Jackson initially majored in marine biology at Morehouse College before switching to architecture. He later settled on drama after taking a public speaking class and appearing in a version of The Threepenny Opera. Jackson began acting in multiple plays, including Home and A Soldier's Play. He appeared in several television films, and made his feature film debut in the blaxploitation independent film Together for Days (1972). After these initial roles, Jackson moved from Atlanta to New York City in 1976 and spent the next decade appearing in stage plays, including the premiers of The Piano Lesson and Two Trains Running at the Yale Repertory Theater. Jackson developed addictions to alcohol and cocaine, which prevented him from proceeding with the two plays to Broadway (actors Charles S. Dutton and Anthony Chisholm took his place). Throughout his early film career, mainly in minimal roles in films such as Coming to America and various television films, Jackson was mentored by Morgan Freeman. After a 1981 performance in the play A Soldier's Play, Jackson was introduced to director Spike Lee, who cast him for small roles in School Daze (1988) and Do the Right Thing (1989). He also played a minor role in the 1990 Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas (real-life Mafia associate Stacks Edwards) and also worked for three years as a stand-in on The Cosby Show for Bill Cosby.