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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

(continued from page 4)

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."

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