If you grew up in the 1970s, there’s a good chance you think of Morgan Freeman as a hippie who dug words, man.
Long before Freeman became an Oscar winner, God and the narrator of virtually every documentary you’ve ever seen (and before accusations tarnished his image), he was Easy Reader on PBS’ “The Electric Company.” A “Sesame Street” for older kids, it featured Freeman as a vampire who liked vegetables and as a vaguely hippie-ish guy who taught kids how to pronounce and spell words.
He’s transformed his career in the nearly five decades since, biding his time until his smooth voice and dignified aspect — which made him seem godlike even before he was actually cast as God in “Bruce Almighty” — captured Hollywood’s attention.
The movie that finally did it in 1987 was “Street Smart.” Freeman’s casting seems outside of the box, viewed from the vantage point of a 129-credit career filled with judges, vice presidents and other take-charge types, but it was a go-to part for Black actors: a pimp.
The unexpected calm and elegance that Freeman brought to that all-too-expected role probably gave him a leg up, because since then, Freeman has regularly made two or three — or, in 2005, eight — projects a year.
Freeman’s height, impeccable vocal training and dancer’s bearing situated him perfectly to take advantage of Hollywood’s growing awareness that it had not done well by Black actors or audiences. If the Blaxploitation era of the ’70s was an overcorrection to ’50s and ’60s movies in which Sidney Poitier played saints who never put a foot wrong, things were swinging back to Poitierland in the ’80s and ’90s, and Freeman was there to play stoic war heroes (“Glory”), judges (“The Bonfire of the Vanities”) and administrators (“Lean on Me”).
In a career packed with turning points, “Driving Miss Daisy” was another biggie, earning Freeman his first best actor Oscar nomination. It was also a huge hit and it led to others. He has portrayed an uncountable number of BAFs (Black Authority Figures), including Frederick Douglass at least three times. He’s not a shape-shifter like Sean Penn or Meryl Streep; Freeman’s persona carries from role to role. But you sense that he’s confident with that persona, choosing roles that either exploit or rebel against aspects of it.
He has resisted categorization, playing against type as outlaws in “Nurse Betty” and “Unforgiven.” He also was willing to make fun of his moneymaker, throwing curveballs into comedies such as “Ted 2,” in which Freeman is a lawyer representing a potty-mouthed teddy bear who tells him, “I think I want to sleep on a bed made of your voice.”
That voice has been in some great movies you can stream. And the face isn’t bad, either.
David Fincher’s bleakly stylish thriller casts Freeman in one of his many roles as a cop and a father figure (in this case, for Brad Pitt). But it’s far from by-the-numbers. Freeman brings melancholy and warmth to an authority figure whose authority is the least interesting thing about him. His Detective William Somerset is at the end of his career and comes to wish he’d ended it a couple of days sooner. He’s especially good in his sweet scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow, where his worry lines seem to foreshadow one of the most shocking movie endings ever.
Freeman played Lucius Fox in all three of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, despite telling Bruce Wayne he was done with him in this one. Freeman has more to do in the other two films, but a crucial element in this middle installment is the wounded quality he brings to scenes in which Fox reveals he believes Wayne/Batman has strayed from the path of justice. If Morgan Freeman is disappointed in you, “The Dark Knight” hints, you’d better do some soul-searching.
It’s not easy to get noticed in a Mount Rushmore of character actors — Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Richard Harris — but Freeman holds his own by being, improbably, the lighthearted one of the bunch, an outlaw with a ready smile. It was his first of three movies with director Eastwood (the others are “Million Dollar Baby,” which is awful but earned him an Oscar, and “Invictus,” which is awful but largely forgotten).
A twofer, since Freeman stars in and narrates the prison-break drama that’s been the favorite movie of Internet Movie Database users for years. I don’t quite get that level of affection for it, but Freeman’s Oscar-nominated performance is once again the axle on which a movie rests. As a prison inmate who’s just enduring his days until he meets an optimistic (and innocent) prisoner played by Tim Robbins, Freeman represents the power of hope.
It may seem like a stretch now, but Freeman as a pimp was perfect casting 33 years ago, when he was still best-known for a goofy TV show. It one-eightied Freeman’s image, especially since he gave his violent but brilliant character so many unexpected edges.
Pretty much every Freeman character could be called The Boss, but here, it’s his actual name. Dismissed as a Quentin Tarantino knockoff, this underrated caper is a witty, inventive lark. Josh Hartnett plays a dupe who is in over his head fighting off canny neighbors (Lucy Liu) and crime bosses (Freeman, whose arid sarcasm may have been a touchstone for Andre Braugher’s work on TV’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”).
Playful Morgan Freeman is not a Morgan Freeman we get to see much, but his gravity matches up well with deadpan humor. Here, he’s God, teaching Jim Carrey a lesson. Kudos to the casting director who recognized that the actor, whose narration is so often said to have a voice-of-God quality, was the one to play the Ancient of Days.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367