Mykelti Williamson was born on March 4, 1957, in St. Louis, Missouri. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Williamson found refuge in the stage, becoming a member of the teen dance group featured on Soul Train. He made his acting debut in the show Starsky & Hutch, and went on to appear in a number of TV shows. He is best known for the films Forrest Gump and Free Willy, as well as roles on TV's 24 and CSI: NY.
Actor Mykelti Williamson was born Michael T. Williamson on March 4, 1957, in St. Louis, Missouri. Williamson's father served as an Air Force staff sergeant, and his mother was a certified public accountant. Of mixed African-American and Blackfoot Indian heritage, Williamson was named Mykelti by his grandfather—it means both "spirit" and "silent friend" in the Blackfoot language. Williamson's father left the family when Mykelti was still a child. This left Williamson's mother to work full time in order to support her son, and often meant Mykelti had to be left in the care of neighbors, a traumatic arrangement for the young boy.
While under the watch of his new caregivers, Williamson says he was repeatedly molested by the man of the house. Mykelti kept silent about the abuse after his neighbor threatened to kill his mother if he told. As an adult, Williamson says he continued to be plagued by memories of the assault he suffered as a child. "That left a hole in me," he later confessed to reporters.
Williamson escaped his abusive past when the family relocated to Los Angeles. There, he discovered the joy of performance, and started acting in church productions beginning at the age of 10. In 1973, when Mykelti was 13, he was selected to become the youngest member of The Lockers, a dance troupe featured on the variety TV show Soul Train.
While maintaining his life as a TV dancer, Williamson also excelled as a student and athlete at Crenshaw High School. He was especially good at basketball and football, however, Williamson quickly realized that his heart did not lie in athletics. To the dismay of his coaches, Williamson quit sports and instead joined the cheerleading squad, which better suited his taste for performance and dance.
Passion for Acting
Upon graduating from high school in 1975, Williamson went on to study television and film at Los Angeles City College while at the same time auditing acting classes at USC. He then transferred to the Gene Evans Motion Picture School in San Jose, California, where he graduated in 1978. That same year, he made his television premiere as a guest star on the show Starsky and Hutch.
Throughout the 1980s, Williamson steadily accrued television credits. In 1983, he landed recurring roles in two NBC dramas: as minor league baseball player Deejay Cunningham on Bay Hill Blues and as Officer Ron Garfield in the popular police drama Hill Street Blues. In 1988, he was cast in another successful police drama, the Emmy Award-winning Midnight Caller. During this same period, Williamson landed the first role of his budding film career, playing a wayward football player in the 1986 film Wild Cats. In 1989, he headed back to the big screen with a minor part in the 1989 thriller Miracle Mile.
Williamson's career took off in the early 1990 when he turned in memorable performances in the beloved films Free Willy (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994). Williamson played the role of Dwight, a paternal social worker, in the family drama Free Willy, which was a box-office smash. The next year Williamson starred opposite Tom Hanks as Bubba in Forrest Gump, which won the 1994 Academy Award for Best Picture. Williamson's heart-rending depiction of Forrest's friendly, shrimp-loving friend who is killed in the Vietnam War earned him rave reviews and national fame. It remains his best-remembered and most enduring performance.
Propelled by Forrest Gump, Williamson landed prominent roles in many acclaimed and popular films throughout the 1990s. He played opposite Al Pacino in Heat (1995). He also appeared in such notable films as 12 Angry Men (1997), Con Air (1997), Primary Colors (1998) and Three Kings (1999).
However, Williamson's career was derailed by personal problems in 1998, when he went on trial for attempted manslaughter. Williamson was arrested for allegedly stabbing the companion of his ex-wife, Cheryl Chisholm. Williamson admitted that he angrily confronted the couple after he heard that they had engaged in inappropriate behavior in front of his 4-year-old daughter, Phoenix Williamson. "After what I'd been through as a child, I was especially sensitive," he said about the incident. Although Williamson was eventually acquitted from all charges due to insufficient evidence, the trial took a major toll on his life and career. "I lost my home, which I sold to pay my lawyers, my car and basically lost my career," he said after the trial. "I never thought I'd come back."
Nevertheless, Williamson has since managed to revive both his personal and professional life. He married actress Sondra Spriggs in 1997 and the couple has two daughters, Maya and Nicole. Williamson credits Spriggs with helping him to overcome the trial by opening up about his painful childhood. Williamson became very active in his church and took up restoring classic cars and flying airplanes as hobbies. Williamson has also returned to form as an actor. He starred opposite Will Smith in the 2001 film Ali and landed recurring roles in the TV series The Fugitive and CSI: NY. In 2010, he landed one of his most prominent roles yet as Brian Hastings, the special agent in charge of the New York CTU on the popular drama 24.
Mykelti Williamson has endured many hardships on his way to becoming one of Hollywood's most respected actors, and he hopes that his story can serve as an inspiration to others who have fallen upon hard times. "Everyone has gone through something painful in their life," he said in an interview. "But if you surround yourself with people who have the light turned on, you can—you will—come through it."
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