Samuel L. Jackson: A long, vigorous career still in full stride

At age 70, when most actors find it hard to get work, Samuel L. Jackson is much in demand. Jackson creates memorable characters: strong, raw, credible, and sometimes scary

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If you feel like you are seeing a lot of Samuel L. Jackson lately, it's not your imagination. He seems to be everywhere. He's starring in six movies this year, including "Shaft," which opens this week and later this summer, in "Spiderman: Far From Home." Then there are the credit card commercials, and the movie trailers, not to mention a hundred or so of his films circulating on cable tv.  He's been around for a long time, and as you might suspect he is quite a character. As we said when we first aired this story in March, he's someone we thought would be fun to hang out with.

If you know him only from his films, there are things in this story that will probably surprise you. He spent 15 years on the stage in New York and didn't become a movie star until his mid 40s. He's been with the same woman, also a distinguished actor, for nearly 50 years. And the movies he's been in have grossed more money than any other actors' films in the history of Hollywood. And nobody likes to watch them more than he does.

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Correspondent Steve Kroft with Samuel L. Jackson


 Steve Kroft: Do you watch your movies?

Samuel L. Jackson: Yes, I do.

Steve Kroft: You like seeing yourself on screen.

Samuel L. Jackson: I do. I used to, you know, when I was doin' theater in New York, I always wanted to see the play I was in with me in it. 

Steve Kroft: Hard to do.

Samuel L. Jackson: Yeah, it is, very difficult. So this was perfect for me. I-- I get to watch my performances. I always think that, "Oh, I can't stand to watch myself," is like some bulls**t. And so it's like, "Really? It's a watch me business. And if you can't watch it, why should people pay $13.50 to watch you do it?"

Who wouldn't want to hang out with Samuel L. Jackson?

At age 70, when most A-list actors find it hard to get work, Samuel L. Jackson is very much in demand. His two movies this year, "Glass" and "Captain Marvel" have grossed more than a billion dollars. His career has allowed him to be all sorts of different people, a bounty hunter, a computer engineer at "Jurassic Park," a junkie, a Jedi master and a Bible-quoting hitman in "Pulp Fiction." All the while stealing scenes and sometimes entire movies while garnering critical acclaim.

Samuel L. Jackson: Eh, well, I got nominated for an Academy Award. But like I tell people, you know, winning or losing an Academy Award doesn't do a lot toward movin' the comma on your check.

Steve Kroft:  What moves the comma on your check?

Samuel L. Jackson: Butts in seats. Selling tickets.

Steve Kroft: Right.

Samuel L. Jackson: If you're in a movie and nobody goes to see it, it's like, "Yeah, Academy Award winner." Nah, I don't want to see that. You know, you go-- you go to movies because people do exciting movies, or you like the characters that they do.

First and foremost Sam Jackson is a performer, an entertainer in real life and on the screen. He creates memorable characters, strong, opiniated, sometimes scary people often with a wicked sense of humor. It's more than a persona or a brand. It's almost a whole genre. Raw, honest, and credible.

Samuel L. Jackson: I like to play characters that express themselves verbally, so I'm always looking to tell people who I am, and not specifically just show them.

Steve Kroft: And that's just a natural quality? Is that Sam Jackson? 

Samuel L. Jackson: I think it is. I don't necessarily care about whether I'm liked or not. And I think I've found interesting ways of making bad guys, guys that people like.

Steve Kroft: How do you do that?

Samuel L. Jackson: You try and keep people as human as you possibly can keep them, until they have to do the thing that they have to do.

Steve Kroft: And that's your genre?

Samuel L. Jackson: I hope so.

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He grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, not far from the Walnut Street Bridge. His grandmother told him stories about black people being lynched there.

It was the totally segregated Jim Crow south. Everywhere he went and everyone he knew was black. His neighborhood, his schools, his teachers. And the experience still colors his life.

Samuel L. Jackson: So, I grew up in this world, which is the street world-- all these kids whose parents were domestics or worked in a-- what was known as the "chicken house," where they killed chickens and packaged chickens and stuff like that. There were a mixture of kids who were in and out of-- reform school. We came from a place that was kinda well versed in learning to live life as it came at you.

He was raised by his grandparents, a janitor and a housemaid who had a strong work ethic. His mother, who held down a secure well paying government job in Washington D.C., was a constant presence in his life, spending summers, holidays and some weekends with him, helping him navigate the world as a young black man.

Samuel L. Jackson: I understood. My mom said, "We're not getting you out of jail. If you get arrested, don't call me. I had a greater fear of the people that I lived with who provided for me than I did of being your friend, and hanging out with you, and doing something stupid that's gonna get me in trouble.

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Sam Jackson was an excellent student and in 1966 went off to study biology at Morehouse College, the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr, a historically black college in Atlanta, which was one of the headquarters of the civil rights movement.

Like many young people in the 1960s he discovered his rebellious side on campus. He became heavily involved in the civil rights movement and protested against the Vietnam War.

Steve Kroft: Did you consider yourself to be a radical when you were here?

Samuel L. Jackson: No.

Steve Kroft: I mean, you got thrown out for occupying the president's office, didn't you?

Samuel L. Jackson: Yeah. But--

Steve Kroft: That's pretty involved.

Samuel L. Jackson: That was just one day in a life, you know?

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Jackson returned to Morehouse two years later having decided that biology required too much math and dramatic arts was much more fun.

Steve Kroft: This is where you did your first work?

Samuel L. Jackson: Yes. This is where it all started. It was one of the first times during my college experience I was anxious to get up and be somewhere.

Steve Kroft: Still the same?

