A native of Los Angeles's Watts district, Paul Winfield first gained attention while attending Manual Arts High School, where he became the first black actor to win Best Actor in the annual Speech and Drama Teachers Association Drama Festival and the first person of any color to win the same honor three years in a row. In his senior year, he won his first professional acting job. To continue his theatrical education, Winfield won a two-year scholarship to the University of Portland in Oregon and subsequent scholarships to Stanford and Los Angeles City College, finally earning his Bachelor's degree from UCLA.
His first big break came when Burgess Meredith cast him in Le Roi Jones's controversial one-act play The Dutchman and the Toilet. After six months under contract at Columbia Pictures doing minor television work, he asked to be released to join the Stanford Repertory Theatre at Stanford University, where he developed his abilities performing in plays by Chekhov, Shakespeare, and many modern playwrights. In 1969 Mr. Winfield joined the Inner City Cultural Center Theatre in Los Angeles, which produced professional plays for high school students. After two years he resumed his work in television and films, guest-starring in more than 40 television shows, appearing twice with Sidney Poitier in The Lost Man and Brother John, as well as in Stanley Kramer's RPM, Ossie Davis's Gordon's War, the musical version of Huckleberry Finn, and Ivan Dixon's Trouble Man. Winfield's other television appearances include starring roles in Strange Justice (in which he played Thurgood Marshall), Tyson (in which he played Don King), Scarlett, The Blue and the Gray, Maya Angelou's Sister Sister, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Breathing Lessons.
Winfield received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his performance in Martin Ritt's Sounder. His other films include A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich, Carbon Copy, Star Trek II, Damnation Alley, the Australian film On the Run, the controversial White Dog, Dennis the Menace, Cliffhanger, Mike's Murder, Mars Attacks!, Knockout, and Catfish in Black Bean Sauce.
During this period Winfield also performed in more than 20 stage plays at Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum, including The Latent Heterosexual, starring Zero Mostel and directed by Burgess Meredith. Winfield also appeared in Richard III at New York's Lincoln Center Theatre and served as Artist in Residence at the University of Hawaii and later at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Winfield has been honored by Cord, the Black Publishers of America, the National Association of Media Women, the California Federation of Black Leadership, and Black Child Development Institution of Washington, D.C. He received the NAACP Image Award for Best Actor and has been inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. In August 2000 Winfield appeared with John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra at Tanglewood on Parade, as narrator of The Unfinished Journey.
Paul Winfield suffered a heart attack and died on March 7, 2004, at the age of 64. He is survived by a sister, Patricia. His partner of 30 years, set designer and architect, Charles Gillan, Jr., predeceased him March 5, 2002 of a rare bone disease.