Oscar Actors: Woods, James–Background, Career, Awards

December 15, 2020
James Woods Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No

Social Class: Middle; father army intelligence officer





Teacher/Inspirational Figure:

Radio Debut:

TV Debut:

Stage Debut:

Broadway Debut:

Film Debut:

Breakthrough Role:

Oscar Role: Salvador (1986); age 40

Other Noms:

Other Awards:

Frequent Collaborator:

Screen Image: character actor

Last Film:

Career Output:

Film Career Span:




James Howard Woods (born April 18, 1947) is an American actor and producer who is known for his work in theater, television, and film. He started his career in small roles on and off-Broadway. In 1972 he appeared in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine alongside Sam Waterston and Michael Moriarty on Broadway.

In 1972 he won the Theatre World Award for his performance in Moonchildren. In 1978, Woods made his television breakthrough alongside Meryl Streep playing her husband in the critically acclaimed four part miniseries Holocaust. The series went on to receive the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Limited Series. In 1972, Woods made his film debut in Elia Kazan’s The Visitors and continued to act on film in supporting roles in Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were (1973), and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975).

In 1979, Woods gained acclaim for his leading role as Gregory Powell in the crime thriller The Onion Field. Critic Roger Ebert praised Woods in the film calling him “a special talent,”[3] and Woods received a Golden Globe Award nomination for his performance. Through the 1980s Woods appeared in films such as David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), and Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986), for which he received his first Academy Award nomination.[4] Through the 1990s he played character roles in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992), Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995), and Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995). In 1997, Woods received his second Academy Award nomination for his performance as Byron De La Beckwith, the white supremacist murderer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, in Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi (1996).[5] Woods continued to act in supporting roles in Any Given Sunday (1999), Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997), Clint Eastwood’s True Crime and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999).

He is known for his roles in television films such as Bill W. in My Name is Bill W. (1989), Roy Cohn in Citizen Cohn (1992), and Rudy Giuliani in Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story. In 2011, he made a career resurgence as Dick Fuld in Too Big to Fail on HBO.[6] His performance received both a Primetime Emmy Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for his performance. He is also known for his lead role in the CBS drama Shark (2006–2008), and his guest appearances in Showtime’s Ray Donovan (2013). He is also known for his voice roles in the animated features Hercules (1997), Recess: School’s Out (2001), Stuart Little 2 (2002), and Surf’s Up (2007) and for voice-acting as himself on various episodes of Family Guy and The Simpsons.

Woods was nominated for two Academy Awards: one for Best Actor for his work in Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986) and another for Best Supporting Actor for Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi (1996). He is the recipient of two Primetime Emmy Awards for the television movies Promise (1987) and My Name Is Bill W. (1989). Woods has also received three Screen Actors Guild Award nominations and three Independent Spirit Award nominations.

On October 15, 1998, Woods received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7021 Hollywood Blvd.

Woods was born in Vernal, Utah, on April 18, 1947 and had a brother ten years younger. His father, Gail Peyton Woods, was an army intelligence officer who died in 1960, after routine surgery. His mother, Martha A. (née Smith), ran a pre-school after her husband’s death[11] and later married Thomas E. Dixon.

Woods grew up in Warwick, Rhode Island, where he attended Pilgrim High School, from which he graduated in 1965. He is of part Irish descent and was raised Catholic, briefly serving as an altar boy.[13][14]

Woods pursued an undergraduate degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Woods stated on Inside the Actors Studio that he originally intended to follow a career as an eye surgeon. While at MIT, he pledged to the Theta Delta Chi fraternity. He was also an active member of the student theatre group “Dramashop,” where he both acted in and directed a number of plays. He dropped out of MIT in 1969, one semester short of graduating, to pursue a career in acting.[16]

Woods has said that he owes his acting career to Tim Affleck (father of actors Ben and Casey Affleck), who was a stage manager at the Theatre Company of Boston while Woods was a student there.

Woods appeared in 36 plays before making his Broadway debut in 1970 at the Lyceum Theatre, in the first American production of Frank McMahon’s adaptation of Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy. He got the part by pretending he was British. He returned to Broadway the following year to portray David Darst in Daniel Berrigan’s The Trial of the Catonsville Nine also at the Lyceum Theatre.[18] In 1971, he played Bob Rettie in the American premiere of Michael Weller’s Moonchildren at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The following year the production moved to Broadway at the Royale Theatre where Woods starred alongside Edward Herrmann, and Christopher Guest.[18] In 1972, Woods won a Theatre World Award for his performance. He returned to Broadway in 1973 to portray Steven Cooper in the original production of Jean Kerr’s Finishing Touches at the Plymouth Theatre.[19]

