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Morris Chestnut Biography

Morris Chestnut’s career trajectory has paralleled the film industry’s belated realization that audiences enjoy films that present a more balanced view of contemporary African-American life: he made his debut in the early 1990s in the seminal urban culture film, "Boyz N the Hood," but later found success as a handsome lead in several romantic comedies. Chestnut has often been described as one of Hollywood’s new breed of black heartthrobs, with his “cool liquid eyes, a killer smile, and a fleet, almost musical way with dialogue,” noted Entertainment Weekly reviewer Owen Gleiberman, each of which “hints at something held back, a hidden force behind his lightness. That force is what makes him a potentially major actor.”

Chestnut was born in Cerritos, California on January 1, 1969. He took acting courses in college along with his business studies at California State University’s Northridge campus. He claimed to have never planned on making a career of acting, and described himself to Ebony as “really the shy type.”

His career path was affirmed when he made his feature film debut in 1991 with "Boyz N the Hood," the first effort from a young writer-director named John Singleton. Chestnut was cast alongside Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as one of two brothers in a coming-of-age tale set in violence-torn South-Central Los Angeles. Gooding’s character lives with his former military man father, but Chestnut’s Ricky and his brother are raised by their single mother, and know no real strong male presence in their lives. Ricky marries young, excels in athletics, and aims for a college scholarship, but meets with a tragic, avoidable demise. National Review film critic John Simon faulted some of the performances, except Chestnut’s, and asserted that the actor “makes Ricky’s almost too-good-to-be-true goodness sweetly believable,” Simon gave "Boyz N the Hood" high marks: “It accomplishes most of its bitter aims with unsensationalistic honesty.”

Chestnut was next cast in a 1992 made-for-television movie, "Street War," part of NBC s “In the Line of Duty” series about actual crime-file cases. The film starred Mario Van Peebles as a housing project police officer in Brooklyn, while Chestnut and Courtney B. Vance played the possible suspects in a slaying. Chestnut also won a plum role for the fall season in 1992 on "Out All Night," a new sitcom that featured Patti LaBelle as a nightclub owner.

Later that year he appeared in a movie made for the Disney Cable channel, The Ernest Green Show, in the title role. The work was a dramatization of the events resulting from the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court order that declared all-black public schools unconstitutional. The real Ernest Green was one of nine students transferred, in 1957, to all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The transferred students were met with jeering crowds who attempted to bar them from entry. Even the Arkansas governor opposed their transfer, and sent National Guard troops to keep them out; President Dwight D. Eisenhower countered with federal troops. “Chestnut turns in a sturdy performance as the tenacious Green, who as the senior took on a leadership role, encouraging persistence and the ‘creative non-violence’ advocated by Martin Luther King Jr.,” remarked Multichannel News writer Rod Granger.

In the mid-1990s Chestnut appeared in the feature films Under Siege 2 and G.I. Jane, but returned to the small screen after an offer from ABC to star in a new hour-long drama, C-16 that debuted in the fall of 1997. The title referred to a special Federal Bureau of Investigation unit that deals with kidnaping cases, hostage crises, and other such matters. Chestnut was cast as an earnest young rookie, Mal Robinson, whose off-duty life is troubled by his drug-addict brother.

Chestnut’s breakthrough role came in a 1999 romantic comedy, The Best Man, which starred Taye Diggs in the title role. Chestnut played the groom, a man who might soon discover that his best man once slept with his bride-to-be. The film was directed by Malcolm D. Lee, cousin of Spike, and earned rave reviews for its ensemble cast that included Nia Long and Sanaa Lathan. The wedding serves as an impromptu reunion for the group of college friends: Diggs plays a first-time novelist whose book and its scarcely concealed revelations threaten to undermine several friendships. Chestnut, wrote Newsweek critic David Ansen, plays “a pro running back as devoutly Christian as he is piggishly male chauvinist,” and Variety reviewer Emanuel Levy stated that the actor delivers “a strong and touching rendition of a jealously aggressive yet Bible-reading guy coerced to examine his double-standard ethics.” Levy called the film “well-mounted and engaging” and “an honorable addition to the reunion genre.”

Chestnut was next cast in another ensemble film, "The Brothers" (2001). Starring alongside Shemar Moore, D.L. Hughley, and Bill Bellamy, Chestnut plays a philandering physician. “Chestnut’s character is desperate for intimacy but deathly afraid of commitment, while Moore’s character is a reformed bachelor who’s about to tie the knot,” wrote Ebony’s Aldore Collier about the plot. Chestnut, a married man, admitted that he drew upon his own personal experience for the role. “There was one time in my life when I was commitment phobic, and I had to go back to that time and imagine what it was like,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In his review of the film, Entertainment Weekly’s Gleiberman proclaimed himself “struck, much as I was when I saw the exuberant matrimonial comedy "The Best Man," by the way that the heroes voice their amorous doubts and drives with a bemused, honestly libidinous, nonexploitative joy and self-perception, something that happens all too rarely in movies these days.”

Chestnut was next slated to appear in a film about the infamous early 1970s Attica prison uprising in New York, "The Killing Yard," as well as a feature-film thriller alongside Jeff Bridges and Noah Wylie titled "Scene of the Crime." He talked about the positive changes in Hollywood that have taken place just during the decade of his career alone in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, agreeing that the film industry now offered black actors a far wider range of roles. From playing the good guy in a gangster film to one of the more unsympathetic characters in a film about four African-American professionals, Chestnut said he himself has evolved as an actor as well. “When I did ‘Boyz,’ I didn’t really know the whole dynamic of this industry and what it was about, and the little intricate things that the public doesn’t know goes on in this industry,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and described himself as a more self-assured player. “I know the industry, and I know how it works. I’m a veteran now, and I’m treated as such.”

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