Long marriages aren’t that easy to come by in Hollywood. Relatively short ones tend to be the norm, with the record for the briefest belonging to Britney Spears, whose relationship with former hubby Jason Alexander ended just 55 hours after they’d tied the knot. That said, one superstar has managed to buck the trend. Movie legend Samuel L. Jackson has, believe it or not, been married for nearly 40 years. But it hasn’t always been plain sailing; as we’ll see, it seems even the most successful couples share some shocking secrets.
Samuel L. Jackson is one of Hollywood’s most prolific actors and has appeared in well over 100 movies, including hits such as Pulp Fiction (which features on our list of “The 50 Best Movies On Netflix Right Now”). The 69-year-old star even holds the title of highest-grossing actor of all time, banking more bucks than acting heavyweights such as Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks, who come in at second and third, respectively. And his achievements don’t stop off-screen.
Jackson has been married to actress and producer LaTanya Richardson Jackson for 38 years, an astonishing accomplishment by today’s celebrity standards. The couple met at college and have been an item ever since. They have a daughter, Zoe, who followed her parents’ footsteps into the film industry and is now a TV producer. You might say, then, that Samuel L. Jackson has it all. But it hasn’t always been so easy.
The Django Unchained star was born in Washington in 1948, before being taken to Tennessee to live with his grandparents when he was less than a year old. Growing up, he didn’t know his father – he met him just twice in his life – and rarely spent time with his mother. He lived in a deprived neighborhood in a house with no running water. So how did this child make it all the way on to the big screen?
It was actually his Aunt Edna, a theater teacher, who introduced the future star to acting. Ever since Jackson was a young boy, Edna pushed him onto the stage whenever she had a part that needed filling. “She was the reason I became an actor,” he told The New York Times in 2012. It was also his aunt who helped him overcome a condition he battled throughout childhood.
Perhaps surprisingly, bearing in mind his occupation, Jackson suffered from a severe speech disorder as a child. His aunt took him to a speech therapist, whose methods had some effect, but there are still days now when Jackson’s stutter manifests itself. At a gala for the American Institute for Stuttering, Jackson spoke openly about his impediment.
“Growing up a stuttering, black kid in Tennessee in the ’50s didn’t quite make me think I was going to end up in a place like this,” the Snakes on a Plane star recalled. Indeed, it’s amazing to think that a child with such difficulty speaking would end up delivering some of Hollywood’s most iconic lines.
Though he’d enjoyed his aunt’s productions as a boy, it wasn’t until years later that acting became a real passion for Jackson. In the ’60s, he attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where he began working towards a degree in marine biology. But then, after joining a theater club for extra credit, he was so inspired that he ended up changing his major to drama. Incidentally, this was also how he would meet his wife.
At the time, LaTanya Richardson was also studying theater in Atlanta, but at Spelman College, the sister school of the college attended by Jackson. “Sam was not part of my circle,” she told a reporter from The New York Times. “I was a theater snob; he loved movies.”
Yet despite their differing tastes, the pair hit it off in a drama program and began dating. Jackson graduated in 1972, and in 1976 the pair went in search of the bright lights of New York, where they would each pursue acting careers. They married four years later, before having their daughter, Zoe.
“We actually thought we were going to be the black Liz Taylor and Richard Burton,” Jackson said in an interview with People magazine, “but we were going to stay together!” And though they did, in fact, stay together, it’s safe to say they’ve had to battle their share of demons along the way.
After moving to New York, Jackson spent the next 15 years working in theaters, waiting for the phone to ring with an offer from Hollywood. As well as performing, the young actor did anything he could to make ends meet. “I acted, made the costumes, worked the lights, built the sets, everything I could do in a theater,” he told The New York Times. But still the phone didn’t ring, and, what’s more, his marriage was about be tested.
During those uncertain years, Jackson leaned on friends and fellow actors including Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, who were also awaiting their big break. They worked together, they auditioned for parts together, they commiserated one another and they celebrated together. But soon Jackson found himself left behind as, one by one, the others got their calls and moved west to make it big. The pressure began to mount, and soon Jackson’s life was spiraling out of control.
While the Pulp Fiction star worked hard to support his wife and daughter, he began to rely on drink and drugs. Jackson described himself during that time as “a great alcoholic and drug addict like actors of old.” He was functioning at work, but the problem was getting worse, and he soon became dependent on cocaine and crack. But one moment at rock bottom would soon shake the star – and his marriage – like no other.
Jackson told the devastating story while thanking his family in his acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement Award at the BET Awards. He described a particular occasion when his wife and daughter, who was just eight at the time, had found him unconscious on the kitchen floor after a drug-fueled bender. And it was his wife who subsequently urged him to get help.
“I threatened to leave him if he didn’t see the rehab through,” Richardson revealed. “I knew I couldn’t leave this boy I admired so much. But I resented him too.” Richardson also forced Jackson to realize that his career, too, would benefit from sobriety; she said his acting while he was on drugs was “bloodless.”
Richardson took her husband to rehab, where he received help – “I did the 12 steps, yada, yada, yada” – and it was, in fact, right before he left rehab that he got the news he’d been waiting for: Hollywood had called. Spike Lee wanted to cast him in his upcoming movie Jungle Fever. And the role on offer, ironically, was as a drug addict. “Why not?” Jackson replied. “I already researched the part.”
Even in the most difficult of times, then, this famous couple stuck it out and are now celebrating 38 years of marriage, which is some achievement in their industry. “We’d vowed to be an intact revolutionary black family. But it was very, very hard,” Richardson admitted to The New York Times.
Speaking to Essence, Richardson also said, “When I think about what love is I think about when he’s away and when I think about him my whole body smiles.” But her secret to long-lasting love? “Amnesia.” And what about Samuel L. Jackson, one of the most successful movie stars of our time and with all those years of marriage under his belt, what are his tips for a successful partnership?
“I just kinda go with the flow,” he says. “Everybody buys things for people. Sometimes it’s not that, sometimes it’s just going and sitting down next to somebody and holding their hand and leaning your head on their shoulder, you know, for no reason at all.” Well, if he’s been married for 38 years, he must be doing something right!