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Penn Commencement 2011

May 24, 2011, Volume 57, No. 34

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Penn Commencement Address given Monday, May 16, 2011 by Denzel Washington, Academy Award-winning and Tony Award-winning actor and director.

Fall Forward

President Gutmann; Provost Price; Board Chair Cohen; fellow honorees; and today’s graduates:

I’m honored and grateful for the invitation today. 

It’s always great to be on the Penn campus. I’ve been to a lot of basketball games at the Palestra because my son played on the team. Coach didn’t give him enough playing time, but we’ll talk about that later. No, I’m very pleased with the progress Coach Allen has made and I wish them success in the future.

I’d always get a warm welcome here—except on the few occasions when I’d wear my Yankees cap. 

It’s like taking your life in your hands. People would say: “We love you Denzel. But you walking around with that hat on…we don’t care who you are.”

So you’ll be happy to see that I’m not wearing my Yankees cap today. 

But I am wearing my Yankees socks, my Yankees t-shirt, and my Yankees underwear.

Still, I’ll be honest with you: I’m a little nervous. Speaking at a graduation of this magnitude is a little overwhelming. 

This is out of my comfort zone.

Dress me up in army fatigues. Throw me on top of a moving train.  Ask me to play Malcolm X, Rubin Hurricane Carter, Alonzo from Training Day: I can do all that. 

But a commencement speech? It’s a very serious affair. Different ballgame. There’s literally thousands and thousands of people here.

And for those who say—you’re a movie star, millions of people watch you speak all the time…

… Yes, that’s technically true.  But I’m not actually there in the theater—watching them watching me.

I’m not there when they cough… or fidget… or pull out their iPhone and text their boyfriend… or scratch their behinds.

From up here: I can see every single one of you. And that makes me uncomfortable. 

So please, don’t pull out your iPhone and text your boyfriend until after I’m done.  

But if you need to scratch your behinds, go right ahead. I’ll understand.

Thinking about the speech, I figured the best way to keep your attention would be to talk about some really, juicy Hollywood stuff.

I thought I could start with me and Russell Crowe getting into some arguments on the set of American Gangster

… but no. You’re a group of high-minded intellectuals. You’re not interested in that.

Or how about that “private” moment I had with Angelina Jolie half naked in her dressing room backstage at the Oscars?… Who wants to hear about that?

I don’t think so. This is an Ivy League school. Angelina Jolie in her dressing room…?

No, this is Penn. That stuff wouldn’t go over well here. Maybe at Drexel—but not here. I’m in trouble now.

I was back to square one—and feeling the pressure. 

So now you’re probably thinking—if it was gonna be this difficult, why’d I even accept today’s invitation in the first place?

Well, you know my son goes here. That’s a good reason. And I always like to check to see how my money’s being spent.

And I’m sure there’s some parents out there who can relate to what I’m talking about!

And there were other good reasons for me to show up.

Sure, I got an Academy Award… but I never had something called “Magic Meatballs” after waiting in line for half an hour at a food truck.

True, I’ve talked face-to-face with President Obama… but I never met a guy named “Kweeder” who sings bad cover songs at Smokes on a Tuesday night.

Yes, I’ve played a detective battling demons… but I’ve never been to a school in my life where the squirrel population has gone bananas, breaking into the dorm rooms and taking over campus. I think I’ve even seen some carrying books on the way to class!

So I had to be here. I had to come… even though I was afraid I might make a fool of myself.

In fact… if you really want to know the truth: 

I had to come… exactly because I might make a fool of myself.

What am I talking about?

Well, here it is:

I’ve found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks.


Nelson Mandela said:

“There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that’s less than the one you’re capable of living.”

I’m sure in your experiences—in school… in applying to college… in picking your major… in deciding what you want to do with life—people have told you to make sure you have something to “fall back on.”

But I’ve never understood that concept, having something to fall back on.

If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything, except my faith. I want to fall… forward

At least I figure that way I’ll see what I’m about to hit.

Fall forward.

