One of Hollywood's most intense supporting and leading actors, James Woods has built a distinguished career on stage, screen, and television. Early in his career, Woods, with his lean body, close-set eyes, and narrow, acne-scarred face, specialized in playing sociopaths, psychopaths, and other crazed villains, but in the 1990s, he added a sizable number of good guys to his resumé.
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The son of a military man, Woods was born in Vermal, UT, on April 14, 1947. Thanks to his father's job, he had a peripatetic childhood, living in four states and on the island of Guam. As a young man, he earned a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; after obtaining a degree in political science, he set out to become a professional actor in New York. While in school he had appeared in numerous plays at M.I.T., Harvard, and with the Theater Company of Boston, as well as at the Provincetown Playhouse on Rhode Island. After working off-Broadway, Woods debuted on Broadway in 1970, appearing in Borstal Boy. Off-Broadway, he earned an Obie for his work in Saved.
In 1971, the actor made his first television appearance in All the Way Home, and the year after that debuted in Elia Kazan's thriller The Visitors (1972). He then played a small part in The Way We Were (1973), but did not become a star until he played a vicious, remorseless cop killer in The Onion Field (1979). Subsequent film appearances quickly established Woods as a scene stealer, and though not among Tinseltown's most handsome actors, he developed a base of devoted female fans who found his rugged, ruthless appearance sexy. This appearance would serve him well throughout his career, notably in one of his first major films, David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983). Cast as the film's morally ambiguous hero, Woods gave a brilliantly intense performance that was further enhanced by his rough-hewn physical attributes.
Throughout the 1980s, Woods continued to turn in one solid performance after another, earning a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of an American journalist in South America in Oliver Stone's Salvador (1986). He gave another remarkable performance as a Jewish gangster in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984), and in 1989 tried his hand at playing nice in the adoption drama Immediate Family. That same year, he won an Emmy for his portrayal of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson in My Name Is Bill W. After beginning the subsequent decade with an Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated performance in the title role of the made-for-TV Citizen Cohn (1992), Woods appeared in a diverse series of films, playing a boxing promoter in Diggstown (1992), H.R. Haldeman in Nixon (1995), a drug dealer in Another Day in Paradise (1998), and a vampire slayer in John Carpenter's Vampires. In 1996, he won his second Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Medger Evers' suspected assassin in Ghosts of Mississippi. In 1999, the actor continued to demonstrate his versatility in a number of high-profile films. For The General's Daughter, he played a shady colonel, while he appeared as a newspaper editor in Clint Eastwood's True Crime, the head of an emotionally disintegrating Michigan family in The Virgin Suicides, and a football team orthopedist in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday.
As the 21st century began, Woods could be seen as a doctor in the medical/hostage thriller John Q., and he lent his voice to a number of documentaries and animated projects including the sequel Stuart Little 2. He was part of the ensemble in the Polish brothers' Northfork, and appeared in Be Cool, the sequel to Get Shorty. In 2007 he began work as the lead on the TV series Shark, and in 2011 he appeared in the remake of Straw Dogs and the well-reviewed made-for-HBO docudrama about the collapse of the American economy, Too Big to Fail. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi