How white was my childhood neighborhood? Growing up, I remember two big — and ultimately false — celebrity rumors making the rounds. The first, which hit about the time “Happy Days” got popular, was that the actor who played “The Fonz” on the show had recently died in a motorcycle accident. The second went something like this: You know the guy who plays Easy Reader on “Electric Company”? That’s Wilt Chamberlain’s brother.
This second rumor is also the reason, years later, I didn’t believe a friend who told me that Easy Reader — that cool cat, dressed like Jimi Hendrix, who got off on reading — was actually played by Morgan Freeman.
This must’ve been after 1989 because 1989 was the breakthrough year for Morgan, the year most of the world began to realize how good he was. Some knew earlier.
In one of the more famous opening lines of a movie review, Pauline Kael began her New Yorker critique of 1987’s “Street Smart” by asking, “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?” She wasn’t even talking about “Street Smart,” a not-very-good Christopher Reeve vehicle in which Morgan played “Fast Black,” a Times Square pimp who goes from charming to crazy in 1.2 seconds, and a role which garnered him — thanks, in part, I believe, to Kael’s opening line — an Oscar nomination. No, she was simply relaying a conversation she’d had way back in 1980after seeing him in off-Broadway plays and on TV and in a small role as a prisoner in the Robert Redford film “Brubaker.” According to Kael, Morgan gave the film, “a sudden charge that the moviemakers didn’t seem to know what to do with.”
Some knew even earlier. In 1978, Morgan won the Actors Equity Association’s award (The Derwent) for playing Zeke, a sardonic wino who mocks aging gang members in the play “The Mighty Gents,” and earlier in the decade he earned good notices doing a Richard Pryor-esque turn in “The World of Ben Caldwell,” and in the late ’60s he was stunning in several plays off-Broadway (Clive Barnes in the New York Times said he had a switchblade smile “that I could easily remember long after forgetting the play”), and he was winning acting awards in Chicago at the age of 12, so, hell, a lot of people knew early. It just took a while for the rest of us to catch up.
Our wisest counselor
He was 52 — 52! — when he finally struck it big in 1989 with three starring roles in three major Hollywood films. He played the irascible and combative school principal Joe Clark in “Lean on Me”; he played wise counsel to the irascible and combative Pvt. Trip (Denzel Washington) in “Glory”; and he played wise counsel to the irascible and combative Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy) in “Driving Miss Daisy.” A lot of people saw “Daisy” (it made over $100 million), and both Tandy and Washington won Oscars playing opposite him, and so we rarely saw him in irascible roles anymore. From then on, he became the movies’ favorite wise counselor.
Who hasn’t he counseled wisely? He’s aided all of our mythical heroes: Robin Hood, Batman, Clint Eastwood. He’s gone up the ladder: coach in “The Power of One,” detective in “Se7en,” lawyer in “High Crimes,” judge in “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” head of the CIA in “The Sum of All Fears,” and President of the United States in “Deep Impact.” When it seemed he couldn’t get bigger he played God in the “Bruce/Evan Almighty” flicks.
Meanwhile, his God-like voice narrated everything from “Shawshank Redemption” to “March of the Penguins” to “War of the Worlds.” Who wouldn’t want that voice narrating their life? Adding gravity and import to ordinary events? “I didn’t think much of Erik the first time I laid eyes on him: just a skinny kid playing kickball on Emerson Avenue and thinking I was Wilt Chamberlain’s brother...”
He can do joy better than anyone. I get happy just watching him being happy: his eyes lighting up watching Rita Hayworth on the movie screen, or Paz Vega behind the cash register, or that laugh, that real, genuine laugh, that bursts forth after decades of simpering fake laughs in front of white employers in “Driving Miss Daisy.” His joy is the joy of someone who’s known pain and sorrow, and has pushed aside all that because we only get so long. It’s not a shallow joy; it’s a deep, wise joy, wholly invested in the moment, often connected to women. See? Wise.
Get busy finding better roles
He turned 70 this year and he’s still churning out a couple of movies a year, but what’s he doing covering up his expressive eyes in “Unleashed,” or gluing on frosty eyebrows in “Dreamcatcher,” or being forgettable as a gang boss in “Lucky Number Slevin”? Time’s a wasting. Get busy living.
With all of his charm, shouldn’t we see him in at least one love story? Of course, a lot of his films can be classified as kinda-love stories — I’m thinking “Daisy,” “Shawshank,” “Nurse Betty,” “10 Items” — and maybe these are better anyway, because few things are more boring than people in love.
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Playing God was a no-brainer. But why not the Devil? Invest those twinkly eyes and charm and warm, deep authoritative voice for the bad side. Surely the Devil would have — would need — those things. Seduce us, and when we’re seduced. Do what you did with Kathy Baker in “Street Smart”: take out the knife and ask us, with your warm, authoritative voice, which of our eyes should be gouged out. Left? Right? Left? Right?
In his latest, “The Bucket List,” he plays an auto mechanic who gets busy living because his body is busy dying of cancer. It’s a sweet but clichéd film, and hardly a stretch. He narrates again, adding gravity and import to ordinary events. He plays wise counselor to the irascible and combative Jack Nicholson. But there’s a scene with a beautiful woman in a Hong Kong bar and he’s so in the moment you can see the pupils of his eyes darting back and forth as he listens to her. They don’t teach that at the Actors Studio.
I won’t answer the unanswerable question with which Pauline Kael began her “Street Smart” review, but I will give Freeman the last word on the subject. In “10 Items or Less” he plays a movie star who hasn’t worked in four years (so clearly not him), and while researching a new part in a grocery store, he hangs close to cashier Paz Vega, asking tons of questions and generally being a nuisance until she says to him, annoyed, “Are all actors like you?”
To which he smiles his great smile and admits, “Sadly, no.”
Erik Lundegaard is gonna turn it on, he’s gonna bring you the power. He can be reached at: email@example.com