Laurence Fishburne was born in Augusta, Georgia, the son of Hattie Bell (née Crawford), a junior high school mathematics and science teacher, and Laurence John Fishburne, Jr., a juvenile corrections officer. After his parents divorced during his childhood, his mother moved with him to Brooklyn, New York, where he was raised. Fishburne's father saw him once a month. He is a graduate of Lincoln Square Academy in New York, which closed in the 1980s.
Fishburne started acting at age eleven. In 1973 he had his first job, as a member briefly featured on the Mod Squad, followed by portraying Joshua Hall on the ABC soap opera, One Life to Live. He was initially cast in the hit television series Good Times, but the role went to Ralph Carter. Fishburne's most memorable childhood role was in Cornbread, Earl and Me, in which he played a young boy who witnessed the police shooting of a popular high school basketball star. Fishburne later earned a supporting role in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, in which he played a 17-year-old sailor nicknamed 'Mr. Clean'. When production began in March 1976 he was just fourteen, apparently lying about his age to get the part. Filming took so long that he was seventeen upon its completion.
Fishburne spent much of the 1980s in and out of television and periodically on stage. In the early 1980s, he worked as a bouncer at punk rock clubs.
He had a minor role in the critically acclaimed Steven Spielberg film The Color Purple. He also had a role in the 1984 movie The Cotton Club. Fishburne had a recurring role as Cowboy Curtis on Paul Reubens' CBS children's television show Pee-wee's Playhouse. He also appeared in the M*A*S*H episode, "The Tooth Shall Set You Free", as Corporal Dorsey (billed as Larry Fishburne in the credits). In Spenser: For Hire, he was a guest star for the 2nd season episode "Personal Demons". He appeared as a thug named Cutter in Death Wish 2 (1982). He also appeared alongside Kevin Bacon in Quicksilver. His stage work during the 1980s included Short Eyes (1984), and Loose Ends (1987), both produced at Second Stage Theatre in New York City. Also in 1987 he played a part in the third Nightmare On Elm Street film as a hospital orderly. Fishburne played as Lt. Charlie Stobbs (under Larry Fishburne) in Red Heat (1988) beside Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Belushi. Fishburne also starred as "Dap" in Spike Lee's School Daze (1988). Fishburne's character was the depiction of an African American, culturally inclined college student at an HBCU (Historically Black College/University).
In 1990, he played Jimmy Jump in the controversial King of New York, and in 1991, Fishburne starred in Boyz n the Hood. The following year, in 1992, he won a Tony Award for his stage performance in the August Wilson play, Two Trains Running and an Emmy Award for his performance in the opening episode, "The Box," of the short-lived anthology series television drama TriBeCa. He also starred in Deep Cover alongside Jeff Goldblum. In 1993, he received his first Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ike Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It. In an 1995 American drama film, starring an ensemble cast, Laurence Fishburne won an Image Award for "Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture" for his performance in Higher Learning as West Indian Professor Maurice Phipps. He played the title role in Othello, the second African-American actor, after Paul Robeson, to perform the role. In 1997, Fishburne starred in the science fiction horror Event Horizon alongside Sam Neill. Fishburne is perhaps best known for his role as Morpheus, the hacker-mentor of Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, in the 1999 blockbuster science fiction film The Matrix.
Fishburne provided the voice of Thrax in Osmosis Jones in 2001. He reprised his role as Morpheus in the Matrix sequels The Matrix Reloaded, and The Matrix Revolutions in 2003. He briefly featured as a stretcher-bearer in one version of the video for The Spooks' song "Things I've Seen" (2000) and appeared with Tom Cruise as Theodore Brassell, IMF superior of Cruise's character in Mission: Impossible III. Fishburne has worked with actress Angela Bassett on four projects. He said that "An electrifying thing happens when the two of us work together. I haven't experienced it with anyone else. A freedom happens when we work together." In 2006, they appeared onstage in a Pasadena Playhouse production of August Wilson's Fences.
He provided the voice of the narrator in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) movie, which was released in 2007. The same year, he provided the voice of the Silver Surfer in 2007 film Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. On February 24, 2007, Fishburne was honored with the Harvard Foundation's Artist of the Year award at the annual show Cultural Rhythms. He received this honor for his achievements as an actor and entertainer and for his humanitarian pursuits. Fishburne is a UNICEF ambassador. The mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Kenneth Reeves, awarded him the key to the city and declared February 24 "Laurence Fishburne" day in the city.
In April 2008, Fishburne returned to the stage in the Broadway production of Thurgood, a new play by George Stevens, Jr. Thurgood opened at the Booth Theatre on April 30, 2008. He won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show for his performance. On February 24, 2011, HBO screened a filmed version of the play performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. On February 16, 2011, the White House hosted a screening of the film as part of its celebrations of Black History Month.
On August 18, 2008, it was reported that Laurence Fishburne would join the cast of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation after William Petersen (aka Gil Grissom) left the series. John Malkovich was also considered for the role prior to the announcement.
Fishburne joined the show on the ninth episode of the 9th season as a college professor and former pathologist whose area of expertise involves some criminals' predisposition to commit acts of violence. The character was introduced as a consultant on a case ("19 Down"), who winds up joining the CSI team ("One to Go"). In May 2009, Fishburne performed on-stage in the National Memorial Day Concert on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
Fishburne starred in Predators in 2010 and Contagion in 2011. On June 7, 2011, Fishburne announced that he was leaving CSI to return to movies and theatre, opting not to renew his contract and would not appear in Season 12. On August 2, 2011, it was announced that Fishburne had been cast in the role of Perry White in the Zack Snyder directed Superman reboot Man of Steel.