Woods has garnered a reputation as a prominent Hollywood character actor, having appeared in over 130 films and television series. By the early 1970s, he was getting small movie roles including his feature film debut in Elia Kazan’s The Visitors and a spot as Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend in The Way We Were.[20]

In 1978 Woods played the husband of Meryl Streep in the critically acclaimed four episode miniseries Holocaust. The series focuses the story of a Jewish family’s struggle to survive Nazi Germany’s campaign of genocide against the Jewish people. The series also starred Michael Moriarty and Rosemary Harris. Holocaust won the Outstanding Limited Series as well as seven other Primetime Emmy Awards.[21]

In 1979, Woods starred in The Onion Field as murderer Gregory Powell. He received good reviews for his performance, and was nominated for Best Actor awards from the Golden Globes, the National Society of Film Critics, and the New York Film Critics Circle Association.

Woods played Maximillian “Max” Bercovicz, a Jewish gangster, in Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984) alongside Robert De Niro, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci and Danny Aiello. Woods considers his role in the film as one of his favorites.[22] The film premiered at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and received a 15-minute standing ovation.[23] Rotten Tomatoes reports an 86% approval rating with 51 reviews, the consensus reading, “Sergio Leone’s epic crime drama is visually stunning, stylistically bold, and emotionally haunting, and filled with great performances from the likes of Robert De Niro and James Woods.”[24]

In Oliver Stone’s drama Salvador (1986), Woods portrayed real-life journalist Richard Boyle as he chronicles events in El Salvador. Despite his criticism that “”Salvador” is long and disjointed and tries to tell too many stories,” Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, “This is the sort of role Woods was born to play”.[25] He won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor. He also received his first Academy Award nomination for his performance.

In 1987, Woods won his first Primetime Emmy Award for his role as a disabled man in the made-for-television film Promise (1986). The film also starred James Garner, and Piper Laurie.[18] In 1989, Woods won his second Primetime Emmy Award, for his role as the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W. in the made for television drama film, My Name is Bill W. starring James Garner, and Gary Sinese.[18]

On October 28, 1989, Woods hosted Saturday Night Live with Don Henley as the musical guest.[26]

In 1998, Woods starred alongside Glenn Close in the family drama Immediate Family. Woods was offered a leading role in Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut, the low-budget film Reservoir Dogs (1992), but his agent rejected the script without showing it to the actor. When Woods learned of this some time later, he fired his agents (CAA), replacing them with ICM.[27][28]

Woods played a minor role of a hustler, Lester Diamond, in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995), alongside Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, and Joe Pesci. When Woods had heard that Scorsese was interested in working with him, he called Scorsese’s office and left the following message: “Any time, any place, any part, any fee.”[29] The film was well received by critics, earning a Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus reading, “Impressive ambition and bravura performances from an outstanding cast help Casino pay off in spite of a familiar narrative that may strike some viewers as a safe bet for director Martin Scorsese.”[30] Also in 1995, he starred as H.R. Haldeman in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, opposite Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon. Woods received a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination along with the rest of the cast for its ensemble work.

In Rob Reiner’s film Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), Woods appeared alongside Alec Baldwin and Whoopi Goldberg. He portrayed Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist who assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963. The film was not a box-office success and received mixed reviews.

Some critics, however, praised Woods’ performance. Janet Maslin, in her New York Times review, states, “Woods’s performance as the hateful old reprobate Beckwith is the film’s chief sign of life”.  The Los Angeles Times published an article titled “James Woods is So Good at Being Bad”. In the articles it describes Woods having aggressively lobbied director Rob Reiner for the role, which Reiner originally intended for an actor in his 70s, like Paul Newman.[20] “Beckwith’s Mississippi accent, which Woods perfected by watching tapes and working with an accent coach, helped him distance himself from the character. ‘I imagined I was speaking a foreign language’.”

Woods earned a Golden Globe nomination as well as his second Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor[18]

Woods would later voice Hades in the Disney Animated film, Hercules (1997), where he received critical praise.[32] Critic Roger Ebert described Woods performance as full of “diabolical glee” and compared his performance of “verbal inventiveness” to that of Robin Williams in Aladdin.[33] Janet Maslin of The New York Times also praised Woods’ performance remarking “Woods shows off the full verve of an edgy Scarfe villain”.[34] He reprised the role of Hades again in the television series of the same name, were he won a Daytime Emmy Award in 2000 for his work in season 2, and in the Kingdom Hearts video game series. Woods appeared in Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut The Virgin Suicides (1999) alongside Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, and Kathleen Turner. The film premiered at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival to a largely positive critical reception.[35]

During the 2000s Woods lent his voice to various films, video games, and television shows including another Disney film, Recess: School’s Out (2001) as Phillium Benedict, the twisted former headmaster who attempts to abolish summer vacation. Woods would also voice Falcon in Stuart Little 2 (2002). In 2007, Woods voiced the role of Reggie Belafonte, a short-tempered sea otter, in the Sony Pictures Animation film, Surf’s Up. The character is based on a Don King-like promoter for the main character’s rival. The film went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature losing to Pixar’s Ratatouille. From 2005 to 2016, Woods has played a recurring role as himself in Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy. He has continued to voice Hades in the Kingdom Hearts video games. Since 2016, he has also voiced the role of Lex Luthor in three animated series, Justice League Action.

