Denzel Washington has held a number of great performances in a long career of acting on film. He's cemented himself as one of the top actors working today, so it stands to reason that he would know more about the films he's appeared in than people on the internet. There's a long-running rumor that Washington's first role on camera was a mugger who is shot by Charles Bronson in Death Wish, but the resemblance is just that: a resemblance. Washington has personally gone on the record to say he was never in that film. In his words:
No. No. I wasn't even an actor yet. ... I remember on my IMDB thing, they used to have it on there. But no. I think the movie was in '74? I didn't start acting until '75.
In an interview with Yahoo! Movies to promote the film adaptation of the play Fences, the interviewer saw as good an opportunity as any to finally get answers on this Death Wish rumor. In the 1974 Death Wish, in which Charles Bronson goes on a mission to clean up the New York City streets by drenching them in blood, he is attacked by three muggers, one of whom looks like a young Denzel Washington. The lookalike leaves as fast as he came due to being on the bad end of a bullet, but that quick shot of him was enough proof to some. The acting credit even ended up on Washington's IMDB page for a while, but it has since been removed.
Despite actually knowing if he was in the movie or not, Washington has pretty infallible logic as to why that isn't him in Death Wish. The crime thriller was first released in 1977, and Washington didn't begin acting until 1975. Consider the fact that Death Wish probably filmed in '73, then that makes Washington's claim even more likely. Though IMDB got it wrong before, Washington's first credited role on screen was in a 1977 TV movie called Wilma.
As for why the internet was so convinced of Washington's role, it isn't hard to see why when you take a look at the scene in question. Below is a picture of the best shot of the Denzel-like actor. Take note that it isn't a close-up and that the actor is onscreen for maybe five seconds.
Still though, it's pretty easy to see the resemblance here. At first glance, it certainly looks like it could be Denzel, but the longer you stare, the more you see the differences in the faces.
You can see Denzel Washington in Fences, a movie he's definitely in, when it hits theaters on December 25, Christmas Day.