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Denzel Washington surprises South Side great-grandmother

Actor Denzel Washington meets with Juanita Hubbard. | Facebook photo

On Saturday afternoon, Juanita Hubbard was waiting for Sears to deliver a new refrigerator to the South Side home she has lived in for nearly 50 years. The 86-year-old, known in the neighborhood as “Mama Hubbard,” was sitting in her doorway reading an old horoscope when she saw a car pull up outside.

But when she opened the front door, it wasn’t a Sears delivery man on her doorstep. It was Denzel Washington.

The award-winning actor was in the area looking for Leon’s Barbeque restaurant when he and his driver decided to stop and ask for directions.

On the steps of the house at East End Avenue and 86th Street, some of Hubbard’s two children, eight grandchildren, and 10 great grandchildren had gathered for grandson Anthony Cobbs’ 35th birthday. The group was about to head for pizza at Gino’s — until a car pulled up and out walked grandma’s favorite actor.

When Washington started chatting with Cobbs and the rest of the crowd, Hubbard’s daughter, Janet Hubbard, told him, “You have to meet Mama.”

“Where’s Mama?” the actor shouted in response, heading to greet her at the door.

Great-grandmother Juanita Hubbard, 86, with her granddaughter Erica Bennett, 30, and Juanita’s great-granddaughter, Dayianna Bush, 3. | Logan Javage/Sun-Times

From the moment she opened the door, Hubbard clung to Washington’s side, gripping his arm tightly as he recited lines from “Training Day.”

“I’m not gonna let you go,” she told the actor.

Hubbard said later that she “grabbed on and never wanted to let go,” of Washington’s hands, which she said “felt like velvet.”

“I never would have thought he would show up on my doorstep,” said Hubbard, who turns 87 next month. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Washington told the group that he had family in the area growing up and would often play in the area and eat at Leon’s Barbeque, which was previously located on 86th Street and Stony Island Avenue.

The “Fences” actor said he used to “play fight” in the neighborhood with the Blackstone Rangers, a local street gang. Some of the group on Hubbard’s porch said they were members of the Rangers, which brought a huge smile to Washington’s face.

“I’m 62 and I finally got back with the Rangers,” Washington said.

On Tuesday, great-grandmother Juanita Hubbard, 86, talks about Denzel Washington’s recent surprise visit to her home on the South Side. | Logan Javage/Sun-Times

Although Hubbard said she spent Friday night watching Washington’s 2002 film “John Q.,” she doesn’t have a favorite Washington movie.

“Everything he plays, every film he’s in, that’s my favorite,” Hubbard said.

As of Tuesday, a video of Washington’s visit had gone viral, with more than 3.7 million views. Hubbard was speechless when she heard how many people had seen the video.

“He was always one of those people I wanted to meet, but I didn’t think I could take it,” Hubbard said. “But it was just like talking to one of my own sons.”

Hubbard, a staple of the neighborhood who provided childcare to more than 600 South Side babies since 1959, said she “was just at the right place at the right time,” for Saturday’s encounter.

For the past three years, Hubbard hasn’t been able to regularly live in the home she and her late husband bought in 1967 because of floor repairs she can’t afford and is staying with her granddaughter in Calumet City. She was at home that day for a refrigerator delivery that Sears had to return due to weak floors in her kitchen.

The great-grandmother said she hopes she can get her floors repaired soon, “So he [Denzel] can come back and I can fix him some barbecue like at Leon’s,” Hubbard said.