James Woods was born in Vernal, Utah on April 18, 1947 to Gail and Martha Woods. His father was an army intelligence
officer and the family followed him to his postings in Illinois, Virginia and Guam until by 1957, the year in which James's brother, Michael,
was born, they had finally settled in Warwick, Rhode Island.
Woods remembers his father as "a very manly man. He was a big, strong country guy, but very soft-spoken. He'd make my mother breakfast every Sunday. And when I was a kid, he'd sit me on his lap and quote Shakespeare to me, chapter and verse." His mother is of simple-going Irish catholic stock (- Jimmy himself was an altar boy and still goes to church every Sunday -) and according to her son as resourceful and resilient as a 'frontier woman'. These qualities were put to the test when Gail Woods suddenly died in 1959, during routine surgery. Martha, who had never worked outside the home before, initially struggled to provide for her sons and herself. She finally started a preschool called "Lad 'n' Lassie" which became quite prestigious. Despite that fact she always accepted 25 per cent of the pupils for free, "because she knew the stigma of poverty", her older son recalls.
Being exceptionally brainy ( - he scored 180 on the Stanford-Binet IQ test!), Woods was always put in classes for the gifted when he went to High School. His brother Michael draws this picture of him: "James was a quiet kid, always in his room with the door closed, studying. He would wear those thin ties and white socks. My brother was the ultimate High School nerd." At 17, James sat his SAT tests and scored a perfect 800 on the verbal part and 779 on the match portion - something not exactly all of his acting-peers can put on their CV. There seemed to be no obstacles for him to fullfill his original career goal and become an eye surgeon. But then he accidentally ran through a plate-glass door which ruined his right hand. As now he had to change his plans, he accepted a political science scholarship from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his freshman year he joined the MIT's Drama Workshop, where he received training in the classical manner of the English stage rather than in the fashionable "method" techniques derived from Lee Strasberg's famous Actors Studio. By his senior year he had appeared in thirty-six plays both at school and in regional summer-stock productions. In 1968, just two months before graduation, he called his mother to tell her he'd drop out of college and give up the prospect of a high-flying career at the State Department in order to become -- an actor. After "the longest pause in the history of telephonic communication" (Woods) Martha gave her blessing and told her son to follow his heart.
During his first two years in New York, James Woods scraped by in fringe theatre and according to his experience "just to get a hearing in the court of theatrical justice was a difficult task." He finally tricked and bluffed himself into his first important part in Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy (1971): "I waited until the stage manager went to the bathroom and then just walked out on stage, said, 'I'm next,' and auditioned. They wanted only resident British actors with real British accents. I said I was from Liverpool, and they said, 'Great,' and hired me." One year later Woods won the lead in Saved which brought him three awards, including an Obie and the Clarence Derwent Award for Most Promising Actor.
In 1970 Woods made his film debut in
for director Elia Kazan. "I was going to the movies every day," he says.
"So I thought I should make them." But the movie-world did not welcome the young theatre-actor with open arms. In the
beginning casting directors constantly refused him auditions, not because there was any doubt as to his talent but on the grounds that he
"wasn't right for the part," which was the Hollywood-way to say that Woods lacked conventionally handsome leading-man
looks. (Today it makes him chuckle that nowadays casting lists are actually searching for the 'James-Woods-type'.) But in the middle 1970s
he was at least getting small parts in films with increasing regularity.
In 1978 Woods achieved national recognition through the acclaimed television miniseries Holocaust in which he played opposite Meryl Streep. This paved the way for his breakthrough on the big screen in the following year. Woods was so brilliantly convincing as the psychotic cop killer in The Onion Field that he began winning the villain-parts in movies such as Eyewitness or Sergio Leone's Once upon a Time in America . Thus The Onion Field became the foundation-stone of his bad-guy-image which sadly dominates the media's and public's awareness of Woods.
What James Woods needed now was a vehicle that proved his leading-man qualities. It finally came along in 1986: Oliver Stone wanted Woods for the part of the photographer in Salvador but James persuaded Oliver to give him the lead-role of Richard Boyle instead. Stone's decision launched notorious on-set battles between the two men -- but also an Oscar nomination for Woods.
Although he lost the Oscar to Paul Newman, James could not complain about lack of personal success that year, because he won both a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his touching portrayal of James Garner's schizophrenic brother in the television-movie Promise . TV continued to be a friendly field for him with In Love and War (1987), The Boys (1991) and especially My Name is Bill W. (1989). His no-holds-barred turn as Bill Wilson, founder of AA, brought Woods his second well-deserved Emmy Award.
On the big-screen he also continued to give impressive performances as the ruthless detective in Cop , the killer-turned-informer in Best Seller and the burnt-out lawyer in True Believer , but unfortunately none of these movies was a hit at the box-office and as the bankability of an actor is such an important factor in Hollywood, Jimmy's star gradually began to fade.
Matters weren't helped by a blizzard of bad press which hit Woods in connection with a harassment suit against his co-star from The Boost , Sean Young and a dirty divorce from his second wife, Sarah Owen. Furthermore Woods felt misrepresented by his long-time management. He consequently engaged a new agent who secured him a showy part in the commercial Stallone-flick The Specialist . This served as a stepping-stone for supporting-roles in Oliver Stone's Nixon and Martin Scorsese's Casino . He also turned to television again and shone as the exhausting title-character in Citizen Cohn . His chilling portrait of real-life assassin Byron De La Beckwith in 1996's Ghosts of Mississippi won him his second Oscar nomination (this time in the supporting category) which confirmed that Woods is currently enjoying a career revival.
Maybe one day he'll actually win the Oscar crown. But what matters more is that Woods will hopefully ever again tear himself from his hobbies golf, reading and gardening in order to enrich the entertainment scene for many years to come.