Samuel L. Jackson: Oh, totally. Yeah. I mean going to a rehearsal, or going to work, or being on a movie set is my favorite thing to do.
But probably the most significant thing to happen to Sam Jackson in Atlanta was meeting LaTanya Richardson, a talented fellow student actor at Spelman College. She found him flamboyant, self involved and emotionally detached. But she may have been the first to appreciate his potential. They have been together for 48 years and LaTanya Richardson Jackson is currently starring on Broadway in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Steve Kroft: What's it like being married to Sam Jackson?

LaTanya Richardson Jackson: Oh God, oh God. It's a ride. It's been a ride. It's fun. It's sad. It's happy. It's creative. It's a conversation.

Steve Kroft: I hope so 48 years is a long time.

LaTanya Richardson Jackson: Yeah, it is. Mixed with a lot of amnesia.

They would spend 15 years in New York as struggling stage actors, raising a daughter, Zoe, and keeping company with a small community of other struggling black actors that included Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fisburne, and Wesley Snipes.

Samuel L. Jackson: We would go and watch each other work. We partied together. When you weren't working, everybody at the same unemployment office pretty much, so you see each other on Mondays at unemployment.

By 1990, Jackson was an established New York actor, having played memorable characters in three Spike Lee movies including "Do the Right Thing."

But personally his life was a mess.

Steve Kroft: You had a-- some drug and alcohol issues.

Samuel L. Jackson: They weren't issues till the end.

Steve Kroft: What do you mean the end?

Samuel L. Jackson: You know, I wasn't managing it as well as I used to. That's when they were issues. Before that, it was just life. You know, I drank, I smoked. I got high. You know, it wasn't in the way of my life in that way, or I didn't think it was.

He was going to work, taking his daughter to school, and making enough money to develop a taste for cocaine. And he went all in.

Steve Kroft: Did it reach addiction stage?

Samuel L. Jackson: Yeah. Well, you know, it's hard to smoke cocaine and not get addicted. Yeah.  Smoking cocaine will bring you to your knees pretty quick. 

It ended one night on the kitchen floor.

Samuel L. Jackson: I bought the cocaine. I went home. I cooked it. And when I woke up, LaTanya was standing over me. And I was passed out on the floor.I never got to smoke it. And the next day I was in rehab.

Steve Kroft: Did you go to rehab because you wanted to, or needed to, or because LaTanya told you you had to?

Samuel L. Jackson: You know. I didn't go kicking and screaming. I was tired. You know?

Steve Kroft: Could you have done it without her?

Samuel L. Jackson: I credit her because she could have just taken Zoe and walked out and been done with me. But she didn't. That's a greater love than I will ever know. Because I don't know that I would've done that.

Steve Kroft: Do you think LaTanya saved your life?

Samuel L. Jackson: Yeah. Yeah. No doubt.

Steve Kroft: You don't seem emotionally detached now.

Samuel L. Jackson: Am I crying?

Steve Kroft: No.

Samuel L. Jackson: Oh, okay. Good. 

Steve Kroft: He said you saved his life.

LaTanya Richardson Jackson: No, I didn't. He saved his life. He and God saved his life. I have no h-- saving, healing power. I was just there. 

In any event it changed Jackson's life and his career. While he was in rehab, he got a call from Spike Lee, offering him the role of drug addict Gator Purify in "Jungle Fever."

Samuel L. Jackson: So I'm at rehab. And-- you know, the call comes. Told me, "'Jungle Fever--' you're playing a crackhead." I was like, okay, good, doing the research. I'm right here. So I'm ready to do it. And that was it. And that's what opened the door. That's what got me into Hollywood.

The role won Jackson a special award at the Cannes Film Festival for best supporting actor.

Samuel L. Jackson: And Gator became this cathartic kind of thing for me. It was basically killing off who I was, who I had been that allowed me to free myself to go and do these other things.

Those other things take up ten pages on the movie site IMDB. A half a dozen films with Quentin Tarantino, "The Avengers," three "Star Wars" films, and scores of lesser features in which he was better than the material. And besides scary eyes he has a facility for language, especially profanity. Obscenities roll off his tongue like Shakespeare from Olivier. Even if you bleep the words.

Steve Kroft: What's your favorite line?

Samuel L. Jackson: I like the, "Say what again?" line or, "Do they speak English in 'what'?"

Steve Kroft: Do you think it's the line or the way you say it?

Samuel L. Jackson: I think-- there's a wrong way to say everything, and I think I found ways to say things right that make people remember them or resonate in the correct way.

Directors praise his preparation, professionalism and work ethic and almost always give him wide berth with his performance. But he's not always entirely flexible.

Steve Kroft: So if a director wants you to do something you don't think would be good for you or good for the film, you won't do it.

Samuel L. Jackson: No, pretty much. 

Steve Kroft: They understand that when they hire you?

Samuel L. Jackson: Some people think that they could overcome it. That, you know, we come to a compromise, you know, and they go, "Look, I get what you're doin', and I understand it, but can we try this other thing one-- one time?" "No, we can't, 'cause if I do it one time and it's on film, and you go to the editing room, that's the thing you like, that's the first thing you're gonna look at, not the logical thing that I did. So let's just not do what you want to do." So you don't have that option.

His mantra has always been, "What does the audience want to see?" And then he tries to give it to them.

Samuel L. Jackson: That's what I was taught when I was doing theater, that, when you come on stage, you want to light it up to the point that, when you leave, people want to go with you. And I hope that's who I am when I show up.

Produced by Michael Karzis. Associate producer, Katie Brennan

  • Steve Kroft
    Steve Kroft

    Few journalists have achieved the impact and recognition that Steve Kroft's 60 Minutes work has generated for over two decades. Kroft delivered his first report for 60 Minutes in 1989.