Here’s what I mean: 

Reggie Jackson struck out twenty-six-hundred times in his career—the most in the history of baseball. 

But you don’t hear about the strikeouts. People remember the home runs.

Fall forward.

Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that?  

I didn’t either—because #1,001 was the light bulb.

Fall forward.

Every failed experiment is one step closer to success. 

You’ve got to take risks. And I’m sure you’ve probably heard that before.

But I want to talk about why it’s so important.

I’ve got three reasons—and then you can pick up your iPhones.

First… you will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose.  You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There is no doubt about it.

That’s probably not a traditional message for a graduation ceremony.  But, hey, I’m telling you—embrace it.

Because it’s inevitable.

And I should know: In the acting business, you fail all the time.

Early in my career, I auditioned for a part in a Broadway musical. A perfect role for me, I thought—except for the fact that I can’t sing.

So I’m in the wings, about to go on stage but the guy in front of me is singing like Pavarotti and I am just shrinking getting smaller and smaller...

So I come out with my little sheet music and it was “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations, that’s what I came up with.

So I hand it to the accompanist, and she looks at it and looks at me and looks at the director, so I start to sing and they’re not saying anything. I think I must be getting better, so I start getting into it.

But after the first verse, the director cuts me off: “Thank you. Thank you very much, you’ll be hearing from me.”

The next part of the audition is the acting part. I figure, I can’t sing, but I know I can act.

But the guy I was paired with to do the scene couldn’t be more overdramatic and over-the top.

Suffice to say, I didn’t get the part.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t quit. I didn’t fall back.

I walked out of there to prepare for the next audition, and the next audition, and the next one. I prayed and I prayed, but I continued to fail, and I failed, and I failed.

But it didn’t matter. Because you know what? You hang around a barbershop long enough—sooner or later you will get a haircut.

You will catch a break.

Last year I did a play called Fences on Broadway and I won a Tony Award. And I didn’t have to sing for it, by the way. 

And here’s the kicker—it was at the Court Theater, the same theater where I failed that first audition 30 years prior.

The point is, every graduate here today has the training and the talent to succeed.

But do you have guts to fail?

Here’s my second point about failure: 

If you don’t fail… you’re not even trying.

My wife told me this expression: “To get something you never had, you have to do something you never did.”

Les Brown, a motivational speaker, made an analogy about this.

Imagine you’re on your deathbed—and standing around your bed are the ghosts representing your unfilled potential.

The ghosts of the ideas you never acted on. The ghosts of the talents you didn’t use.

And they’re standing around your bed. Angry. Disappointed. Upset. 

“We came to you because you could have brought us to life,” they say.  “And now we go to the grave together.”

So I ask you today: How many ghosts are going to be around your bed when your time comes?

You invested a lot in your education. And people invested in you.

And let me tell you, the world needs your talents. 

Man, does it ever.

I just got back from four months of filming in South Africa—beautiful country, but there are places with terrible poverty that need help.
And Africa is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Middle East needs your help. Japan needs your help. Alabama and Tennessee need your help. Louisiana needs your help. Philadelphia needs your help.

The world needs a lot—and we need it from you, the young people.  

So get out there. Give it everything you’ve got—whether it’s your time, your talent, your prayers, or your treasure.

Because remember this: You’ll never see a U-haul behind a hearse. 

You can’t take it with you. The Ancient Egyptians tried it—and all they got was robbed!

So what are you going to do with what you have? And I’m not talking how much you have.

Some of you are business majors. Some of you are theologians, nurses, sociologists. Some of you have money. Some of you have patience. Some have kindness.  Some have love. Some of you have the gift of long-suffering.

Whatever it is… what are you going to do with what you have?

Now here’s my last point about failure:

Sometimes it’s the best way to figure out where you’re going.

Your life will never be a straight path.

I began at Fordham University as a pre-med student. That lasted until I took a course called “Cardiac Morphogenesis.” 

I couldn’t pronounce it… and I couldn’t pass it.

