One of the most diverse actors of his generation, Don Cheadle has had his fingers in many different pies over the course of his career. Whether it’s drama, comedy, action, or something else, he made his mark as an effective, highly-acclaimed actor. Even before he was in the Marvel franchise, Cheadle was appearing in Oscar-winning films or starring in hit TV series. If you want to learn more about this man’s life, career, and legacy, keep reading.
1. Should That Be in Kansas?
Donald Frank Cheadle Jr. was born on November 29, 1964, in Kansas City, Missouri. He is one of three children born to Donald Sr, a clinical psychologist, and Bettye, a teacher.
2. We All Start Somewhere
Cheadle’s first appearance in a feature film was the 1985 comedy film Moving Violations. The film follows a group of people in a remedial drivers’ education class, even as they are picked on by their instructors. It’s safe to say that Cheadle has moves far beyond his roots.
3. A Hill to Die on
While Moving Violations gave Cheadle the credit needed to get his Screen Actors Guild card, the film which arguably kicked off his career was the Vietnam War film Hamburger Hill. The film features Cheadle in an ensemble cast that included Dylan McDermott and Courtney B. Vance, who also got career breakthroughs from appearing in that film.
4. Recurring Co-Worker
One of Cheadle’s most frequent collaborators (outside of the Marvel franchise) is filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh has thus far directed Cheadle in five different films. These films are Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen, and Traffic.
5. Maybe Next Time
As of this article’s publication, Cheadle has been nominated for a single Academy Award during his life. This nomination was for his dramatic performance in the film Hotel Rwanda. However, he lost the award to Jamie Foxx for his performance in Ray. Interestingly, both men were portraying characters based on real people.
6. Don’t Make Me Laugh
Before his acting career ever kicked off, Cheadle worked as a stand-up comedian, presumably in between waiting for the phone to ring on whether he got that part in whatever project was being made at the time.
7. Easy to Remember
The actor actually shares a birthday with his Marvel co-star Chadwick Boseman from Black Panther.
8. Protect Your Vital Areas
In the film Ocean’s Eleven, there’s a moment where Cheadle’s character sets off an EMP as part of the big heist. Reportedly, the actor improvised the movement where he covered his groin with his hands after setting the EMP off. Looks like his dabbling in comedy worked out great for him!
9. Where’d You Go, Tony?
Marvel has long established that Cheadle’s James Rhodes is the right-hand man of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, and the two of them frequently worked together in the MCU films. In fact, the first time that they appeared in a Marvel film without any screen time alongside each other was Avengers: Infinity War.
10. My Childhood in Nebraska
From 1970 to 1974, Cheadle was enrolled at Hartley Elementary School in Lincoln, Nebraska.
11. Seems Only Fitting
In 1998, the actor co-starred in The Rat Pack, portraying Sammy Davis Jr. alongside Ray Liotta, Angus MacFadyen, and Joe Mantegna, who portrayed Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, and Dean Martin respectively. It’s worth pointing out that the real Rat Pack all appeared in the original heist movie Ocean’s Eleven.
12. Quite an Odd Neck-and-Neck Race, There
One of the roles that Cheadle went after was the part of Huggy Bear in the 2004 film adaptation of the classic TV series Starsky & Hutch. In case you’re not aware, the role ultimately went to Snoop Dogg instead, making us imagine Don and Dogg sitting in the waiting room to audition, giving each other the stink eye while studying their lines.
As some of you might remember, Cheadle wasn’t the original actor to play James Rhodes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Terrence Howard first portrayed the character in the original Iron Man film, but producers later replaced him with Cheadle (more on that later). Coincidentally, Cheadle and Howard had both acted in the film Crash prior to their work in Marvel.
14. Thanks, Terrence
Oddly enough, the role of James Rhodes isn’t the only character that Cheadle took over from Terrence Howard. Howard was initially cast in the lead role for the film Talk to Me. However, the negotiations fell through and Cheadle took the job instead. Something tells us that he could have made a whole career out of following Howard around!
15. In Good Company
Cheadle was one of 19 Oscar-nominated actors who appeared in Avengers: Endgame. Quite an impressive amount, if we don’t say so ourselves!
16. At the Last Moment?
In 2007, Cheadle co-starred in the drama Reign Over Me, where his character reunites with an old friend (played by Adam Sandler) who is behaving unrecognizably due to trauma. Interestingly, Cheadle was the second person cast in this role. Javier Bardem originally took on playing Cheadle’s character in the film, but had to back out due to scheduling issues.
17. Great Foreshadowing
Speaking of Reign Over Me, there’s a moment in the film when Cheadle’s character reads a Captain America comic and observes the fact that he has a Black sidekick named Falcon. Not only did Cheadle play a sidekick in the Iron Man series, he also appeared alongside Captain America and Falcon in numerous films in the MCU.
18. Last-Minute Preps
For his role as Sammy Davis Jr. in The Rat Pack, Cheadle had a lot of preparation to do in order to properly portray the famous musician. He not only learned to tap dance and sing, he also strove to master the trumpet, drums, and twirling six-shooter pistols like Davis Jr. did. Remarkably, Cheadle had just a few weeks to take care of all that.
19. You Seem Familiar
Cheadle appeared in Iron Man 3 alongside Australian thespian Guy Pearce. The two men had previously co-starred in the spy thriller Traitor, which Cheadle had also co-produced.
20. Imagine That Crossover
As well as co-starring alongside George Clooney in the Ocean’s series, Cheadle and Clooney both also appeared in the TV series ER, though not together. Clooney acted in the first five seasons of the show, while Cheadle was a guest star during the ninth season.
