In a word, Denzel Washington describes his teen years as “mischievous. I was what they call ‘throwing rocks at the penitentiary’ but I never hit it,” he admits. While some of his friends wound up serving time, Denzel is grateful he had a guardian angel to save him from a similar fate: his mom, Lennis.

“She taught us right from wrong,” he reflects, citing the one piece of advice he’d stress to his 15-year-old self: “Listen to your mother!” Her wisdom proved to be invaluable decades later. “My mother said to me when I was 59, ‘Denzel, you do a lot of good. You have to do good the right way and you know what I’m talking about,’” the actor, 62, reveals of how Lennis inspired him to delve further into his faith, which enabled him to give up alcohol. Now, “I don’t drink anymore, I don’t do any of those things,” he reports.

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Denzel Washington with his wife and mother.

Lennis, a former beautician, divorced her husband, a pastor, when Denzel was just 14, and the actor lauds her for working hard to save money to send him to private school and keep him out of trouble. “My mother never gave up on me,” Denzel says. “I messed up in school so much they were sending me home, but my mother sent me right back!”

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Denzel Washington at the 2010 Fences opening night in NYC.

Her tough love paid off — and then some. Her son, a two-time Oscar winner and one time Tony winner, stars in the new film Roman J. Israel, Esq., and will return to Broadway in the spring in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Despite all his professional success, though, Denzel remains most proud of his wife, Pauletta, 67, and kids John, 33, Katia, 29, and twins Malcolm and Olivia, 26. His love of family is a lesson Lennis taught him well. “My mother used to tell me man gives the award, God gives the reward,” he shares. “I don’t need another plaque. Acting is just a way of making a living. Family is life.”