- Taken 3 (2014) - Inspector Franck Dotzler
- Two Men in Town (2014) - William Garnett
- Black Nativity (2013) - Reverend Cornell Cobbs
- Making a Scene (2013) - Man
- Out of the Furnace (2013) - Chief Wesley Barnes
- Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013) - Cecil Gaines
- Zulu (2013) - Ali Sokhela
- Pawn (2013) - Will
- Repentance (2013) - Angel Sanchez
- The Last Stand (2013) - Agent John Bannister
- Nelson Mandela (2013) - Narrator (voice)
- A Dark Truth (2012) - Francisco Francis
- Freelancers (2012) - LaRue
- Ernest & Celestine - Ernest (English version, voice)
- Catch .44 (2011) - Ronny
- Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior - Alternate Reality: The New Criminal Minds (2011) - SSA Sam Cooper
- Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior - House of Corpses (2011) - SSA Sam Cooper
- Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior - Inside the Red Cell (2011) - SSA Sam Cooper
- Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior - Loved Ones (2011) - SSA Sam Cooper
- Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior - The Profiler (2011) - SSA Sam Cooper
- Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior - 13 (2011) - SSA Sam Cooper
- Lullaby for Pi (2010) - George
- The Experiment (2010) - Barris
- Criminal Minds (2010) - "The Fight" (2010) - SSA Sam Cooper
- My Own Love Song (2010) - Joey
- Repo Men (2010) - Jake
- Our Family Wedding (2010) - Brad Boyd
- Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life (2010) - Lion (voice)
- Hurricane Season (2009) - Al Collins
- Where the Wild Things Are (2009) - Ira (voice)
- Powder Blue (2009) - Charlie
- Toys in the Attic (2009) - Teddy (English version, voice)
- American Dad! - 3 episodes (2007-2009) - Turlington/Ron Turlington/Daniel Turlington (voice)
- Jamie Foxx Ft. T-Pain: Blame It (2009) - Forest Whitaker
- Fragments (2008) - Charlie Archenault
- Street Kings (2008) - Captain Jack Wander
- Dragon Hunters (2008) - Lian-Chu (English version, voice)
- Vantage Point (2008) - Howard Lewis
- The Great Debaters (2007) - Doctor James Farmer, Sr.
- Ripple Effect (2007) - Philip
- The Air I Breathe (2007) - Happiness
- The Shield - 13 episodes (2006-2007) - Internal Affairs Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh
- ER - 6 episodes (2006-2007) - Curtis Ames
- Everyone's Hero (2006) - Lonnie Brewster (voice)
- The Last King of Scotland (2006) - Idi Amin
- The Marsh (2006) - Geoffrey Hunt
- Even Money (2006) - Clyde Snow
- American Gun (2006) - Carter
- A Little Trip to Heaven (2005) - Abe Holt
- Mary (2005) - Ted Younger
- First Daughter (2004) - Narrator (voice)
- Jiminy Glick in Lalawood (2004) - Forest Whitaker
- Deacons for Defense (2003) - Marcus Clay
- The Twilight Zone - 44 episodes (2002-2003) - Narrator
- Phone Booth (2002) - Captain Ed Ramey
- Panic Room (2002) - Burnham
- The Feast of All Saints (2001) - Daguerreotypist Picard
- The Fourth Angel (2001) - Bernard
- The Follow (2001) - The Employer (uncredited)
- Green Dragon (2001) - Addie
- Four Dogs Playing Poker (2000) - Mr. Ellington
- Battlefield Earth (2000) - Ker
- Witness Protection (1999) - Steven Beck
- Light It Up (1999) - Officer Dante Jackson
- Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) - Ghost Dog
- Body Count (1998) - Crane
- Rebound: The Legend of Earl 'The Goat' Manigault (1996) - Mr. Rucker
- Phenomenon (1996) - Nate Pope
- Mr. Holland's Opus (1995) - Bobby Tidd (uncredited)
- Species (1995) - Dan Smithson
- Smoke (1995) - Cyrus Cole
- Ready to Wear (1994) - Cy Bianco
- Jason's Lyric (1994) - Maddog
- The Enemy Within (1994) - Colonel MacKenzie Casey
- Blown Away (1994) - Franklin
- Lush Life (1993) - Buddy Chester
- Bank Robber (1993) - Officer Battle
- Last Light (1993) - Fred Whitmore
- Body Snatchers (1993) - Major Collins
- Consenting Adults (1992) - David Duttonville
- The Crying Game (1992) - Jody
- Article 99 (1992) - Doctor Sid Handleman
- Diary of a Hitman (1991) - Dekker
- A Rage in Harlem (1991) - Jackson
- Criminal Justice (1990) - Jessie Williams
- Downtown (1990) - Dennis Curren
- Johnny Handsome (1989) - Doctor Steven Fisher
- Bird (1988) - Charlie 'Bird' Parker
- Bloodsport (1988) - Rawlins
- Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) - Edward Garlick
- Stakeout (1987) - Jack Pismo
- Hands of a Stranger (1987) - Sergeant Delaney
- Platoon (1986) - Big Harold
- The Color of Money (1986) - Amos
- North and South, Book II - 6 episodes (1986) - Cuffey
- Amazing Stories (1986) - Jerry
- The Grand Baby (1985) - Unknown Character
- North and South - 6 episodes (1985) - Cuffey
- Diff'rent Strokes (1985) - Herman
- The Fall Guy (1985) - Friend
- Vision Quest (1985) - Balldozer
- Hill Street Blues (1984) - Floyd Green
- Trapper John, M.D. (1984) - Lewis Jordan
- Cagney & Lacey (1983) - Night Manager
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) - Charles Jefferson
- Tag: The Assassination Game (1982) - Gowdy's Bodyguard
- Making the Grade (1982) - Unknown Character
For an up-to-date filmography, see here.
- A genetic test indicated he was of Igbo descent on his father's side, and Akan descent on his mother's side.
- He was born with an eye condition called ptosis, which translates to drooping eyelid, a genetic condition he inherited from his father.
- He is a vegetarian. With his daughter, True, has recorded a public service announcement promoting vegetarianism on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
- He studies yoga and holds a Black belt in Karate.
- In 2003, Whitaker became Executive Director of the Nodance Film Festival, a festival that celebrates the alternative digital film culture with an emphasis on first-time filmmakers and digital filmmaking, that holds the distinction of being the world's first DVD-projected film festival.
- He is one of 8 actors to have won the Academy Award, BAFTA Award, Critics' Choice Award, Golden Globe Award and SAG Award for the same performance.