Thursday 27 April 2017

masterful morgan's long walk to stardom

Actors currently struggling to earn a crust in these lean times should take heart from the example of Morgan Freeman. At 72, the honey-voiced actor is one of the most respected performers in Hollywood, an Oscar-winner and justly acclaimed star of stage and screen. Yet he came to fame at so ripe an age that he should be known as the patron saint of late starters. He was 43 by the time he appeared in his first film, and over 50 when he landed his first starring role. He's clearly an advocate of the 'If at first you don't succeed' school of thought, and his persistence has certainly paid off.

This year he's been nominated left, right and centre for his performance in Clint Eastwood's Invictus, an account of how Nelson Mandela worked behind the scenes to make the 1995 Rugby World Cup a galvanising event that would help unite his new 'rainbow nation'.

For Freeman, playing the great man is the fulfilment of a long-held ambition: he previously tried to get Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, adapted for the screen and was the driving force behind Invictus.

Freeman bought the rights to the book on which the movie is based, and persuaded his friend Clint Eastwood to direct. And though the film is a bit creaky at times, Freeman does an outstanding job of catching Mandela's compelling mix of humility, charm and determination.

He will be 73 on June 1, but Freeman shows no signs of slowing down. He's already started filming Red, an ambitious action film based on a DC Comics character and co-starring Bruce Willis.

And last month came confirmation of his almost saintly status in America, when it was announced that his mellifluous voice would be used to replace the late Walter Cronkite's in announcing the iconic CBS evening news. After a slow start, he's starred in some of the most memorable films of the past 20 years and is revered by his peers. Not bad for a boy from Mississippi whose life got off to a pretty tough start.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee in the summer of 1937, Morgan Porterfield Freeman Jr spent his early years with his maternal grandmother in Charleston, Mississippi after his parents migrated north to Chicago in search of work. When he was six, and the Second World War was raging, his grandmother died and he was sent to Chicago to live with his mother, who'd separated from his alcoholic father. This migratory life continued for some years, and he and his mother eventually moved back to Mississippi.

Freeman grew up in the heart of the Jim Crow south at a time when the Civil Rights Bill was 20 years away. He escaped from all this by scraping together enough money to go to the movies -- where Freeman's heroes were Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy and, a little later, the iconic black star Sidney Poitier.

Freeman's own beginnings in acting were entirely accidental. The story goes that, at the age of 12, he was punished for pulling a chair from under a girl he was keen on, and ordered to take part in the school's drama competition. He proved to be a natural.

After graduating from high school in 1955, he joined the US Air Force with hopes of becoming a fighter pilot but ended up as a plane mechanic. In 1959, he headed west to Hollywood to try and break into films. He took acting classes but couldn't get any work, and moved on to New York in the early '60s. In 1967, he caught a break when he landed a part in an all-black Broadway version of Hello Dolly! starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway. His acting career was under way.

In the early '70s, Freeman began getting steady TV work doing voiceovers for puppets on the PBS children's educational show, The Electric Company. Among Freeman's regular repertoire was 'Vincent the Vegetable Vampire'. He got the odd speaking part in TV dramas through the '70s, but when The Electric Company was cancelled in 1976 his main source of income dried up.

Movies, eventually, came to the rescue. His first credited role was playing a deranged inmate in the 1980 Robert Redford prison drama Brubaker, and as that decade wore on a trickle of film work became a steady flow.

He made an eye-catching appearance in the Paul Newman film Harry & Son, in 1984, but his big movie break came three years later, in 1987, when he co-starred in Jerry Schatzberg's gritty urban thriller Street Smart.

Christopher Reeve and Kathy Baker were the leads, but Freeman stole the show as a volatile street pimp called Fast Black. He was rewarded with an Oscar nomination, and legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wondered if Freeman was "the greatest American actor?"

Finally, the movie offers began to flood in. In 1989, he capitalised on his newfound success with fine performances in two very different films: he was Oscar-nominated again for playing Jessica Tandy's kindly black chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy, and also starred alongside Denzel Washington in the American Civil War drama Glory.

In the '90s, he really came into his own, starring in a string of hits that included Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1990), Clint Eastwood's revisionist western Unforgiven (1992), David Fincher's thriller Se7en (1995), Steven Spielberg's historical drama Amistad (1997), and of course Frank Darabont's Shawshank Redemption (1994).

In 2004 he won an Oscar for best supporting actor in Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, and since then he's appeared in the hit action movie Wanted, in Christopher Nolan's two acclaimed Batman films and Ben Affleck's crime drama Gone, Baby, Gone (2007). He also provided the voice for the hugely successful natural history film, March of the Penguins (2005).

It's that warm and rumbling and strangely reassuring voice that stays with you. Little wonder Freeman has several times been asked to play God.

Invictus opened nationwide yesterday. pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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