Morgan Freeman remembers his first movie well. Even though he never said a line, it convinced the young actor he had a future in this business.
The year was 1964, and director Sidney Lumet was filming The Pawnbroker, starring Rod Steiger as an emotionally dead Holocaust survivor, on the streets of New York. The call went out for extras for a crowd scene, and the 27-year-old Freeman was among those who showed up.
An unhappy Lumet kept shooting the scene again and again, each time with fewer extras. "By the time he was done," Freeman recalls with a chuckle, "I was the only one left."
And there he remains in the finished film, hovering in the background, a lone figure - the last holdout from a group of anonymous extras. "I took that as a sign," he explains.
Smart sign. True, it took a while; seven years would pass before Freeman received his first onscreen credit, for playing the character "Afro" in the 1971 family drama Who Says I Can't Ride a Rainbow? But since then, he's made up for lost time, appearing in nearly 80 films, winning an Oscar (for 2005's Million Dollar Baby), a Golden Globe (for 1989's Driving Miss Daisy), an Independent Spirit Award (for 1988's Street Smart) and a handful of NAACP Image Awards (six in all, for performances as far back as 1989's Lean On Me), becoming one of the most honored and respected actors of his generation.
"Actors come in weight classes," says director Robert Benton, who cast Freeman as the quietly observant college professor who witnesses the toll love can extract in Feast of Love, opening in theaters today. "There are heavyweights, there are light-heavyweights, there are welterweights, there are middleweights. Morgan is definitely a heavyweight."
How heavyweight? When Freeman played the role of God in the 2003 comedy Bruce Almighty (a role he reprised this summer in Evan Almighty), some critics good-naturedly complained that he was typecast.
Freeman, calling by cell phone while being driven to another round of interviews in support of Feast of Love, doesn't quite know how to respond to that. Not that it throws him; with an air of self-confidence that suggests contentment and assuredness more than ego, he knows how he's regarded. You don't play such embracingly laconic and noble characters as Red, the wizened convict at the center of The Shawshank Redemption, or Eddie, the world-weary fight trainer in Million Dollar Baby, without gaining a reputation.
But typecast as God? After a brief hesitation, he responds, "I'm not a goody two-shoes."
That he's not - at least not on- screen, at least not consistently. The role that got him noticed was as a violent pimp in Jerry Schatzberg's Street Smart. The movie starred Christopher Reeve as a New York journalist whose stories about a fictional pimp don't sit well with the real thing, and Freeman's character - Fast Black - is as despicable as they come. The film was released without much fanfare, since the studio, Freeman speculates, "didn't think people would want to see Superman get beaten up." But Freeman's performance was a major hit.
"Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?" Pauline Kael asked in her New Yorker review of the film, leaving little doubt she thought he was at least in the running. Both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel raved about it on their TV show. The film earned Freeman his first Oscar nomination, as Best Supporting Actor. (He lost to Sean Connery in The Untouchables.)
"I knew that film was going to make an impression," says Freeman, who saw the film as his ticket to a big-time Hollywood career. "I was doing Driving Miss Daisy on Broadway, and I remember telling everyone, 'You may not be seeing me much after this.'"
Two years later, he was Oscar-nominated again, this time as Best Actor for playing Hoke, the Southern chauffeur who spends the better part of his adult life Driving Miss Daisy. He lost, this time to Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot. But his career was thriving, and in the years since, he has been seen in films as diverse as Se7en, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Amistad and Batman Begins. He even narrated the Oscar-winning 2005 documentary, March of the Penguins.
When he finally won his Oscar in 2005, Freeman sais backstage that he was beginning to wonder if he'd ever win one. If he had doubts, he may have been the only one.
"Morgan's pretty brilliant," says Benton, "and he's a great actor. That's a given."