“I think that one of the reasons I wanted to do ‘Julius Caesar’ on Broadway last year was to test myself to see if I could remember my lines,” he says, pausing for effect. “I remembered them.”

This talk of forgetfulness does not cloud the fact that Washington is at the top of his game, and he credits part of that to turning 50.

“It all became very clear to me on my 50th birthday that this is not a dress rehearsal,” he explains.

“This is my life, and I intend to enjoy it. … I don’t take myself so seriously anymore. As for my work, if it ain’t fun, I don’t do it.”

The Spike Lee-directed heist film Inside Man was a lot of fun for Washington, who plays a New York City cop trying to match wits with a mysterious masked man whose gang has taken hostages in a botched bank holdup.

Washington was offered both the cop and robber roles when Lee sent him the script, but says he chose the detective because he felt it was a meatier role.

“Don’t believe him,” Lee says with a laugh. “He didn’t want to do a whole movie with his face covered.”

Washington jokes that there might have been some truth to that, but says he really connected with the cop after doing research for the role.

“I hung out with detectives for a while, and watched them at work. I noticed things, like a gold bracelet and a pinky ring. … I find a piece of the character here, and I find a piece of the character there. I don’t overanalyze the process. A lot of it comes from the script, and then I also react to what’s happening that day.”

This is Washington’s fourth film with Lee (Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X and He Got Game) spanning 16 years.

“Working with Spike is like going home,” the actor says. “We know each other and have a shorthand in exchanging ideas. When he calls, I know it’s going to be an interesting project, and this one was no different.”

Born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Washington graduated from Fordham University with a degree in journalism. But, by the time they passed out the diplomas, Washington’s mind was elsewhere.

He had appeared in a number of school productions, and was ready to forgo a low-paying, under-appreciated career in journalism for the bright and over-appreciated lights of show business. Studying at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, he left after one year to begin a career that has run unabated for a quarter-century.

His first film role was in the forgettable comedy Carbon Copy in 1981, but his fortunes improved dramatically when he shifted gears to accept a TV role on the hospital series “St. Elsewhere.” The program became a hit and. he was able to use the series as a springboard to jump back to the big screen. This time, there were no “Carbon Copys” on his schedule.

Instead, he became synonymous with appearing in respected films such as A Soldier’s Story and Cry Freedom.

It would be the first of many real-life characters Washington would play, and the first of many Oscar nominations.

He finally won a supporting Oscar for the 1989 film Glory, and a best actor trophy for the 2001 film Training Day, another film in which he played a police officer.

© 2006, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Inside Man is currently in theatres.