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COVER STORY : No Sweat : Morgan Freeman Slides Into the Director's Chair

September 19, 1993|BROOKE COMER | Brooke Comer is a free-lance writer based in New York City

Is this Morgan Freeman? Lean and muscular in tight jeans and a silver belt buckle engraved "Unforgiven," and without the graying beard that hid a well-defined chin, he wears a baseball cap and shades. There is no trace in his 6-foot-2 frame of Miss Daisy's aging driver or of the morally and physically emaciated pimp of "Street Smart"--roles that won Freeman Academy Award nominations.

Freeman has the poise and dignity of someone who's been famous all his life, though only 10 years ago he was best known as a 46-year-old star of the daytime soap "Another World." In fact, for decades, his career as a New York actor was a stop-and-go affair, alternating critically praised stage performances and a stint as a regular on PBS' "The Electric Company" with long periods of no work.

But in the six years since "Street Smart," Hollywood has come to rely on Freeman for his warm, majestic air of authority. As high school principal Joe Clark in "Lean on Me," the gravedigger-turned-officer in "Glory," the dignified chauffeur in "Driving Miss Daisy," the morally indignant judge in "The Bonfire of the Vanities," Kevin Costner's sidekick in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and Clint Eastwood's loyal partner in bounty hunting in "Unforgiven," Freeman has brought a defining sense of moral grace to these films even when playing a supporting role.

In the last three movies, Freeman has overcome the barrier many black actors face in Hollywood: His roles in "Bonfire," "Robin Hood," "Unforgiven" and the upcoming "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" were not written for black actors. The movie-makers just wanted Morgan Freeman.

(He's crossed boundaries onstage as well, playing Petruchio to Tracey Ullman's Kate in a New York Shakespeare Festival production of "Taming of the Shrew.")

Now Freeman has directed his first film, "Bopha!," a drama taken from Percy Mtwa's fact-based play, which follows Micah Mangena (Danny Glover), a black South African police officer; his wife, Rosie (Alfre Woodward); and their son, Zweli (Maynard Eziashi), in an impoverished township in 1980. The film opens Friday.

Freeman moves restlessly in his chair. He has just flown in to New York from Ohio, where he's playing a convict in Castle Rock's "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," and he's due back on the set tonight. He settles back in his chair and removes his shades. His eyes aren't tired. Perhaps he's learned to conquer fatigue with the same rigorous discipline he cultivated to propel himself from a peripatetic childhood spent between the North and the South and the long, tough years as an actor, to the success he sought for so long.

In 1980, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael singled out the "psychotic urgency" of his performance as the highlight of "Brubaker." Seven years later, his portrayal of Fast Black, the wily pimp in "Street Smart," won him an Oscar nomination. Kael's review of the film began: "Is Morgan Freeman the greatest actor in America today?" Not the greatest black actor. Just the greatest actor. Period.

Now Freeman, the Great American Actor, is playing his umpteenth convict role (hence the clean shave). Wait a minute. Freeman, who must have a stack of scripts to choose from, is playing another convict? Does America have so few roles for black actors today?

He smiles a little before he answers. Freeman is not going to deal with issues of race today--even though we are here to talk about a South African apartheid drama. He never utters the word black . He is an actor, first and foremost.

His voice is slow and thoughtful. His own favorite all-time roles are the old wino in Broadway's "The Mighty Gents," the 1978 production about four former gang members, and Fast Black of "Street Smart."

"I promised myself I'd play Lear on stage. On screen, I'd like to play a hot-shot lawyer. Or a detective. I like to play characters who are the absolute opposite of me. I think the farther you get from yourself, the more fun you have because the real you is hidden away.

"Those are the kind of parts where you can become totally empty and let the character fill you up. That's what I look for--a role that gives me a chance to be someone completely different."

He was offered a shot at the leading role in "Bopha!" but when Freeman's agent, Jeffrey Hunter, got the script from producer Lawrence Taubman, he suggested Freeman direct instead. "Morgan's directed plays over the years," Hunter says. "I'd seen his work and knew he was capable. He liked the idea of directing this project."

Freeman agrees that he had always been interested in directing without overtly looking for work. He was impressed by the story of family conflict in South Africa, a microcosm of the struggle against apartheid.

"This script was a real gripper," he says. "And I've always been partial to a kind of gritty reality that I recognized in this film. It was something I wanted to direct.

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