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Morgan Freeman joins the company of his screen idols

Morgan Freeman believes that actors are the key figures in movies — the ones who make characters grab audiences by the lapels and invade their dreams.

He thinks movies become classics when a star like Gary Cooper in "High Noon" pumps his own lifeblood between the lines until a written role becomes a living symbol, like Cooper's strong, righteous, heartrendingly weary Marshal Will Kane.

"Gregory Peck and Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart — those guys" are his favorite performers, he once said. They're the ones he grew up with. They're the ones who clarified his perception of what a movie actor could be.

Last week, the American Film Institute put Freeman in the select company of Golden Age stars like James Cagney, Henry Fonda and James Stewart — and living legends like Kirk Douglas, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro. It honored him with the AFI Life Achievement Award.

"I'm in really tall cotton," he told The Baltimore Sun on the eve of his award. But he honored the AFI by accepting it.

The ceremony, which took place June 9, will air June 19 on TVLand. The AFI Silver is also hosting a retrospective that winds up with Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" — the boxing film that finally landed Freeman his Academy Award.

"Muhammad Ali — he's the master," Freeman said last week, reminiscing about fighters he'd admired before making "Million Dollar Baby." What links Freeman, with his spiky gravitas, and Ali, with his showboat verve, is wiliness. Like Ali in his rope-a-dope days, Freeman draws you in by holding back, then levels you with a glance.

When you watch Freeman play a character like William Somerset in "Se7en" — an homage to Cooper's Old West lawman, a contemporary homicide detective who can't turn off his moral and intellectual fervor with just a week left on the force — you know you're seeing a classic figure in the making.

Freeman is "an actor's actor" in more ways than one. All the best actors look up to him. And he, in turn, reveres them.

The AFI is honoring him more for movies like "Glory" than for "Red," but Freeman said he'd put "Red's" ensemble up against "Glory's" any day: "I'm a big fan of Bruce Willis' — I like the cool way he's always worked, all the way from 'Moonlighting.' We were in 'Bonfire of the Vanities' together and 'Lucky Number Slevin.' I just absolutely love Dame Helen Mirren. That woman can do anything; she has more guts than anybody I can think of except — maybe — Meryl Streep. And John Malkovich! We just had a wonderful time together."

As early as "Brubaker" (1980), where he gave a startling performance as a desperate death-row inmate, Freeman mastered the camera-ready craft of the Old Hollywood. He immediately knew how to bring something effortlessly personal to his roles, while also varying them with dash and aplomb.

You don't just think of his films as "Morgan Freeman movies," even when he's the star. You remember the names of Freeman's characters — not just Somerset in "Se7en" but, among others, Red in "The Shawshank Redemption" and Ned Logan in "Unforgiven" — just as you remember Cooper's Will Kane or Mr. Deeds or Bogart's Sam Spade or Mr. Rick.

The AFI is saluting him for a career full of dazzling, intuitive art, including five Oscar nominations for roles as different as Fast Black, the super-smart, volatile pimp in "Street Smart," and Hoke, the sly, gentle, profoundly patient driver in the Jim Crow South of "Driving Miss Daisy."

Almost 25 years ago, New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael asked her readers, "Is Morgan Freeman the greatest living American actor?" Kael threw down the greatest-living-actor challenge after she watched "Street Smart," a film few others saw. Hearing those words again, Freeman paused, chuckled and savored the surprising accolade all over again.

"Wasn't that a good question?", he asked, wryly. Immediately you got his innate wit and irony, and his immense capacity for playfulness.

Freeman said he didn't know what the AFI award would mean to him until he got an idea of the guest list. He brings a biblical resonance to his wonder at "the names, the names — the people who have accepted to come and talk about you."

Names like Sidney Poitier, Ashley Judd and Mike Nichols were on this year's AFI Life Achievement committee. "These people are particular to me," Freeman said. Then he acted out his amazement over the phone. "Oh, my goodness, no, really? Ah, heavens. I can't believe it. When you see who's coming to honor you, then it really becomes something."

Freeman's vocal and physical presences are so resonant and rich that he has been typecast as God. But he can make himself painfully vulnerable, as in Lasse Hallstrom's "An Unfinished Life," and even satanic, as in Timur Bekmambetov's "Wanted."

After a fruitful career on stage (including the original New York production of "Driving Miss Daisy"), Freeman gave up theater about 20 years ago, saying that "the movies" were what his life and childhood were all about.

He reveres the movies he saw in his youth, like "King Kong" and perhaps his all-time favorite, "Moby Dick." At 74, he's entering the AFI's list of all-time greats at the same age as acting icons like Cagney and Douglas. You might expect that Freeman would think of them when he heard of his award.

