PLANNING to look up Samuel L Jackson’s films on the internet? Take a week off work. The prolific actor averages five movies a year. Terence Mallick doesn’t make five movies in a decade.
Jackson, 63, currently has seven unreleased films at various stages of production. Already out this year: Arena, Captain America and TV movie The Sunset Limited. The voice of Mace Windu in the latest Lego Star Wars video game is also starring in his first ever Broadway play. Call Jackson’s phone and the voicemail message would surely just say: “yes”.
It’s not hard to see the appeal of next week’s Broadway gig. Jackson is playing Martin Luther King in The Mountaintop, an Olivier-winning play about the civil rights leader on the day he made the famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” speech. His co-star is Angela Bassett, best known for her award-winning portrayal of Tina Turner while director, Kenny Leon, is one of the most prominent African-Americans in American theatre. Not exactly More Snakes on a Plane.
Though his acting career started on the stage, Mountaintop will be Jackson’s Broadway debut, making it a very personal milestone. “I was an usher at Dr King’s funeral so this is a full-circle moment,” he has said. “There’s a need to do something about Dr King the man, as opposed to the icon, speech writer and dreamer.”
Working on the part, Jackson found parallels with King that went beyond their shared political goals. “Like me, he was a father, a husband and he dealt with fame,” he explains.
Since his breakthrough role, in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, Jackson has been in Die Hard: With A Vengeance, Shaft, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and more than 100 other films ranging from the mindlessly enjoyable (Jackie Brown, Changing Lanes) to the truly woeful (SWAT, 51st State). He was nominated for an Oscar, as best supporting actor, in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The director wrote the part of Jules, a swaggering, bible-quoting badass, with Samuel Leroy Jackson in mind.
He was born in post-war Chattanooga, Tennessee, and brought up by his grandparents and aunt. His mother worked in Washington while his father left before his birth. Jackson has met him only twice. It was a straight-laced childhood: French horn practice, prayers at bedtime, grace before meals and corporal punishment as well as a lot of love. “My family made it clear that my main job was to get an education,” he has said of his childhood.
Young Sam went to segregated schools then on to Morehouse College in Atlanta to study marine biology. He threw himself into student debauchery and radical politics. During a protest against the lack of black studies on the Morehouse syllabus, several members of staff, including Martin Luther King’s father, were taken hostage. The police were called and Jackson was charged with unlawful confinement and suspended for two years.
With no swotting to do, Jackson fell in with Stokely Carmichael and the other leading hotheads of the Black Power movement. “We were buying guns, getting ready for armed struggle,” he said. “All of a sudden I felt I had a voice. I was somebody. I could make a difference.” Then his mother arrived in town to frogmarch him to the airport. The family had been tipped off by the FBI that Jackson was involved with the inner circle of the movement, and warned that he could easily end up dead.
Back at college in 1971, having abandoned both the armed struggle and the microscope, Jackson threw himself into studying drama. He met LaTanya Richardson, a theatre major, who still talks approvingly of his “huge Afro, little bitty round sunglasses and long sideburns”. They fell in love and founded a community company producing plays which Jackson summarised for the New York Times as “Die, whitey, die – so black folk can take over.”
The couple graduated, moved to Harlem and set to work. The Negro Ensemble Company, the New York Shakespeare Festival, bit parts in movies (such as “black guy” in 1989’s Sea Of Love), “night watchman” in a Manhattan apartment building, they took whatever was going. Jackson was to play the lead role in The Piano Lesson – until it reached Broadway where he was understudy for Alien 3 star Charles S Dutton, “sitting backstage, feeling sorry for myself” with alcohol and cocaine.
Jackson was already a regular visitor to the medicine cabinet. (He once described his daily routine as: “Get up, smoke a joint, go to work, drink a beer, do a line, maybe smoke some crack.”) But the morning his wife found him unconscious in the kitchen, glass pipe in hand, their eight-year-old daughter Zoe in her pyjamas looking for breakfast, she booked him into rehab.
The timing was perfect. Spike Lee had cast him as crack-addled Gator in Jungle Fever. Clean and sober, aged 48, Jackson went straight to the shoot. His performance so impressed the Cannes jury that they created a special prize just for him.
Although Jackson has dabbled in art house (Trees Lounge, Eve’s Bayou), he is most at home in big, fat, multiplex thrillers. His mission is to entertain.
“I want the movies I’m in to remind me of things I spent Saturday afternoons watching as a kid and then went home and pretended to be in,” he has said.
He did not become the world’s highest grossing film actor (as certified by the Guinness Book of Records) by overestimating the public’s taste. He agreed to star in Snakes On A Plane, a lurid 2006 thriller, without reading the script. “I knew I was going to do the movie when I saw the title,” he admitted to Time magazine.
Attempts to tone down the profanity, for the sake of a PG rating, were met with derision. People go to see his pictures, he argued, to hear him say these things. “It’s kind of difficult to watch me in a movie and not hear me say motherf****r at least once.”
Although retirement seems as imminent as a three-picture deal with Lars von Trier, Jackson does love to play golf. “I can go dressed as a pimp,” he observed, “and fit in perfectly.”
He has been married to LaTanya for 31 years. Zoe, their only child, is a TV sports producer. The former civil rights activist is enchanted that his daughter does not seem to notice that she is African American. “I will say, you’re black, you can’t do this. And she says, come on, Dad, nobody thinks like that any more.
• He campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008 and recently agreed with Morgan Freeman, right, that the Tea Party’s attacks on the president are racist.
• Jackson’s daughter Zoe attended the Ivy League college Vassar. Jackson gave the commencement address at her graduation.
• Jackson has a golf handicap of six and has played the Old Course, Carnoustie, and Kingsbarns in Scotland.
• He goes to see all his own films at the cinema on opening weekend. “I’m looking for a full theatre, hopefully where people will shout at the screen.”
• Othello left him underwhelmed. “Here was a guy who had been all over the world, kicking ass, looting, plundering and probably raping the baddest babes on the planet. Then he falls in love with some teenager and loses his f****** mind. I don’t like that idea at all. I mean, how stupid was he?”