Here is the full transcript (Edited version) of Actor Denzel Washington’s Famous “Fall Forward” Speech at University of Pennsylvania. The event occurred on Monday, May 16, 2011.
Listen to the MP3 audio of this speech: Denzel Washington’s Famous Fall Forward Speech Full MP3
President Gutmann: Please join me in welcoming Denzel Washington.
Denzel Washington – Academy Award-winning and Tony Award-winning actor and director.
Thank you. Thank you very much.
I am obviously the most unorganized; everybody else has nice boxes when they’re script up and I just kind of got all my stuff here and put inside of a magazine, so. So in fact, I don’t even have it in the right order, wait a minute. Let me get it in the right order here….
So if it starts like flying around the stage, just run around and grab it for me, bring it back up here for me. I’ll keep going as I can.
President Gutmann; Provost Price; Board Chair Cohen; fellow honorees; beautiful honorees and today’s graduates.
I’m honored and grateful for the invitation today. It’s always been great to be on the Penn campus. I’ve been here before a lot of times for basketball games. My son played at the Palestra, played on the basketball team. Coach didn’t give him enough playing time, but we’ll talk about that later.
No, I’m really pleased with the progress that Coach Allen has made and no, I do. I am, I really am. And I hope him the best success in the future.
I’d always get a warm welcome when I come to Pennsylvania, when I come to Philadelphia — except on the few occasions when I’d wear my Yankees cap.
It’s like taking your life in your hands around it when you wear Yankee cap, I am telling you. I met a couple of guys and they were like: “Hey, 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 jock shirts, my Yankee underwear. Not my Yankee cap.
Still, I’ll be honest with you: I’m a little nervous. I am not used to speaking at a graduation of this magnitude, it’s a little overwhelming. This is out of my comfort zone.
Dress me up in army fatigues. Or throw me on top of a moving train, someone said unstoppable or 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 and it’s a different ballgame. There are literally thousands and thousands of people here.
And for those who say— well 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 think that makes sense.
I mean I’m not there when they cough… or fidget… or pull out their iPhone and text their boyfriend or scratch their behinds.
But from up here: I can see every single one of you. And that makes me uncomfortable.
So please, don’t pull out your iPhones and don’t text your boyfriend until after I’m done. Please.
But if you need to scratch your behinds, go right ahead. I’ll understand.
I was thinking about the speech, which I should say. I figured the best way to keep your attention would be to talk about something 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.
I thought about “private” moment I had backstage with Angelina Jolie in her dressing room at the Oscars?… I said no, I don’t think so. This is an Ivy League school. Angelina Jolie half-naked in her dressing room…? Who wants to hear about that?
No one, no one, this is Penn. That stuff wouldn’t go over well here. Maybe at Drexel—but not over here.
I’m in trouble now.
I was back to square one feeling the pressure. So now you’re probably thinking — if it was going to be this difficult, why’d I even accept today’s invitation in the first place?
Well, you know my son goes here. That’s number one. 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.
Yes, I’ve talked face-to-face with President Obama… but I never talked face to face with a guy named “Kweeder” who sings bad 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. I mean they break into the dorm rooms and they’re walking around campus. I think I saw 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. Nothing.
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.” Make sure you got something to fall back on, honey. But I 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.
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.
Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that? I didn’t either, because 1,001 was the light bulb.
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, I am 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.”
I assumed I didn’t get the job.
But the next part of the audition, he called me back. The next part of the audition is the acting part. I figure, I can’t sing, but I know I can act.
So they paired me with this guy and again I didn’t know about musical theater. In musical theater it’s big, so they can reach everyone all the way in the back. And I am more from a realistic naturalistic kind of acting where you actually talk to the person next to you.
So I got to know what my line was. My line was, “Well, hand me the cup.”
His line was: “Well, I will hand you the cup, my dear. The cup will be there to be handed to you.”
I said OK. “Should I give you the cup back?”
Yes, he said, give it back to me, because you know that is my cup, that it should be given back to me.
I didn’t get the job.
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 failed, and failed.
But it didn’t matter. Because you know what? There is an old saying: You hang around a barbershop long enough — sooner or later you will get a haircut.
So you will catch your break. And I did 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, and I will pick up the pace… 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 great 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. He says, “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. They say “We came to you because you could have brought us to life,” they say. “And now we have to 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 have invested in you. And let me tell you, the world needs your talents. Man, does it ever.
I just got back from Africa like two days ago, so I am rambling with a jetlag. I just got back from South Africa, it’s a 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 needs your help. 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 you got to get out there. You got to give it everything you’ve got—whether it’s your time, your talent, your prayers, or your treasures.
Because remember this: You’ll never see a U-haul behind a hearse. You can’t take it with you. The Egyptians tried it—and all they got was robbed!
So the question: 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 of you have kindness. Some of you have love. Some of you have the gift of long-suffering.
Whatever it is… whatever your gift 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. I took a course called “Cardiac Morphogenesis.” I couldn’t it, I couldn’t say it… and I couldn’t pass it.
Then I decided to go pre-law. Then journalism. And with no academic focus, my grades took off in their own direction: down.
I was a 1.8 GPA one semester, and the university very politely suggested that it might be better to take some time off.
I was 20 years old, I was at my lowest point.
And then one day—and I remember the exact day: March 27th, 1975—I was helping my mother in her beauty shop; my mother owned a beauty shop up in Mount Vernon.
There was this older woman who was considered one of the elders in the town, I didn’t know her personally but I was looking in the mirror. And every time I looked to the mirror I could see her behind me and she was staring at me.
Every time I looked at her she kept giving me these strange looks. She finally took the drier off her head and said something to me I’ll never forget:
First of all, she said, somebody give me a piece of paper. Give me a piece of paper. She said “Young boy, 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 prophesied, 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.
One more page, then I will shut up.
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 risks 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 to ideas.
Over the course of the film, the character I play begins to take small steps, small risks. He very very very slowly begins to overcomes his fears, and I feel 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 a 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 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, remember this: fall forward.
Congratulations, I love you, God bless you, I respect you.
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