The Evolution of Samuel L. Jackson

At 70 years old, the untouchable Samuel L. Jackson has five decades of experience, at least 125 films under his belt, and a networth of $220 million with no plans to stop anytime soon.

Between being a civil rights radical, the highest-grossing actor in box office history, and someone who frequently sends seething viral tweets calling out Trump, he has always been a bad motherf*cker.

Samuel Leroy Jackson was born in Washington, D.C. on December 21, 1948. His father Roy was absent, and his mother Elizabeth sent her only child to be raised by his grandparents in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The young Jackson was affected by a serious stutter, and even though he occasionally struggles with it today, he came up with a brilliant method to overcome this obstacle. Jackson’s iconic usage of ‘motherfucker’ began as an affirmation word, a phrase he knew he could say perfectly, giving him the confidence to speak smoothly.

Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Jackson attended segregated schools, and became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He was an usher at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968, and just one year later, was embroiled in an incident where he took the late Reverend’s father hostage.

At Morehouse College in Atlanta, where Samuel was studying Marine Biology, he took part in campus protests demanding a Black studies curriculum. His group briefly held several faculty members hostage, including Martin Luther King Sr., and when the dust settled, Jackson was suspended for two years. He eventually graduated with a degree in Drama, and headed for New York City as an aspiring actor.

After his first movie role in the low-budget Blaxploitation film “Together For Days,” later known as “Black Cream,” Jackson primarily pursued a career onstage, although he appeared in the occasional commercial. Jackson joined the prestigious Negro Ensemble Company, a troupe of Black actors dedicated to plays that explored the Black experience, where a young Morgan Freeman served as his mentor. As his Broadway career was taking off, the rising star developed a severe addiction to alcohol, heroin, and crack cocaine — but that didn’t stop the movie roles from trickling in. After working with him in “School Daze,” director Spike Lee cast Jackson as Mister Señor Love Daddy, the radio DJ/Greek Chorus in “Do the Right Thing.”

A year later, he landed the small but memorable role of Stacks Edwards, the doomed wheelman in Martin Scorsese's “Goodfellas.”  Despite his success on screen, Samuel’s drug problems worsened, until his wife LaTanya and daughter Zoe finally urged him to enter rehab. Jackson’s first job after getting clean was, ironically, the crack-addicted Gator in Lee’s “Jungle Fever.” Filming began just one week after he left the clinic, and the raw, cathartic performance finally put Jackson on Hollywood’s radar. He soon landed his first leading role, in the action-movie spoof “Loaded Weapon I,” as well as his classic turn as engineer Ray Arnold in “Jurassic Park.”
Jackson eventually become a well-known, unconventional onscreen presence but it would take an equally unconventional, groundbreaking movie to make him a star. Enter: “Pulp Fiction.”

“Pulp Fiction” wasn’t Jackson’s first collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. He had also appeared in “True Romance” the year before and the writer/director created the bible-quoting, burger-loving, Jheri-curled hitman Jules Winnfield specifically for him. Jackson was flattered, and returned the favor by delivering an intense performance that stole the show from heavyweight co-stars like Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, and John Travolta. He had already appeared in 30 films by this point, but “Pulp Fiction” was his breakout role, earning him his first and, shockingly, only Oscar nomination. Jackson then dominated the ‘90s with a string of high-profile roles, like John McClane’s sidekick Zeus in “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” a vengeful father in “A Time to Kill,” and an evil executive in “Deep Blue Sea.”

In 1999, Jackson fulfilled a dream by taking part in the Star Wars saga as Mace Windu, the only Jedi Knight wielding a purple lightsaber with “BMF” engraved on the hilt. He appeared in all three prequels throughout the early 2000s, along with other memorable turns in films like “Coach Carter,” “The Incredibles,” and of course, “Snakes on a Plane.”

“Snakes on a Plane” was an early viral phenomenon, and once Jackson signed on, he demanded that the filmmakers keep the outrageous original title, and secure an R-rated so he could deliver the now-infamous line, "I've had it with these mothafuckin' snakes, on this mothafuckin' plane!"

In 2001, Jackson granted Marvel the rights to use his likeness as Nick Fury for their “Ultimates” comic, with the caveat that he got first dibs at the role should a movie ever be made. That probably seemed unlikely at the time, but seven years late in 2008, Samuel strapped on the eyepatch for the first time in “Iron Man.” What started as a quick, post-credits cameo turned into the lynchpin that tied the entire MCU together,  and by the time “The Avengers” finally assembled in 2012, Nick Fury had become a household name. 

Jackson’s movies to date have grossed $5.7 billion at the box office, but his superhero status has never prevented him from taking on challenging, provocative roles. He collaborated with Tarantino as a sycophantic slave in “Django Unchained,” and a brooding bounty hunter in “The Hateful Eight.”

In 2019, Jackson started the the year off strong with “Glass,” reuniting with M. Night Shyamalan to reprise his role from “Unbreakable” almost twenty years later. The actor is also being digitally de-aged for the ‘90s setting of “Captain Marvel,” although it’s hardly necessary. Jackson might have just turned 70, but he’s still bringing the same energy, intensity, and charisma that made him a star in the first place. Nearly 50 years after his career began, Samuel L. Jackson is still setting the standard for how to be a badass motherf*cker.

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