The award was announced Sunday night in a ceremony at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
He topped a strong field that included Andrew Garfield for “Hacksaw Ridge,” Ryan Gosling for “La La Land,” Viggo Mortensen for “Captain Fantastic,” and Casey Affleck for “Manchester by the Sea.” All five were nominated for the best actor Academy Award earlier this week.
Affleck was widely expected to take the prize, and even Washington looked shocked when his name was called.
“I am a God-fearing man,” he said upon receiving the award. “I’m supposed to have faith but I didn’t have faith.”
Washington went on to list some of the groundbreaking playwrights who inspired him: Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and of course, “Fences” scribe August Wilson. Choked up, he regarded the writers as “the guys that don’t get recognized.”
Washington saved his biggest praise for his on-screen wife, Viola Davis, who had won the Actor earlier in the evening for supporting actress.
“One last thing: Viola Davis,” the actor/director simply said, to a cheering audience. “Fences” was also nominated for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture, which went to “Hidden Figures.”