Vin Diesel‘s latest role: “The Slow and the Studious.”
Nearly 30 years after leaving Hunter College without a degree, the brawny actor was awarded an honorary Ph.D. as he gave the school’s commencement speech at Radio City Music Hall on Wednesday.
The “Fast & Furious” franchise star was born Mark Sinclair in California, but grew up in the Big Apple — living first in Washington Heights, and then later in Brooklyn. He attended Hunter for three years in the 1980s before leaving early to pursue his acting career in Hollywood.
“While I was in Hollywood I always had this pride of Hunter College,” the star told a crowd of about 1,800 students, pacing the stage in Hunter-purple academic regalia.
“I would tell everybody that I learned and took so much away from my experience at Hunter College: I was young, I was a bouncer, when I wasn’t bouncing I was in these classrooms with the most diverse student body on the planet.”
Diesel, who identifies as biracial, said that pride kept him going as he was turned down for parts due to his skin tone.
“Nobody was hiring a multicultural kid. You can imagine a movie like ‘Glory,’” he said, referring to the 1989 Civil War drama. “Who are they going to hire you to play? Denzel’s part or Matthew Broderick’s part. The world wasn’t ready yet.”
He described how he “had to come back to the bouncing job in New York City with my tail between my legs” because he couldn’t book any parts in Hollywood.
“And all the bouncers were saying, ‘Oh, I thought you were going to be a big movie star.’ And I had to sleep on couches. And I had to come up with another way,” he said.
Using the creative-writing chops he gained at Hunter, the one-time English major penned his own screenplays, including 1995’s “Multi-Facial,” which deals with the biases multiracial actors face during auditions.
He got his big break when Steven Spielberg saw the short and wrote the part of Private Caparzo in 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan” specifically for Diesel.
“We’re strivers,” he said of Hunter grads. “We can overcome anything. You learn that here and you take into the world. And then you can look at Hollywood and change the face of Hollywood. You can literally change the face of Hollywood because of that dignity and pride and willingness to fight.”
School president Jennifer Raab congratulated the actor as he received a Doctor of Humane Letters in English.
“You have proved that a smart, determined kid from the streets of New York can make his way to the top,” she said.
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