Then I decided to go pre-law. Then journalism.

With no academic focus, my grades took off in their own direction: down.

My GPA was 1.8 one semester, and the university very politely suggested it might be better to take some time off. 

I was 20 years old, at my lowest point.

And then one day—and I remember the exact day: March 27th, 1975—I was helping out in the beauty shop my mother owned in Mount Vernon. 
An older woman who belonged to my mother’s church, one of the elders of the town, was in there getting her hair done and kept giving me these strange looks.

She finally took the drier off her head and said something to me I’ll never forget:

“Young boy,” she said. “I have a spiritual prophecy: you are going to travel the world and speak to millions of people.”

Like a wise-ass, I’m thinking to myself: “Does she got anything in that crystal ball about me getting back to college in the fall?”

But maybe she was on to something. Because later that summer, while working as a counselor at a YMCA camp in Connecticut, we put on a talent show for the campers. 

After the show, another counselor came up to me and asked: “Have you ever thought of acting? You should. You’re good at that.”

When I got back to Fordham that fall I changed my major once again —for the last time.

And in the years that followed—just as that woman getting her hair done predicted—I have traveled the world and I have spoken to millions of people through my movies. 

Millions who—up ‘till today—I couldn’t see while I was talking to them.

But I do see you today. And I’m encouraged by what I see. I’m strengthened by what I see. I love what I see.

Let me conclude with one final point. Many years ago I did this movie called Philadelphia. We actually filmed some scenes right here on campus.

Philadelphia came out in 1993, when most of you were probably still crawling around in diapers. Some of the professors, too.

But it’s a good movie. Rent it on Netflix. I get 23 cents every time you do. Tell your friends, too!

It’s about a man, played by Tom Hanks, who’s fired from his law firm because he has AIDS. 

He wants to sue the firm, but no one’s willing to represent him until a homophobic, ambulance-chasing lawyer—played by yours truly—takes on the case.

In a way, if you watch the movie, you’ll see everything I’m talking about today.

You’ll see what I mean about taking risks or being willing to fail.

Because taking a risk is not just about going for a job. 

It’s also about knowing what you know and what you don’t know. It’s about being open to people and ideas.

Over the course of the film, the character I play begins to take risks. He slowly overcomes his fears, and ultimately his heart becomes flooded with love.

And I can’t think of a better message as we send you off today.

To not only take risks, but to be open to life. 

To accept new views and to be open to new opinions.

To be willing to speak at commencement at one of the country’s best universities… even though you’re scared stiff.

While it may be frightening, it will also be rewarding.

Because the chances you take… the people you meet… the people you love...the faith that you have—that’s what’s going to define your life.

So… members of the class of 2011: This is your mission:

When you leave the friendly confines of West Philly: Never be discouraged. Never hold back. Give everything you’ve got.

And when you fall throughout life—and maybe even tonight after a few too many glasses of champagne—fall forward

Congratulations, I love you, God bless you, I respect you.


Over the years, some movies have been set in Philadelphia, while others actually shot some scenes on Penn’s campus,including the following Hollywood productions, documentaries, short films and television series.

Feature Films Shot On Campus

Rocky II (1979) starring Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire and Burt Young, directed by Sylvester Stallone (Pennsylvania Hospital).

Philadelphia (1993) starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, directed by Jonathan Demme.

Kimberly (1999) starring Veronica Alicino and Gabrielle Anwar, directed by Frederic Golchan.

Unbreakable (2000) starring Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson and Robin Wright, directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

Invincible (2006) starring Mark Wahlberg and Greg Kinnear, directed by Ericson Core.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) starring Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox, directed by Michael Bay. 

Documentaries Filmed On Campus

Ambulance Corps Drill, silent film (1899)

Hail Columbia (1935)

N Is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdos (1993)

The Palestra: Cathedral of Basketball (2007)


Short Films:

Back to the Machine (2002), The Gossip Show (2002)

TV Series:

CEO Exchange (2000)


Almanac - May 24, 2011, Volume 57, No. 34