Revered roles include Mandela, U.S. president

Morgan Freeman was 50 when he took the role that earned him his first Oscar nomination, playing a pimp in 1987’s “Street Smart.”

“Every script I got after that was like that,” he told an interviewer for London’s National Film Theatre. “People say, ‘This is right up your alley … this is what you do well.’ That really isn’t a compliment. I do everything well. I’m an actor. Don’t send me a script saying, ‘I wrote this with you in mind.’ Write a script and say you’d like me to try and do this.”

So Freeman sought different roles, using the last quarter-century to redefine himself as one of America’s most revered thesps, collecting a slew of international honors in the process, including an Oscar for “Million Dollar Baby,” a place in the Kennedy Center Honors roll and an American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement award.

Now, having played God, the President of the United States and Nelson Mandela, Freeman hovers in the public imagination within a corona of secular sainthood.

And yet, at the bottom of all the bunting and splendor lies one caution that Freeman has been insisting on all along: He’s an actor with an actor’s limits. The man is not the role, the role is not the man.

“I get a lot of gravitas wise old men offers now,” he tells Variety. “They do weigh on my shoulders.”

And so, Freeman still finds himself fighting against typecasting by searching for roles that will test his limits, rather than repeating what he’s done before.

“I never look for anything special to do. It’s all in the script,” he says. “If I think I know the character, the character will tell me what to do. There’s no other way for me to know.”

After years of working on such TV series as “Another World” and “The Electric Company,” Freeman used the Oscar attention of his “Street Smart” role to reinvent himself through a series of sage character actor roles during the ’90s.

“He just made it believable,” says Bruce Beresford, who directed Freeman to his second Oscar nom in “Driving Miss Daisy.” “He played it with sympathy and honesty — so direct, unfussy, moving and free of affectation.”

Freeman cemented his standing with a string of respectable roles in such films as “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “Unforgiven” and “The Shawshank Redemption.”

“What I most remember is Morgan walking into my office and saying, ‘OK, you got me,’?” says “Glory” director Edward Zwick. “I’d seen him do ‘Oedipus at Colonus.’ Suddenly you’re confronted with this enormous talent. He became my ally in a physically difficult production. He could fix a blown light. He could do a lot of things he’d picked up in a life that was, believe me, very hard before he became successful.

“He brought a moral authenticity to his role,” Zwick continues. “That’s something you either have or you don’t. He has a way of doing as little as possible, yet doing everything that’s been asked for. The thing to ask about Morgan is, how is it that he brings out the best in every director he works with?”

Freeman was born in Memphis, the descendant of slaves on one side of his family, and raised in Charleston, Miss. He took a few acting lessons early on and picked up the rest along the way, including the art of stillness, which he learned from his idol, Jose Ferrer.

His rootedness and demeanor — he never appears flustered in performance — may well come from being steeped in Southern tradition. The power of acting and theater came in boyhood, before he had a word for it.

“I’m not religious, but my mother played piano for the circuit rider preachers who came through to preach on Saturday nights at our local Pentecostal church,” he says.

Damnation, redemption, loss and discovery, the epic rise and fall and rise again of the individual and the tribe, all dramatized in a single stirring voice and performance, with music and an audience.

It was, as Freeman says, “pure theater” — and the backdrop for a great career.

AFI LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD: MORGAN FREEMAN
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