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A Walk With a Dancing Man : Movies: One-time hoofer Morgan Freeman is winning plaudits for his roles in 'Glory' and 'Driving Miss Daisy.'

December 18, 1989|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

What you remember most about Morgan Freeman is his walk. Heading off in search of Mexican food, the 52-year-old actor's elegantly effortless gait takes him around the corner and down the street so fast that you find yourself in quick-step, hurrying just to keep pace.

If you've seen his films, you realize Freeman, who began his career in a musical theater troupe, hasn't let his dancer's training go to waste. He uses his walk as an expression of character.

"As an actor, you always look for authenticity," said Freeman, a tall, slender man with smooth hands, a graying goatee and a piercing gaze. "For me, the greatest enjoyment of doing movies is going from the page (of the script) to the visceral. It's always a challenge to take a character who may have just been sketched out in the script, and give him a history, give him flesh and bone."

In his breakthrough film, 1987's "Street Smart," Freeman plays a volatile pimp who moves with a loping, sensuous glide. For "Glory," the new Tri-Star film that co-stars Freeman as the steely sergeant of an all-black regiment in the Civil War, he leads his troops with a brusque, commanding stride.

But Freeman saved his most distinctive walk for Hoke Coleburn, his character in "Driving Miss Daisy," which Freeman originated on stage (winning an Obie) and now plays in a new Warners film adaptation. Largely set in the pre-civil rights South, "Daisy" portrays an aged black chauffeur working for a quarrelsome old Atlanta Jewish woman.

Playing a man who is stern and shrewd but unfailingly deferential, Freeman moves with his head cocked to one side, his walk a rambling, stiff-legged gait searching for level ground. As "Daisy" director Bruce Beresford put it: "He's another man when he's Hoke--he's not impersonating him."

Having spent much of his childhood in Mississippi, Freeman had a strong emotional tie to Coleburn. "I knew exactly who that character was," he said. "He was a country man, which is where that walk comes from. When you lived in the country, you plowed the fields a lot, and if you grew up in the rural South, you went barefoot a lot, all your childhood, maybe into your teens, and you hit a lot of rocks along the way."

Freeman tapped his knees. "There's a way people walk when they're barefoot. For example, you can tell the difference between the way someone from China walks--and the way someone Chinese who was born in America walks. Chinese from the old country walk flat-footed and lead with their hips. Chinese who grew up here lead with their knees--they swagger just like the rest of us do."

Freeman offered a modest shrug. "The walk's just one little part of it. I just tried to bring Hoke's character to life. I was fascinated that the white guy who wrote 'Daisy' could write that character so well. He knew the song of the South--and the song is in everything, the language, the music and the walk."

One of Freeman's favorite quotations is from Marcus Garvey. "A people without a sense of their history," the black nationalist leader once said, "is like a tree without roots."

Freeman is a student of all history, but he is particularly fascinated by the lost heroes of black American history, who've largely been passed over by Hollywood, our national myth-making machine.

"All my life I've been going to the movies," he said, sliding into a booth at a local Mexican eatery. "When I was 9, living in Chicago, you could sell a milk bottle for a nickel and a beer bottle for 2 cents, and if you sold enough to make 12 cents, you had entree into those huge movie palaces. They had velvet ropes and vaulted stairs and chandeliers and darkness.

"And for 12 cents, you could enter that magical world. I'd stay all day--you could see two features, cartoons and newsreels."

And rarely, if ever, see a black face on screen.

"All my life I've been going to the movies," he said, sitting back and sifting through his memories. "And you learn to accept life as it is. You live in a world that's dominated by a white European culture and sensibility. And the truth of black history on this continent, in this country, has been shaded out.

"It's as if almost all the contributions made by blacks and native Americans didn't exist. Either it hasn't been told or it hasn't been told accurately. In the history of America, we picked cotton, we hummed and we said, 'Oh Lord, have mercy,' a lot. The concrete contributions of black Americans have been laid aside, so that we as a people don't know who we are."

So when Freeman heard that director Ed Zwick was making "Glory," a film which stars Mathew Broderick and focuses on the dramatic role black soldiers played fighting--and dying--in the Civil War, he eagerly made himself available.

"After I read the script I immediately told my agent, 'Call 'em.' I was so enthusiastic that I bet they knew if they pushed it, they could've got me for free."

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