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Image: "Dolphin Tale"
Warner Bros.
Morgan Freeman is Hollywood's go-to guy when they need a wise, intelligent and gentle character. Yet somehow he puts his own spin on each role.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 9/23/2011 1:40:39 PM ET 2011-09-23T17:40:39

"Dolphin Tale," opening Sept. 21, is about a dolphin that loses its tail in a crab trap and gets a prosthetic replacement. The kindly doctor who builds the fake tail is played by Morgan Freeman, of course. He's Hollywood's ambassador for intelligence and warmth.

Video: Watch the 'Dolphin Tale' trailer (on this page)

But Freeman never coasts on his persona. He gives every character a distinct shade, and that's why audiences love his movies: It's exciting to see which version of Morgan Freeman we'll meet next.

Video: ‘Dolphin Tale’ is ‘terrific story,’ says Freeman (on this page)
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Here are the best versions of the Morgan Freeman magic.

Wounded-but-profound Freeman
If Morgan Freeman were a fast food menu, this persona would be his Big Mac. He thrives with characters whose hard lives give them profound insights, like Red, the convicted murderer in "The Shawshank Redemption," or Eddie Dupris, the grizzled ex-boxer in "Million Dollar Baby." These guys are tougher and smarter than anyone else on screen, and if we just listen to them, we'll learn something.

Story: Let us now praise the best voices in Hollywood

Funny-but-thoughtful Freeman
Even in a comedy, Morgan Freeman is nobody's clown. He cuts up with Jack Nicholson in "The Bucket List," but after their globetrotting adventures, he tries to reunite Nicholson with his estranged daughter. He jokes his way through "Driving Miss Daisy," but he also reveals the frustration of being a black man in the segregated South. Cue the laughter through tears.

Video: Behind the scenes of 'Dolphin Tale' (on this page)

'Silent Thunder' Freeman
Some movies need a quiet Titan — a man who's powerful, yet reserved. That's Freeman's job in "Batman Begins," "The Dark Knight," and next year's "The Dark Knight Rises." He plays Lucius Fox, the mechanical genius behind Batman's equipment, and even though he never gets any credit for his designs, Freeman makes it clear that he's delighted by the top-secret science. His joy is one of the few cheery spots in a very dark franchise.

Story: 'Dolphin Tale' drenches audience with inspiration

Almost holy Freeman
How's this for noble? Freeman plays Nelson Mandela in "Invictus" and God in "Bruce Almighty" and "Evan Almighty." A lesser actor would rely on "dignified looks" and "meaningful pauses," but Freeman opts for vulnerability and twinkling humor. That makes both characters more relatable.

Story: Morgan Freeman: Tea Party 'a racist thing'

Secretly evil Freeman
Spoiler alert! Sometimes, Freeman toys with his own image, playing characters who are secretly evil. In the supernatural action movie "Wanted," he seems like a great boss who's helping Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy … until we learn the nasty truth. It's a great twist, because the movie knows we'll never suspect Freeman is the bad guy. But because he's Morgan Freeman, it's easy to root for him anyway. He might be evil, but he's still cool.

What's Morgan Freeman's best role? Tell us on Facebook.

Mark Blankenship is on Twitter as @CritCondition

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: ‘Dolphin Tale’ is ‘terrific story,’ says Freeman

  1. Closed captioning of: ‘Dolphin Tale’ is ‘terrific story,’ says Freeman

    >>> how would you keep the daggone thing on her? there is nothing there. preposterous any way trying to put a tail on a fish. nobody in his right mind would even try. luckily, i'm not.

    >> not what?

    >> in my right mind.

    >> that's oscar-winning actor morgan freeman in "dolphin tale." the amazing true story of winter, a dolphin whose tail was amputated.

    >> freeman plays dr. mccarthy creating a new tail for winter. hey, morgan.

    >> and you starred alongside the real dolphin.

    >> the real dolphin.

    >> did she know you were plaking a movie about her?

    >> i guarantee she knew it. i don't know how you could not know it. even a horse would know it.

    >> you had a great cast, harry connick jr , ashley judd , kris kristofferson .

    >> what drew you to this script?

    >> it's a terrific story. i know about dolphins. i'm a sailor. they're out there. this is something i'm telling people they seldom realize. there are no creatures in the wild that will approach humans other than dolphins.

    >> that's interesting.

    >> that's all the more reason to make sure we take care of them.

    >> were you familiar with the story before the movie?

    >> i did not know anything about winter until i read the script and it said based on a true story .

    >> you're one of the elite members of the business offered the finest, finest scripts. you probably had 20 you could have said yes to and you said yes to this one. it's got to be in the writing as well as the story, right?

    >> absolutely.

    >> did you know the minute you read the story you wanted to be part of this?

    >> i called my agent up and said, this is a good one, let's do it.

    >> that is what harry said, too.

    >> right after that i hear ashley is going to be in it. okay. you're in.

    >> it's all about the people though. it seems like years, it's months, but you spend a lot of time on the set. you better like the people you're hanging with.

    >> it helps a lot.

    >> was there fun on the set? what was the vibe?

    >> charles smart-in smith is the director. he's got a great sense of humor.

    >> he also wrote it, didn't he?

    >> co-wrote, i think. i'm not sure. but he run as good set.

    >> that's important too. did you know of his work as a director before?

    >> no, i didn't. i only knew of him as an actor. generally, actors make pretty good directors.

    >> what films are you interested in seeing? i'm curious what actors like to go see.

    >> the most memorable film i remember seeing lately, i went to see something, let me think of what it what is, what is upper most in my mind right now is angelina in "salt."

    >> did you see "the help?"

    >> i haven't seen "the help."

    >> you're going to love that.

    >> that is what everybody said. it was my home state. i read the book. i'm familiar, very familiar. i was reading the book thinking, how are they going to pull this off?

    >> it was amazing. they did a good job.

    >> i wish you great luck with this movie.

    >> i think this movie should do very well. it should appeal in what we've seen, it should appeal to a broad section of people.

    >> children are going to love this. kids have an innate sense how cool it is, the animal kingdom and how we mistreat them. we love you.

    >> thank you, morgan.

    >> i know you're in the middle of one film right now. you can come back and tell us about it.

    >> i absolutely will.

    >> "dolphin tale" opens today.

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