Intelligent, intense and charismatic, Woods studied political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before dropping out to pursue an acting career. He got his start in the theater with dramatic roles on the New York stage.
Woods had his film major film role in The Visitors (1972), which was directed by Elia Kazan. He went on to make a string of guest appearances on television series, such as Barnaby Jones, Family, The Rockford Files and The Streets of San Francisco. He also had roles in several television movies and miniseries, including Holocaust (1978) opposite Meryl Streep.
In The Onion Field (1979), Woods portrayed a heartless cop killer, perhaps his darkest character to date. Critics and audiences alike were riveted by his performance. He received his first Oscar nomination for Salvador (1986) for his portrayal of a journalist who drives to El Salvador to document the country's military dictatorship.
While he lost the Best Actor Oscar Award to Paul Newman, Woods continued to tackle a mix of dramatic roles in films and on television. He starred in The Boost, a 1988 feature film as a man whose life spirals out of control because of cocaine use. He won his first Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Special for Promises in 1987. He has also played a number of famous people in television movies, including the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in My Name Is Bill W. (1989) and the infamous lawyer Roy Cohn in Citizen Cohn (1992). Woods won the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special Emmy Award for both of these performances.
Around this time, Woods took on a challenging film role. He tackled the part of Byron De La Beckwith, the suspected killer of Medgar Evers, the African-American civil rights activist, in 1996's Ghosts of Mississippi. His portrayal brought Woods his second Oscar nomination -- this time in the best supporting actor category.
Woods went on to find success on the small screen. In 2003, he was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of America's mayor in Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story. Three years later, he made a guest appearance on the hit drama ER. His performance as Dr. Nate Lennox, a former biochemistry professor battling Lou Gehrig's disease, earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series.
In 2006, Woods made the leap to series television with Shark, a legal drama. Critics have raved about his performance as Sebastian Stark, a successful, egotistical defense attorney who switches sides to work for the district attorney's office. For Woods, the accolades were bittersweet. He was still mourning the loss of his young brother, Michael J. Woods, who died of a heart attack on July 26, 2006.
More recently, Woods landed the role of Jack Dudman in Jobs (2013), a film based on the life of Apple CEO Steve Jobs starring Ashton Kutcher.
Woods was raised Roman Catholic and stated on September 23, 2015 that he is involved in his faith. He has criticized Pope Francis for tolerating what he called "pro-abortion hospitality".
Woods has stated on Twitter that he was a member of the Democratic Party up until the impeachment of Bill Clinton, commenting that "every single Democrat without exception stood behind a convicted perjurer. That was the end."
Woods's name was in an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times (August 17, 2006) that condemned Hamas and Hezbollah and supported Israel in the 2006 Lebanon War. Early in the 2016 presidential race, Woods endorsed Carly Fiorina for the Republican nomination. In November 2015, he shifted his endorsement to Senator Ted Cruz. In August, 2017, he tweeted his disgust over what he said was the "pathological" hatred of President Donald Trump was being subjected to, which was quickly retweeted by Trump.
Woods is an avid poker player, playing in cash games and many tournaments. He played in the WPT's Hollywood Home Game series in 2004 for the American Stroke Association charity. As of 2015, he has to his credit over 35 major event finishes, including a seventh place at the 2015 World Series of Poker in the $3000 No Limit Shootout event.
Married twice, Woods has been romantically linked to Ashley Madison, who played his girlfriend during a guest appearance on the hit comedy Entourage. Outside of acting, Woods has earned a reputation for being an excellent poker player. He has competed in such tournaments as the World Poker Tour LA Poker Classic and the Bellagio World Poker Tour Championship.