For the first 23 years of his life, before he embarked on a circuitous two-decade acting career and the breakout role of Dr. Preston Burke on Grey's Anatomy, Isaiah Washington walked a very straight line.
He woke up every day knowing exactly what he was supposed to do and who he was supposed to be. Everyone in his suburban Houston neighborhood — where he did his homework, got good grades and stayed out of trouble — knew he was going to get a football scholarship to pay his way through college. But even when that didn't happen, he simply went to the backup plan and joined the Air Force, where he learned enough about aerospace engineering to land a successful private sector job in Washington, D.C.
Throughout it all, he showed up every day and worked hard, and if he had any questions, he asked someone in charge: a coach, a superior officer, a boss. He got married the day after his 21st birthday. He bought his wife a mink coat. A led to B led to C — a straight line.
Except that the dots weren't connecting in the way he'd been told they would. He was bored with the job and unsure about the marriage, and his wife was allergic to the coat. One night in 1986, on the way to a Luther Vandross concert, he had to take her to the emergency room. The mink coat had given her hives.
"The doctors are applying Benadryl, we're missing the concert, she doesn't want to give up the mink coat, and I'm thinking, 'Is this [my life]? This can't be it,'" Washington recalls. "I pretty much had a midlife crisis at 23."
So Isaiah Washington stepped out of line. He quit his job. He got a divorce and, after seeing Spike Lee's first feature film, She's Gotta Have It, decided to become an actor. "It was an epiphany," he says. "I said, 'Pow! That's what I want to do.'"
His friends thought he'd lost his mind. But, in the same linear way he'd done everything else, Washington developed a plan: He'd take some acting classes, read up and then, in 10 years, be in a Spike Lee movie. He studied theater at Howard University, moved to New York and became a founding member of CityKids Repertory, a group that performed "in homeless shelters, crack dens, on flatbed trucks."
In 1994, two years ahead of schedule, Washington appeared in Spike Lee's Crooklyn (he went on to make three more films with the director: Clockers, Girl 6 and Get on the Bus). The reviews were good, and phrases like "the next Denzel" were being whispered.
His inclination, still, was to follow the rules, so he took the parts he was offered, even when they didn't always feel right. Roles in prestigious movies like Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight and Clint Eastwood's True Crime aside, Washington mostly played thugs and cops gone bad. Shooting a gun and dying were nearly always in the script.
"I got tired of doing things on the promise that it would lead to something else," he says. "And I got very angry. I started to speak up. Once, a producer blurted, 'Do you want the f---ing job or not?' 'Well, sir, I guess I don't.'"
By the time Washington had done Hollywood Homicide in 2003 — where his criminal character was thrown off a roof by Harrison Ford — he had had enough. "I told my agents I wanted to try television. Instead they sent me 14 movie scripts opposite people like Arnold Schwarzenegger," he recalls. "I said, 'I am not working with one more old has-been.'"
Then he got the Grey's Anatomy script and a chance to audition for the lead, Dr. Derek Shepherd. "I said, 'This is what I want. I will go in and play dirt on the floor because this is the room I want to be in.'" When the part went to Patrick Dempsey, Washington says he felt like "I'd been kicked in the stomach by 14 mules."
But Shonda Rhimes, the show's creator and executive producer, hadn't dismissed Washington. She offered him Dr. Preston Burke, serious and arrogant in the pilot script, with the promise he could make the role his own.
"In the abstract, Burke was a more awkward and self-hating guy, a little bit of a weasel, but that was before Isaiah walked into the room," Rhimes says. "Isaiah played him as someone who intensely loves his job. He brought a sense of honor to what Burke does. And with Isaiah, suddenly there was a sexiness to the role, an intelligence and a wit."
And now Isaiah Washington, 41 years old, is starting to see the opportunities he envisioned so many years ago. His next film, The Moguls, opposite Jeff Bridges and featuring no gunplay, opens later this year. His second marriage, to fashion designer Jenisa Washington, is in its ninth year and thriving, with two kids and a third on the way. He's immersed himself so deeply in the role of Dr. Burke that he spends his free time at Centinela Freeman hospital near Los Angeles, and is seriously thinking about studying to be a physician's assistant.
He won't say exactly where Dr. Burke's on-screen relationship with Sandra Oh's Dr. Cristina Yang character is going, but he's pleased that no one seems to have made a fuss about the romance between an African-American and an Asian-American. "If you don't feed into it, you don't get the backlash," he says. "We have two ambitious doctors who end up [sleeping with] each other. It's not really that deep."
Washington laughs — the long, relaxed laugh of a man who's comfortable with his place in the world. "I'm happy as hell," he says quietly. "For a long time, the town wasn't ready for me. They couldn't find a way to sell me. But now I'm Cinderella and that slipper feels good. The shoe fits. Finally."