WASHINGTON — Long before he became a co-star on the hit TV show “Grey’s Anatomy,” Isaiah Washington distinguished himself as an actor with an intellectual bent. In an essay published in Essence magazine a little more than a decade ago, he lamented the shortage of good roles for black male performers. After complaining about being offered five “drag-queen” roles in less than a year, Washington expressed his determination to “infuse the characters I play with some level of complexity and humanity.”

In eloquent, thoughtful prose, Washington assured readers that he had no problem with gay characters or characters in drag. He recalled his first amateur acting job, the role of Sweetie Pie, “a flaming drag queen and gospel singer.” Later, as a member of a touring repertory company, he played a cross-dressing character with AIDS. “That role gave me a firsthand look at gay-bashing,” he wrote. “I was the target of angry expletives, jeers and nervous laughter and was even spat upon by a junior-high-school student who took my performance just a little too seriously.”

He went on to praise the gay transvestites shown in the documentary “Paris Is Burning” while condemning Hollywood’s “narrow depictions of African-American male characters.”

That essay and other comments strongly suggested that Washington was a man of sensitivity and conscience, not just another hunk with cheekbones and charm. He confirmed this early impression with memorable appearances in films such as HBO’s “Always Outnumbered” and Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus.” In that film, Washington played one half of a gay couple.

All of which makes his recent meltdown as puzzling as it was repulsive. In a brief, tumultuous span, Washington notoriously invoked the word faggot — twice — with regard to a gay castmate. His cruel slur-slinging makes one wonder if his previous musings on “complexity” and “humanity” were merely pleasantries spun from a publicist’s clever imagination.

Television and movie stars are seldom confused with brain surgeons, and hardly a news cycle passes without some dimpled dimwit choking on his or her own foot. Still, Washington, who won an NAACP Image Award just last year, has never seemed a likely candidate for such an appalling celebrity stumble. Unlike, say, Mel Gibson, whose father had been linked to anti-Semitic sentiment, or former Sen. George Allen, who had been known to keep a noose in his office, Washington had never toiled under a cloud of suspicion. If anything, he was known as a performer who could be counted on to say the right thing.

Describing himself as “always sensitive to my own community,” he told the theater magazine Backstage, “I finally decided, ‘I’m no longer going to play thugs or debauched cops that I can’t possibly make complex characters. I’m bigger than that.”

Now it seems that Washington has become a complex character himself; he doesn’t just play one on TV. While rumors of his imminent dismissal swirled through cyberspace, Washington ran the gauntlet of repentance now required of errant celebrities: He fired his publicist, issued an abject apology and rushed to meet with representatives of the aggrieved party.

Officials from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network met with the actor on Jan. 22. As might be expected, they’ve adopted a polite, time-will-tell stance. GLSEN Executive Director Kevin Jennings said Washington “seemed to particularly appreciate the impact these words have on young people in schools and expressed an interest in becoming an ally in GLSEN’s effort to educate young people about the negative impact of name-calling and bullying.” Young people like that junior high student who spat on Washington some years before.

Such a mission would certainly have appealed to that forthright essayist in Essence magazine, who impressively asserted, “I’ve always viewed acting as a way to explore important issues of the day, such as gender differences and sexuality.” That’s the kind of performing we’d all like to see from Washington, instead of merely acting out.

Jabari Asim’s e-mail address is asimj(at symbol)washpost.com.


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