Samuel L. Jackson does not do anything subtle.
His whole life, from the time he was a child in Chattanooga, to his decades spent as an actor playing all kinds of characters in more than 100 movies, Jackson’s bold spirit has made him stand out. Every actor brings something to the roles they play, but with his giant personality, the roles Jackson take on seem to swell beyond their size in the script to take on a life and energy of their own, powered by the immensity of the person portraying them. But for all his passion and power, Jackson’s rise to international fame almost didn't happen at all.
Many things can hold people back from success—some that can be helped and some that can’t. No one can control the circumstances into which they’re born, whether or not they grow up poor or are lucky enough to have a good education.
Jackson had all of these. He wasn't lacking in support or opportunity. Jackson’s family pushed him to achieve from a young age, and he graduated college, studied acting—even acted in Pulitzer-winning plays. He had everything going right.
But, for years, Jackson struggled in mediocrity as he tried to balance the life of an actor and an addict. He poured himself into his work, but when he was off the stage he directed just as much passion into getting high—and watched his life go nowhere.
That passion is exactly what makes Jackson such an asset now and it was in him from his earliest years. As a boy who grew up in the segregated South, he had a tendency to look people in the eye who society said he shouldn’t, He was bold in college and brash in his early acting days, fighting against racism with all the four-letter passion that he later brought to his most famous roles. But in order to become the self-made success that he is today, Samuel L. Jackson would first have to remove the one obstacle standing in his way: himself.
I never took just one hit of nothing. I always did it till it was gone, and then I got some more.-Samuel L. Jackson
Fiery From the Beginning
As a child, Jackson's spirit was on display from the beginning. He was born in 1948 in Washington D.C., but grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as an only child. His childhood wasn’t entirely rosy. Jackson’s father left when he was very young and wasn’t around in his childhood, but Jackson had a strong family around him anyway.
These were the people who were dedicated to putting him on the path to success, always pushing him to apply himself, achieve in school and become better. His aunt Etna was a school teacher who taught him to read at the age of 2 and took him to school with her while his grandparents worked. She would even call on him to answer questions when the students got stumped—a situation that led to trouble with the older kids at lunchtime. Of course, Jackson could handle it. Jackson sums it up with his characteristic simplicity: “So, I was a good fighter and a smart kid.”
But, for a black kid growing up in the South at that time, part of what Jackson's family had to teach him was how to play by the rules of a racist society—a lesson that couldn't have clashed more with Jackson’s challenging spirit.
He remembers whistling at a white girl when he was 5 and catching a beating from not just his mom, but his aunt and grandmother too. When he would help his grandfather do maintenance work at an office building as a boy, he recalls the difference between what you were supposed to do and what he did. "You shuffled to the side when a white person came by. I’d stand there and look them in the eye, and they might say I was a little uppity.”
From Activist to Actor
That passion and refusal to play by society's rules stayed with him all the way into his college years. Jackson chose Moorehouse College in Atlanta, the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr. Enrolling kept him out of the Vietnam War and Jackson became part of the hippy movement and an activist, using his passion to actively fight the system that had told him to sit down and shut up from his earliest years.
Sometimes it came out in positive ways—in 1968 he flew to Memphis to protest for equal rights following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He even was a pallbearer at MLK Jr's funeral. But at times, his passion and complete lack of care about the rules of the world got him in trouble. In fact, it got him kicked out of college in 1969 when, along with several other students, he locked the board of trustees in a campus building for two days in protest of the college’s mostly-white board.
Suspended from Morehouse for the next two years, Jackson moved to Los Angeles to work as a social worker and got his first taste of the city in which he now lives. It was there that the dream of being an actor first came to him, when seeing a production by the Negro Ensemble Company. When he was allowed to returned to Morehouse, he changed his major and came back as an acting major. After graduating in 1972, he toured the country doing political theater with the Black Image Theatre company until he moved to New York in 1976.
It was there in New York that Jackson’s problems with addiction began in earnest. There was plenty of acting work in New York and a vibrant theater scene, but Jackson also found himself with plenty of time on his hands when not on-stage. He started a routine of heading to the “no-man’s land part of Times Square” at 11 a.m., buying a beer and some weed, and watching Kung Fu movies for hours until he had to be on stage. But what started innocently enough, over the course of the next several years, spiraled out of control.
Losing His Way
By 1990, things had gotten bad. Not only was he stuck in his acting career but, as he told New York Magazine in 2011, “I was sitting on the back steps every night, smoking crack and drinking…I never took just one hit of nothing. I always did it till it was gone, and then I got some more.” When he was on stage, he was always high, and it was starting to catch up with him. He watched a theater role that he had launched be given to another actor. Then there was an incident when his 8-year-old daughter found him passed out in the kitchen with his crack kit. With that, Jackson made the decision to remove the obstacle that had been standing in his way all those years. Himself.
As long as I am sober, I’ll be on top; if not, I’ll be on the bottom.-Samuel L. Jackson
In spite of his addiction, Jackson was already a good actor, in good standing. “I had a good reputation. Showed up on time, knew my lines, hit my marks. I just wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was very satisfied artistically. I was doing Pulitzer prize-winning plays. I was working with people who made me better, who challenged me. So I was doing things the right way, it was just that one thing that was in the way—my addiction. And once that was out of the way, it was—boom! The door blew wide open.”
Putting His Passion to Work
Two weeks after getting sober, Jackson got the role he had spent the last several years preparing for on accident. He was cast as a crack addict in Jungle Fever for Spike Lee, and the role set his movie career in motion. From there, Jackson started pouring all the passion he had been putting into addiction into the job itself and started building a resume of better and better roles. Then, in 1994, he landed the gig that would enshrine him in film history—the part of filth-spewing bible-quoting killer Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction. The role made him an icon and pointed him toward all the profanity-laced brilliance he's given the world in the decades that followed.
It wasn’t until I let go of the idea of the brass ring that it showed up, and fortunately for me, it coincided with getting clean.-Samuel L. Jackson
Finding the way to self-made success isn't an easy path for anyone. All self-made greats have had to overcome something. For Teddy Roosevelt, it was childhood illness; for Coco Chanel it was complete poverty. But Jackson's story is a reminder that, even with all the opportunity in the world, true greatness will never come without getting past the biggest obstacle of all. The one that no one can even see. Ourselves.