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Casting God

In beard or bow tie, wielding locusts or laughs, there's no set role model when it comes to ...

July 01, 2007|Paul Cullum | Special to The Times

IN "Clean and Sober," Glenn Gordon Caron's 1988 rehab drama, Morgan Freeman plays a drug counselor who returns to his office to find Michael Keaton's high-strung coke addict on his phone.

"You want to hang up the phone, please?" he says in his sonorous baritone. When Keaton ignores him, he calmly unplugs the phone. "You know what the addict's least favorite word is?" he asks. " 'No.' Ask me if you can use my phone."

"May I use your phone?" Keaton says, dripping with sarcasm.

"No," says Freeman, and smiles.

It is that quiet dignity, implicit power and leavening humor that has made Freeman the definitive principal ("Lean on Me"), president ("Deep Impact") and now God in motion pictures, transferring his power to Jim Carrey in "Bruce Almighty" and exhorting Steve Carell to become a modern-day Noah in the sequel, "Evan Almighty." It was Freeman who lent gravitas to the boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby," taking home an Oscar for his trouble, and Freeman they called to come on the "Today" show after Hurricane Katrina.

So it is with professional regret that we learn Freeman does not do print interviews, and that even if he did, he wouldn't do one on this particular subject. Perhaps we can take solace in the presumption that He works in mysterious ways.

"Don't take it personally," says "Evan Almighty" director Tom Shadyac. "When he signed on to do the role, he said, 'I'm not going to do any publicity on this. I just don't know how to answer the questions.' "

In his current turn as God, Freeman displays a fashionably New Testament demeanor, eschewing a white suit and tie for beige sweaters and breathable fabrics, in keeping with the film's benignly ecological message. (God apparently shops at Banana Republic.) Shadyac says it's the actor's confidence and rich vein of humor that make him a casting agent's, well, godsend, and allow him to embody "the full rainbow spectrum of humanity." This God is part Zen master, part Yoda (and so far he's been unable to work box-office miracles for "Evan").

For as much as Freeman in the role of God may seem like typecasting, he is actually the culmination of a couple of long-standing traditions of how the Almighty has been depicted on-screen. In the beginning, there was the all-powerful God, usually manifested as a deep, resonant, disembodied voice. As religion gave way to a less rigorous spirituality, God returned as a more irreverent, comical figure, often cast for maximum irony -- in this case, the notion of a Black God, which dates at least as far back as "The Green Pastures" in 1936 and its character of "De Lawd." The modern turning point was George Burns in "Oh, God!" in 1977, which recast the ancient God of Jehovah as a vaudeville wiseacre.

"I wanted to do it with Mel Brooks and Woody Allen," says Larry Gelbart, who adapted the screenplay from Avery Corman's novel. "Woody said no, he had his own take on God he was doing in a movie. And Mel, for the role of God -- I guess he just didn't want the demotion. I did suggest George Burns. Little did I know it would go on and on and on."

But go on it did. And among the unlikely purveyors of divinity we have seen in the last two decades are female rock stars (Marianne Faithfull in "Absolutely Fabulous," Alanis Morissette in "Dogma" and its sequel, "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back"), God as a homeless man ("God Has a Rap Sheet"), an angry Scottish pub crawler (Irvine Welsh's adaptation of his "The Acid House"), onetime Howard Stern regular Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf Henry Nasiff ("Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV") -- even porno luminaries ("Deep Throat" director Gerard Damiano in "Just for the Hell of It," Annie Sprinkle in "Bubbles Galore").

Running a distant third

COMPARED with those in his inner circle -- Jesus, the devil, Charlton Heston -- the Judeo-Christian God traditionally has been underrepresented in American film. Of course, he is not quite as scarce as the Prophet Mohammed, whose depiction in sound or image is punishable by death, according to certain interpretations of the Koran. (In Moustapha Akkad's "The Message," an epic history of the origins of Islam starring Anthony Quinn as Mohammed's uncle, characters speak into the camera when addressing the Prophet.)

But while the historical figure of Jesus is the subject of countless biopics (and even more allegories), and Old Scratch is invariably revealed by his horns, cape or the whiff of sulfur, God is far more likely to show up in voice-over or in the form of a deus ex machina -- literally, "god from a machine" -- the convention of lowering gods onstage in 5th century BC Greek drama via a system of elaborate pulleys, and now expanded to mean the angels, prophets, messengers and unlikely agents sent to do his bidding.

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