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The Greatest

Morgan Freeman has earned his stellar reputation with some of the most compelling movie roles of the last 25 years.
From the Print Edition:
Morgan Freeman, Mar/Apr 2005

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After a deep laugh, he continues. "I said, 'That's true.' But she also said, 'You're bored to death when there's nothing to do.' And that's because I just can't make work if there's nothing to do. If there's nothing to do, I believe in doing nothing. Now, if there's work to do, I'm on it. I'm all over it, because there is no bad job."

One of those jobs that he capitalized on was a TV show called "Electric Company," a precursor to "Sesame Street." Joining the ensemble cast in 1971, he played the sanguine, cool-breeze icon "Easy Reader," among other roles he ran through on the series. The Easy Reader character still leaves Generation Xers with fond recollections: during a Freeman appearance on "Late Night," host Conan O'Brien cooed over the actor and acted as if he were a Labrador puppy having his belly rubbed.

But his work on that offbeat kids program honed a skill that would serve him well in his later film successes: he gained control over his voice. It's that distinctive and cool vocal instrument that he has used to supply emotional undercurrents in films, even serving as the basic lifeline, as it did in The Shawshank Redemption. In the midst of the interview for this article, you can hear the same sonorous mesmerizing tones of that line in Shawshank, when he spoke about going to Zihuatenjo in Mexico. It comes out as he describes his first time sailing, in 1967. Now, he gets to enjoy that love of sailing only about once a year, on a boat he keeps in the Caribbean.

"[My voice] wasn't a natural thing at all," Freeman explains. "It came out of training. Like many people, I spoke at a higher register than my voice actually is, and had to learn to bring it down. Now, that's OK for women"—he shifts his voice higher—"to speak like this, because it sounds feminine. But I was taught to use my voice right, and really got control over it doing all of those voice-overs I had to do on 'Electric Company.' It's why I've always said there are no bad jobs." The other skill he took away from "Electric Company" was the ability to work in an ensemble cast, a combination of his innate people skills coupled with experience gained from the weekly grind of turning out a TV show. The original cast included Rita Moreno and even had occasional visits from Bill Cosby. The show ran for more than 700 episodes, and it gave him a steady income throughout the 1970s, when not much else was happening in his career.

Being able to work effectively with a group is a skill that fellow actor Michael Keaton, who starred with Freeman in the widely acclaimed 1988 film Clean and Sober, says can help every actor on a movie set.

Keaton talks admiringly about Freeman. "We all loved Morgan. He hadn't popped yet," Keaton said, recalling a film made before the big splash of Driving Miss Daisy, "and I felt like he was just the coolest guy. Likable, friendly, and told the greatest stories. One day, we were shooting a scene with a room full of people. And everybody's hanging out, having fun.

"All of a sudden, Morgan starts screaming. And I'm thinking"—Keaton's trademark impish eyebrows raise in suspicion—"'Oh, man. He's crazy.' And Morgan walks to a corner. I wander over—right?—to ask him: 'What was that all about?' And Morgan smiles and says, 'They were taking it too easy.' " Keaton nods in appreciation, "He was right, too. His instincts are so good."

In fact, Freeman's instincts are so good that he can take even mediocre scripts in modest movies and pump life into the flattest of failed pulp fiction. He first showed that remarkable ability to take over a movie in 1980, in Brubaker, starring Robert Redford. Kael, taking her first real notice of Freeman's acting, said the film's plot never recovered after his departure from the story.

But there are other roles that Freeman has executed that live beyond the movie itself. In the third-rate chase picture Chain Reaction, he stood out as the no-nonsense scientist, Paul Shannon. In David Fincher's landmark thriller, Se7en, his poised and intelligent detective, Lt. William Somerset, opposite Brad Pitt's brash detective David Mills, was so compelling that it moved Gwyneth Paltrow to say that Freeman should have been named People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive in 1995, not Pitt (who was her boyfriend at the time).

It's also hard to forget his Azeem, in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; or President Tom Beck in Deep Impact, the doomsday story about a comet about to destroy Earth; or recovering alcoholic lawyer Charlie Grimes in the movie High Crimes, with Ashley Judd; or William Cabot in the Tom Clancy thriller, The Sum of All Fears, costarring Ben Affleck. Moreover, with Unleashed headed for the theaters this summer, in which he plays Sam, a blind piano tuner, the chances are he is only going to add to the roster of unusual but memorable characters. That doesn't even take into account the other movies in which he has roles that are slated for release in 2005, including Batman Begins, with Christian Bale; the movie he is currently working on, Lucky Number Slevin; and another going into pre-production currently titled Colors Straight Up.

All those recent projects seem to be coming to fruition in what Freeman might consider an "off" year. That's because he's had what he considers extraordinary good fortune in years ending in 7, including the year he was born, 1937.

"Every tenth year of my life, every birth year, is when things seemed to click into place for me, and '87 was when I really noticed it. That was when I understood I wasn't going to perish, that I would prevail," he observes. "'87 was a jump ball, and I was ready. I wasn't gonna kill myself, I wasn't gonna overindulge in drugs or liquor or anything like that."

The first fortuitous year was 1967. His vocal assurance, that voice again, demands you take in his remarks at the pace he's set, as if he were laying down eight bars for a lazy blues tune. "1967 was a banner year for me. It was when I first learned to sail, got on my first 18-foot boat. It was also the year when I had the thunderbolt of realization: 'I'm not a dancer. I'm not an office worker. I'm an actor.'

"1977 was big, too: The Last Street Play, an Off-Broadway production written by Richard Wesley that made a lot of noise at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Then, it was moved to Broadway, which was the wrong place for something strong. It should've stayed where it was, instead of moving to a big house, where it closed in a little more than a week. Man," he shrugs. But he was on Broadway, however briefly.

"Broadway wouldn't support heavy work like that, even back in those days. But the noise was all around me, and I really got into the lifestyle. I was living over my head, using up my credit cards, and, man, I got in debt fast."

But then there was 1987. That was the year he started performing in Driving Miss Daisy on the stage, which then led to the film role, and which in turn led to the recognition from the Academy that had been so long in coming. Good fortune had finally struck in his 50th year; a lesser man might have given up much sooner.

In talking about his life, while driving from Santa Monica, California, back to the Four Seasons Hotel for his photo shoot, Freeman knows he gravitated towards all of the things that matter to him like a compass drawn towards magnetic north. And somewhere in his heart, even though it took so long, it always seemed as if it was destined to happen.

"Well, that's the right analogy, isn't it? I mean, I don't know that this pattern of my birth year being a highlight is always going to hold true. But I've learned to be ready for it. And like with setting up our production offices with our partnership with Hewlett-Packard, I've learned that when there's a void to be filled—and there always is—you should be ready to fill it. I know what matters to me. Taking a sailing trip, which I only got to do once last year, because I'm always working. I enjoy working with diesel engines, something I found in the Air Force, which helps because I know I'm a boat guy, not a car guy."

Before he can continue, a brand new Bentley Continental GT coupe—in rich, gleaming hand-rubbed black—slices past him, and he watches the car in awe.

"Maybe I'm not a car guy, but I can appreciate a thing of beauty. Something that takes time to build."

Sometimes, life hands us easy symbols—and Morgan Freeman has applied sweat, craft and persistence to assemble a legacy as lovingly hand-tooled as the piece of powered steel that's cruising past him. And, he's not done yet.


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