21. Bad Blood
You might be wondering why Cheadle replaced Terrence Howard in the Iron Man franchise. Writer-director Jon Favreau reportedly didn’t like Howard’s performance as Rhodes, and tried to reduce the actor’s role and his pay in Iron Man 2 as a result. In response, Howard left the series, and not exactly on good terms with Marvel.
22. Hasty Decision
According to Cheadle himself, he had just a few hours to accept the role of James Rhodes in Iron Man 2. Although Cheadle was a comic book fan, he admitted that he knew so little about the Iron Man franchise that he thought Iron Man was a robot rather than a person in a suit.
23. Trying on a Different Hat
While he is primarily famous as an actor, Cheadle broadened his horizons by directing and writing a feature film of his own. The film was Miles Ahead, which also starred Cheadle as jazz legend Miles Davis. While the film only made a modest profit, it was very positively received upon its release.
24. Call It Practice
Aside from Miles Ahead, Cheadle has also directed episodes of the series House of Lies, which he was starring in at the same time.
25. Sensational Secondary School
Cheadle embraced the arts while he was studying at East High School in Denver, Colorado. Not only did he act, but he also learned how to play musical instruments and he sang in choirs and musical theatre.
26. Missed Opportunity
Fans of Boondocks might be interested to know that its creator, Aaron McGruder, spent a good part of 2009 crafting a new show idea with Cheadle. The comedy was meant to follow two brothers who form a private security company together. Sadly, the series never aired.
27. From Another Mother
Cheadle has portrayed the brother of actor Larenz Tate in two different productions. One is the film Crash, and the other is the TV show House of Lies.
28. That’s My Boy
Speaking of Crash, Beverly Todd plays Cheadle’s onscreen mother. This wasn’t the first time that Cheadle had pretended Todd was his mother, either, as they’d portrayed a similar relationship in the TV series Hill Street Blues.
29. Going Into Space for Real Was My First Choice…
In 2000, Cheadle appeared in the Brian De Palma film Mission to Mars. As you can imagine, the film follows a group of astronauts who make the journey to the fourth planet in our solar system. In preparation for this role, Cheadle began sleeping outdoors. He did this in order to get an idea of what isolation in a vast open space would feel like.
30. Oh Well…
Before he directed Miles Ahead, Cheadle was planning to direct a film adaptation of Tishomingo Blues by Elmore Leonard. Sadly, Cheadle admitted defeat in 2007, and that film adaptation has yet to appear.
31. Good for You!
Cheadle became the UN Environmental Program Goodwill Ambassador in 2010. This was after several years of Cheadle working with the UN to tackle climate change concerns.
32. Stranger Than Fiction
As of July 2019, Cheadle is in a long-term relationship with actress Bridgid Coulter, with whom he co-starred in the film Rosewood. Coincidentally, they portrayed a romantic couple in that film as well. Coulter and Cheadle have two children together.
33. Let’s Go on a Trip
In the film Ocean’s Eleven, Cheadle’s character affects a Cockney accent. Cheadle went to London and spent time there in order to make his accent as convincing as possible.
34. Good Sport, at Least
Despite his efforts, however, Cheadle got a lot of flak for his accent in Ocean’s Eleven. In fact, Cheadle himself admitted that he hadn’t done a good enough job, and actually wanted to change his accent for the next movies, but his agent wouldn’t let him. Instead, his character makes several in-jokes to the accent controversy by reading a few books to master an American accent.
35. Mirror Image
In one scene from Avengers: Endgame, James Rhodes goes to the planet Morag and openly worries about booby traps that might be awaiting him. This is a rather ironic line for Cheadle to say, given that in his other most famous role in the Ocean’s series, his character is the one setting the booby traps.
36. Another Day, Another Dispute
If you ever go back to the film Ocean’s Eleven, you won’t see Cheadle’s name anywhere on the film’s credits. See, Cheadle wanted to get a credit above the film’s title, alongside the lead actors in the series. When producers rejected his request, Cheadle decided that he’d forgo the whole thing. Luckily, he managed to get his credits for the sequels.
37. First Choice, Last Chosen
When Cheadle auditioned for Hotel Rwanda, it wasn’t a smooth process. Director Terry George really wanted Cheadle in the role from the start, but the studios disagreed. They wanted someone with more star power, such as Denzel Washington or Wesley Snipes. George ultimately abandoned the studio system and made the film independently with Cheadle.
38. Minor Alteration
While they were filming the HBO film The Rat Pack, Cheadle took serious issue with portraying Sammy Davis Jr.’s jovial responses to racial jokes made at his expense. He implored the filmmakers to add in a scene where Davis Jr. privately confides that he makes light of racist jokes in the hope that future Black artists won’t have to do the same.
39. Voice of an Angel
Cheadle provided his singing skills to a number of his projects. At the top of the list, there’s his Miles Davis film, but there’s also The Rat Pack, the film Talk to Me, and his episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
40. Wait, I’m Doing What?!
Cheadle got huge seal of approval for his film Miles Ahead. In 2006, Miles Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the musician’s nephew stated at the ceremony that Cheadle was the only actor who could properly portray Davis onscreen. Moreover, he claimed that a movie was already in the works with Cheadle playing Davis. This was news to Cheadle when he found out!
41. Creative Interpretation
Despite the surprise, Cheadle was intrigued enough to get into contact with the Davis family. After they pitched a number of angles, Cheadle suggested the idea of portraying Davis as a gangster of sorts. The family approved, and Cheadle decided to write and direct the project himself. The rest, as they say, is history.
42. Accomplished Philanthropist
During the 2000s, Cheadle worked alongside his friend and co-star George Clooney to campaign for the end of the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. For their efforts, Clooney and Cheadle received the Summit Peace Award in Rome.