"No, no, no," he said. "I probably should have, but that would mean having your wits about you, so to speak. When you first hear you've won the AFI award, the first question is, 'Why?' Then there's sort of a shaky period, when you're wondering, 'Is this what's real?' "

Freeman has kept his art fresh partly by not overthinking his craft.

"People have asked me, 'Would you teach class?' and I just couldn't possibly — I don't have the chops for that or anything like that," he said.

Famed New York acting teacher Herbert Berghoff once used Freeman as an example of a certain style of acting: "He said that I was 'intuitive' — so I take that to be, from a teacher's point of view, good."

Whenever anyone asks him to describe himself, "I jump right onto Herbert Berghoff's statement, 'intuitive,' like I thought of it myself."

Freeman has worked with many acclaimed neophyte filmmakers, including Frank Darabont in "The Shawshank Redemption" and Ben Affleck in "Gone Baby Gone." But he now faces fledgling directors "with some trepidation, because I have the feeling — generally correct — that we are going to have a little bit of a dust-up at some point."

It's not that he wants a film to be all about him — quite the opposite. "I'm really a collaborative actor, I love the idea of acting and how we put a movie or a show together. But I have a very strong sense of the separation of labor."

He once called certain filmmakers — Walter Hill ("Johnny Handsome"), Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy") and his friend Eastwood — "masters of staying out the way." Among many "terrific" directors, he also singled out Phil Alden Robinson ("The Sum of All Fears"). But he feels that today's young directors mistake their job for "telling actors what to do."

As an actor, Freeman said what he wants from a director is "to know what you want, then I'll do it."

When people ask him how Eastwood drew some great performances out of him and Gene Hackman and Hilary Swank, Freeman answers, "He didn't. He allows. He's as far back out of the way as he can be. That's his secret."

Freeman has directed one film himself — the South African drama "Bopha!" (1993), with Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard. He has never been tempted to go behind the camera again. He has thought about doing it during quiet times in the middle of the night, when he reckons that if a certain dream project is "going to get done, you're going to have to direct it yourself."

Freeman still believes that Hollywood "has made incredible strides when it comes to inclusivity." After all, despite last year's white-out at the Academy Awards, he was nominated the year before for "Invictus." Gabourey Sidibe was also nominated for "Precious." And Mo'Nique won for "Precious."

On a lighter note, he and his high-powered co-stars — Willis, Mirren and Malkovich — gave ageism a smack in last year's "Red."

He's pleased that the AFI Silver has rounded out its retrospective with two films that are special to him. He called "Se7en" "one of those situations where I was enjoying myself immensely."

The director of "Se7en," David Fincher, a dozen years away from "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "The Social Network," had made only one previous film, the third "Alien" movie. "He had come out of music videos. But he had such definite ideas. Before we started to work I had dinner with him." Fincher told Freeman about "everything," from techniques he wanted to use for darkening the color to "how he wanted to do certain setups and what he was looking for in each one. So I was so in his mind during the shooting as he was going after every little thing — and I was enjoying every minute of it."

With "Million Dollar Baby," Hilary Swank became "another one of those actors who I just completely adore. ... She got the same kind of body [as one of those great boxers] — she just put it on herself."

Despite Freeman's popularity, some of his best work, such as his magnificent matchup with Robert Redford in "An Unfinished Life," has gone unnoticed. Redford had initially envisioned "The Legend of Bagger Vance" as a duet for Freeman and himself, "then he chickened out" and cast younger (with Matt Damon and Will Smith).

So when "An Unfinished Life" came up, with Redford as a grizzled rancher, Freeman jumped at the chance to play his old friend and hand. In this movie, Freeman is as obsessed with a bear who mauled him as Ahab was with the white whale — but his character wants the bear (who's been caged) set free, not harpooned.

Is it easier to do a piece about friendship when you feel affection for your co-star, as Freeman does for Redford and Eastwood and Swank?

"Absolutely," he said. "That's part of the other ingredient in acting. It's trust. Once you have that, there's nothing to stop you from going all-out in your portrayal, whatever it is."

He already has Charles Martin Smith's highly anticipated outdoor adventure, "Dolphin Tale," in the can, and is repeating his role as Batman's gadget-master Lucius Fox in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises."

If he continues at this rate, the only question raised by Freeman's AFI award will be: Can they give it to him twice?

If you go

"Se7en" plays at 9:20 p.m. Sunday, and "Million Dollar Baby" at 9:15 p.m. Saturday, June 18, and at 5 p.m. Sunday, June 19, at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

If you watch

"TV Land Presents: AFI Life Achievement Award Honoring Morgan Freeman," 9 p.m. Sunday, June 19

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