From 2006 to 2008, Woods starred in the CBS legal drama series Shark. He played an infamous defense lawyer who, after growing disillusioned when his client commits a murder, becomes a successful prosecutor with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office.

In 2011, Woods appeared in HBO’s Too Big to Fail with Paul Giamatti, William Hurt, Cynthia Nixon, Tony Shalhoub and Bill Pullman. Woods played Richard S. Fuld, Jr., Chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers,[36] for which he won critical praise. The TV Movie earned 11 Primetime Emmy Award nominations including for Woods for Best Outstanding Supporting Actor.[37] Woods also earned a Screen Actors Guild Nomination for his performance.[37]

In 2012, Woods appeared in the limited series Coma alongside Geena Davis, Richard Dreyfuss, and Ellen Burstyn. The series was produced by Ridley Scott, and Tony Scott and premiered on A&E.[38] In 2013, Woods joined Showtime’s critically acclaimed series Ray Donovan in a recurring role as Patrick “Sully” Sullivan also starring Liev Schrieber, and Jon Voight.[39]

He also appeared as a fictional version of himself in the episode of The Simpsons entitled “Homer and Apu” and in eight episodes of Family Guy, which is set in Woods’ home state of Rhode Island. He is also the namesake for James Woods High School in Family Guy. The high school’s name was later changed to Adam West High School to reflect the death of Adam West, who was a character in the show. Woods has lent his voice to video games such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Scarface: The World Is Yours.

Other appearances

Jennifer Connelly, Woods, and Robert De Niro at a screening of Once Upon a Time in America at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012
In 2012, Woods attended an anniversary screening of a restored cut of Once Upon a Time in America (1984) at the 65th Cannes Film Festival. The screening was made possible by Martin Scorsese’s and his Film Foundation which digitally restored the film as well as included 40 additional minutes of footage.[40] Woods, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Connelly, and Elizabeth McGovern attended the premiere and introduced the film.[41]

In 2014, Woods joined Robert De Niro for an anniversary screening of Once Upon a Time in America (1984) at the 52nd New York Film Festival at Film Society at Lincoln Center.

In 2017, Woods made a rare public appearance at the Writers Guild of America Awards to honor his friend Oliver Stone, with whom he had collaborated 3 times (Salvador, Nixon, and Any Given Sunday), who was receiving the lifetime achievement award. During the ceremony, Woods bantered with host Patton Oswalt.


The Visitors (1972)
The Way We Were (1973)
Holocaust (1978)
The Onion Field (1979)
Videodrome (1983)
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Against All Odds (1984)
Cat’s Eye (1985)
Salvador (1986)
Best Seller (1987)
Cop (1988)
True Believer (1989)
Immediate Family (1989)
The Hard Way (1991)
Straight Talk (1992)
Chaplin (1992)
Next Door (1994)
The Specialist (1994)
Casino (1995)
Nixon (1995)
Ghosts of Mississippi (1996)
Hercules (1997)
Contact (1997)
Vampires (1998)
Another Day in Paradise (1998)
True Crime (1999)
Any Given Sunday (1999)
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
The General’s Daughter (1999)
Recess: School’s Out (2001)
Riding in Cars with Boys (2001)
Scary Movie 2 (2001)
John Q (2002)
Stuart Little 2 (2002)
Northfork (2003)
This Girl’s Life (2003)
Be Cool (2005)
End Game (2006)
Surfs Up (2007)
Too Big to Fail (2011)
Coma (2012)
White House Down (2013)
Jobs (2013)
Ray Donovan (2013)

Awards and nominations
Main article: List of awards and nominations received by James Woods
For his work in film, Woods has received two Academy Award nominations for his performances in Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1987), and Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi (1996). Woods has also received many award nominations for his performances in television such as Primetime Emmy Award, and a Golden Globe Award for his performance in the made-for-television film Promise (1986), and won his second Primetime Emmy Award for his performance in My Name is Bill W. (1989). He also received three Screen Actors Guild Award nominations and three Independent Spirit Award nominations winning for Salvador.