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Laurence Fishburne: Flying Fish

Actor, writer and now director, Laurence Fishburne is in full artistic soar.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

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"I won't sign pictures and that shit. Just won't do it," he says. Sure, he's now a big deal in the movies, and if people want to view him as a star, that's their business and there's not a damn thing he can do about it. But Fishburne says he refuses to think of himself as a star. He's an actor, an artist, and he believes that for an artist "star trips" are one giant step down the road to ruin. Nor is he about to parade his family life in public, the way some stars do.

In 1985, Fishburne married casting agent Hajna Moss and they had two kids. The marriage didn't last, and today there is no way Fishburne will discuss the subject. He's happy to answer anything about his work, but private matters are strictly that: private. The artistic credo that Fishburne forged in Apocalypse Now clearly serves him well; it's the shockproof, heavy-duty bullshit detector that keeps him on his path. But that same credo can also be something of a curse. For after you've gone to the well in something like Apocalypse Now, what do you do for an encore? Where do you turn, at age 17 or 18, to find that kind of juice? After returning from the Philippines, Fishburne inevitably drifted to Los Angeles, looking for acting jobs. He found work but nothing with the fire of what he'd just come through.

Then, as he struggled to find a new foothold, Fishburne came to a stark realization: his ride into acting had been wild, but his childhood had been cut dramatically short. So he decided to go home to Park Slope, to spend some time cooling down in the old neighborhood with his mother, one of the main anchors in his life. Fishburne describes his mother as a remarkable woman.

By training and profession, Hattie Fishburne was a science teacher, but her first concern was always Laurence, her only child. Laurence was born on July 30, 1961, in Atlanta. Hattie and her husband, Laurence Sr., split up before Laurence Jr. was born. After the birth, Hattie moved to New York to make a new life for her and her son. She found a house and made them a home in Park Slope, a melting-pot immigrant neighborhood that proved to be ideal for the precocious Laurence. To support herself and her child, she taught at a school for Jewish girls and tried to further her career by taking classes at Columbia. Hattie saw talent in her young son and pushed Laurence toward acting. When, at age 14, he lied about his age and conned his way into an audition for Apocalypse Now, and then got the part, who packed their bags and went to the Philippines, to watch over her vulnerable son? Hattie. "I've got to tell you," Fishburne says today, "my mother is very bright. I mean she's got a really, really amazing mind. Now I'm a really smart guy. I'm bright. I know shit from shinola. And all that I get from her."

Fishburne's father has also been a strong presence in his life, though in a very different way. "Here's the thing with Fish," Fishburne says of his father. "He was big. In my mind he was huge. My mom saw something in me, she saw that the whole creative thing was going on. But Fish was the one who took me to the movies. Guy movies. Action movies. He would take me to see Clint Eastwood movies and he took me to a lot of John Wayne movies. They were so cool. And I remember going to see Where Eagles Dare with him and thinking, 'Wow, Richard Burton. That's one bad-ass motherfucker.'"

After spending time in Park Slope, Fishburne did something he had never done before: he lived with his dad for a while. It gave them a chance to reconnect. "It was only for a short time, three months I think," Fishburne says, "but it was good. It was something I needed to do at some period in my life." After the long, unsettling months in the Philippines, hanging out with Dennis Hopper and the gang, Fishburne was now home with his no-nonsense dad.

And Fishburne Sr. knew plenty of ways to make sure that his bad-ass son didn't slip into trouble. "Fish was a corrections officer, in juvenile justice," Fishburne says. "One day, early on, he took a group of inmates to see Cornbread, Earl and Me. Then he calls me up and says, 'The guys in the lockup, they got a message for you. They said you got a real good thing going for yourself. They're real proud of you. And they said if you ever fuck it up and wind up in a lockdown, they'll whip your ass.'"

A little smile plays across Fishburne's face as he recounts the story, and you can see that he loves to make his old man proud. Laurence Sr. imparted something else to his son: a love of good cigars. "My dad was a cigar smoker," Fishburne says. "My relationship with cigars really began with him. Whenever I was out of the country, I'd smuggle a box of Cubans back to my dad. He really liked them." Fishburne started smoking during filming in the Philippines. "I started smoking cigars when I was doing Apocalypse Now," Fishburne says. "We found the craziest cigars out there--'Crooks,' I think they were called. They were three cigars braided together and soaked in rum. You smoked all three of them at the same time. That was my first cigar experience."

From there, Fishburne developed a taste for good cigars. He doesn't smoke cigars every day, but when he does smoke, he prefers maduros and Cohiba Robustos. With cigars, Fishburne finds some of the same things he loves about acting: the sense of tradition, the feeling of camaraderie. "Cigars are about gathering. They're about connecting. And we've gotten too far away from that. We need to reconnect with that kind of spirit and that kind of community." Accordingly, Fishburne belongs to a cigar club in New York: the Grand Havana Room.

There he runs into other actors who share his taste for fine cigars. "Guys like Bill Cosby, guys like Gregory Hines and Dean Stockwell," he says. "These guys have been smoking cigars for 30, 40 years, long before it was the rage. Cigars are not a daily thing with me, though I wish they were. I'm a cigarette smoker right now and I know I can't do that for the rest of my life. So I'd like to be able to wean myself off cigarettes and move into cigars, take my tobacco that way. That would be a wise and healthy feeling."

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