Paul Winfield Biography

Born May 22, 1941, in Los Angeles, CA; died March 7, 2004 in Los Angeles, CA. Actor. Paul Winfield was a versatile actor, equally at home on the stage, in films, and on television. Winfield was nominated for an Oscar in 1972 for his role in the movie Sounder, and he won acclaim for his portrayal of Rev. Martin Luther King in a 1978 television miniseries. Although he never achieved superstar status, Winfield had a successful and varied career that spanned more than three decades and included scores of distinguished performances and memorable roles. So prolific was his output in the 1970s that according to the Times of London, People magazine dubbed him "the most ubiquitous black TV/movie actor of the decade."

Paul Edward Winfield was born in Los Angeles and raised by his mother, Lois Edwards, a single parent and professional labor organizer working in the garment industry. Winfield's stepfather, who Edwards married when Winfield was eight, was a construction worker and city trash collector. In an era of aggressive school desegregation, Winfield was bused to the predominantly white Manual Arts High School, where he quickly excelled in drama and music. He was chosen best actor for three years running in an annual drama competition for high school students in Southern California. Winfield was offered a drama scholarship to Yale, but he felt intimidated and instead opted to enroll at the University of Portland. Portland was the first of four colleges Winfield attended. He never received a degree, however, dropping out of the University of California at Los Angeles just six credits shy of graduation. His lack of a degree did not stop him from serving as an artist-in-residence at Stanford University and the University of Hawaii in 1964 and 1965.

In 1966 Winfield was signed as a contract player by Columbia Pictures. Shortly after that, actor/director Burgess Meredith cast him in two stage plays written by Amiri Baraka. That work captured the attention of Sidney Poitier, who gave Winfield his first role in a movie, The Lost Man, in 1969. Around the same time, Winfield was making his first mark on the small screen as well. In 1968 he landed the role of Diahann Carroll's boyfriend on the situation comedy Julia, in which Carroll played a nurse raising her son alone after her husband was killed in Vietnam.

In 1972 Winfield was nominated for an Oscar—making him only the third African American so honored—for his role as the father in the film Sounder. While he worked regularly in film and television from that point on, the publicity he received from his Oscar nomination did not translate into instant stardom, a fact the Washington Post, as quoted in the New York Times, later attributed to "the industry's fickle interest in black actors and stories." He found himself cast in supporting roles like Jim in a 1974 remake of Huckleberry Finn. Winfield's personal life had some bumps as well. His 18-month relationship with Sounder co-star Cicely Tyson had stalled around this time. While working in Mississippi, Winfield was charged with marijuana possession. He pleaded no contest and was fined $11,000.

As the 1970s progressed, however, Winfield's roles began to improve. His portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1978 miniseries King earned him an Emmy nomination for best actor. Another Emmy nomination, this one for best supporting actor, followed in 1979 for his role as a college chancellor in Roots: The Next Generation. By this time, the offers were arriving in quick succession. In 1982, Winfield played a Starfleet commander in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Two years later he appeared in the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Terminator. One of his best-known roles of the 1980s was Gabriel Grimes, the lead character in the made-for-television film Go Tell It on the Mountain, an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel of that title by James Baldwin.

Winfield's television career remained in high gear over the next several years. He appeared in dozens of network shows, including L.A. Law, Wiseguy, The Charmings, and Family Matters. As he aged, Winfield increasingly landed roles as authority figures. His 1990 portrayal of a wise-but-sarcastic judge in the feature film Presumed Innocent won rave reviews. A similar role—a judge involved in a school desegregation case on the television series Picket Fences —resulted in an Emmy for best supporting actor in 1995. Another high-profile role that year was that of promoter Don King in an HBO film about boxer Mike Tyson. He also had a recurring role on the series Touched by an Angel during the mid-1990s. Winfield remained active on the stage as well during this phase of his career, appearing with Denzel Washington in the Broadway play Checkmates.

One of Winfield's chief assets was his voice, which he lent to a number of projects in which he did not appear visually. These included the 1994 PBS documentary Baseball, the PBS children's series The Magic School Bus, and City Confidential, a 1998 crime documentary series on the A&E cable network.

Winfield was a huge fan of pug dogs. He had seven pet pugs in his Los Angeles home, and hundreds of ceramic and bronze pug figures. Winfield never married. He died of a heart attack in Los Angeles at the age of 62 on March 7, 2004. He is survived by his sister, Patricia Wilson.


New York Times, March 9, 2004, p. C17.

Times (London), March 17, 2004, p. 36.

Washington Post, March 11, 2004, p. B6.

—Robert Jacobson

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