Samuel L. Jackson: too good for #2?

Actor tough enough to demand leading role

Samuel L. Jackson’s movie career began as a throwback to the days of the old studio system when guys who exuded a sense of contained danger, like Humphrey Bogart and Lee Marvin, were initially labeled “supporting actors.”

Bogart, playing a devious Mexican bandit, got shot by Errol Flynn or lost his arm in a truck accident so George Raft could get the girl.

Lee Marvin had to ride a cheaper motorcycle and threaten Marlon Brando, or toss a pot of hot coffee into Gloria Grahame’s face so Glenn Ford could rescue her from her miserable mink-clad life.

Like Bogart and Marvin, Jackson wasn’t an obvious choice to be heroic or fulfill romantic dreams by putting on a tuxedo. His presence in the frame demanded, “Watch me. Watch me or something bad may happen.” Just as that onscreen power ultimately lifted Bogart and Marvin out of secondary status into stardom, Jackson, after starting out as a character, became a box office name.

Still, there’s a difference in Jackson’s arc. In the modern moviemaking system, stars are not under contract to a single studio. Support or lead, hero or character — these terms no longer matter. Jackson is free to put together a seamless flow of performances from one supercharged role to another, sometimes in support, sometimes in the lead, but never less than riveting.

Jackson’s film career began in 1972, more than 36 years ago. He debuted inauspiciously in “Together for Days” as a minor character listed way down in the credits. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he labored in various small roles. (In “Coming to America” in 1988, he arrived onscreen just to stick up a fast-food joint.) Things began to change after Spike Lee used him in “School Daze” and “Do the Right Thing” in the late 1980s, and Martin Scorsese cast him as Mafioso chief Stacks Edwards in “Goodfellas” in 1990. Audiences began to recognize the face even if they weren’t sure of the name.

Jackson’s breakthrough came the next year with an unforgettable performance as a crack cocaine addict in Lee’s “Jungle Fever.” He stood out so much that the Cannes Film Festival created a special award just for him. Then, in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 “Pulp Fiction,” Jackson and John Travolta made movie history as two hit men. Calmly philosophizing, equally calmly murdering their victims (a day at their office), they were a wacked-out Laurel and Hardy, making one fine mess everywhere they went. Jackson’s “Pulp Fiction” monologues turned him into a hip cultural icon. No audience would ever again not know his name.

Jackson now plays in blockbuster franchises (“Star Wars,” “Die Hard” movies), independent critical successes (“Eve’s Bayou,” “Red Violin”) and campus cult favorites (“Unbreakable,” “Shaft”). He even survived “Snakes on a Plane,” because no joke would ever be on him unless he decided it could be. No matter what he’s called on to do, in support or in lead, he makes it work. Samuel L. Jackson is an American original.

More Film

  • Spider-Man: Far From Home trailer

    Film News Roundup: 'Spider-Man: Far From Home' Trailer Sets Sony Pictures Record

    In today’s film news roundup, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” sets a studio record, Chris Meledandri and Glenn Close are honored, an art-house streaming service is unveiled, and “Cliffs of Freedom” gets a release. TRAILER STATS The first “Spider-Man: Far From Home” trailer has set a record as the biggest digital launch in Sony Pictures history [...]

  • Frank Grillo Hell on the Border

    Frank Grillo to Star in the Thriller 'Hell on the Border'

    Frank Grillo is set to star in the action-thriller “Hell on the Border” with Wes Miller directing. Miller also penned the script with Curtis Nichouls, Henry Penzi, and Sasha Yelaun producing. Ron Perlman is also on board to co-star. Plot details are unknown at this time. Production is currently underway in Birmingham, Ala. Grillo has [...]

  • Lee Unkrich Variety Oscars Nominees Lunch

    'Toy Story 3,' 'Coco' Director Lee Unkrich to Exit Pixar After 25 Years

    Lee Unkrich, who won Academy Awards for “Toy Story 3” and “Coco,” is departing Pixar Animation Studios after 25 years to spend more time with his family. Unkrich joined Pixar in 1994 after working as an assistant editor in television on “Silk Stalkings” and “Renegade.” He served as editor on Pixar’s first feature, 1995’s “Toy [...]

  • Velvet Buzzsaw trailer

    Netflix Original Movies: What to Look Forward To in 2019

    Following the biggest fourth-quarter worldwide subscriber gain ever and some controversy around increased prices in the U.S., Netflix looks to keep its momentum going into 2019. From Jan. 18 through March, the streaming site will release 10 original films, including action-packed thrillers, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi, quirky comedies, inspirational dramas, an artistic horror movie and a viral [...]

  • Third 'Fantastic Beasts' Production Start Pushed

    Third 'Fantastic Beasts' Production Start Pushed Back Several Months

    Warner Bros. is pushing back the production start date of its third “Fantastic Beasts” movie several months from July to the late fall, a spokesperson said Friday. Actors have been notified about the change in dates. The untitled third “Fantastic Beasts” movie has not yet set a release date. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find [...]

  • The Beatles Eight Days a Week

    Imagine's Documentary Arm Sets First-Look Pact With Apple (EXCLUSIVE)

    Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Documentaries has set a first-look pact with Apple to develop non-fiction features and series. The deal comes as Imagine is investing heavily in the premium non-fiction arena. The company in June recruited RadicalMedia veteran Justin Wilkes to head Imagine Documentaries as president. The deal suggests that Apple sees docu [...]

  • Walt Disney HQ LA

    Disney Unveils Financial Data for DTC Unit, Sets April 11 for Investor Presentation

    Disney has rejiggered its business segments for earnings reporting to make room for the new unit housing its global streaming operations. Disney on Friday released restated earnings for fiscal 2018, 2017 and 2016 to give investors and financial analysts better visibility into its spending on the launch of the Disney Plus, ESPN Plus and other [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content