LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Forest Whitaker won the Academy Award for best actor on Sunday for a critically hailed performance as Ugandan ruler Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” beating out 74-year-old screen legend Peter O’Toole.
Whitaker, the hulking, Texas-born character actor who gained 50 pounds to play Amin and dazzled critics with his portrayal of the mercurial, brutal dictator, won the Oscar on his first-ever nomination.
The 45-year-old actor’s menacing performance earned him the award over sentimental favorite O’Toole, the British veteran of stage and screen who has never won despite eight nominations.
The clearly emotional Whitaker took several long breaths, his Oscar statue in hand, before pronouncing himself “overwhelmed” by the award and pulling out a prepared speech.
“When I was a kid the only way I saw movies was from the backseat of my family’s car at the drive-in,” Whitaker said.
“It wasn’t my reality to think I would be acting in movies, so receiving this honor tonight tells me it is possible,” he said. “It is possible for a kid from East Texas, raised in South Central L.A. and Carson who believes in his dreams, commits himself to them with his heart, to touch them and to have them happen.”
The actor, who had won a Golden Globe for the performance, said he had felt good going into the Academy Awards.
“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen tonight but I thought something magical was going to happen,” Whitaker said backstage after receiving the award. “Because I could feel the breath on my neck and the tingling on my body. For me it is like my ancestors speaking to me and they are saying to me, ‘We are with you.’”
O’Toole, who was first nominated for a best actor Oscar in 1963 for “Lawrence of Arabia,” was in the running this year for playing an aging actor who falls for a young woman in “Venus.”
Also nominated were Leonardo DiCaprio for “Blood Diamond,” Ryan Gosling as an inner-city school teacher with a drug habit in “Half Nelson,” and Will Smith as a struggling salesman who ends up homeless with his son in “The Pursuit of Happyness.”
Whitaker has said Amin was one of his toughest roles, which he prepared for by interviewing Amin’s siblings, former members of his government and even victims of his regime. Amin died in 2003. He also darkened his skin tone for the part and learned to speak a Swahili dialect.
“I tried to understand what happened to him as a kid. You start covering them up with the dark things, of course, but you start out with this little child. Slowly, slowly it gets covered up by all the monstrous things,” he said on Sunday.
Whitaker made his film debut as a high school football player in the 1982 teen comedy “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and gained notice four years later as a pool shark in “The Color of Money.”
He has made a career of playing gentle giant roles, including a G.I. named Big Harold in Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” and a kidnapped British soldier in Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game.”
(Additional reporting by Alexandria Sage)