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

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.

"I've thought about directing for years. Even in school plays, I was always sticking my finger in when I could."

That experience was apparent to Woodard: "There's nothing 'first-time' about Morgan. 'First-time' means something to be qualified. Morgan's too artistically intelligent to ever be called a first-time director. He's just never made a film. But he's able to translate everything he's done as an actor into his role as director."

Producer Taubman wanted a director who could tell a compelling story: "I was looking for someone with taste and vision. I was looking for a certain caliber of talent." The directing opportunity could be a career-maker for the right person, working alongside Oscar winners like cinematographer David Watkin ("Out of Africa") and editor Neil Travis ("Dances With Wolves"). The film's executive producer is Arsenio Hall.

"I don't consider Morgan a black director," Taubman says. " 'Bopha!' is not what you'd call a racially conscious movie. It's a movie that's trying to transcend race. It's about a father and son. And that's how Morgan approached it. As a director. Without any qualifying adjectives. Except that he's good."

Freeman was working with director John Avildsen on "Power of One" in Zimbabwe (where "Bopha!" would be shot a year later) when he was offered "Bopha!"

"John was very supportive; he said he'd tell me anything I needed to know about directing and specifically about shooting in Africa," Freeman says. "He told me something I never forgot. He said, 'Everybody has something to say. Listen.' I always liked directors who listened."

And Freeman's friend Clint Eastwood was a role model. "On 'Unforgiven,' Clint's outfit ran well without him saying anything to anybody. I wanted to emulate that on 'Bopha!' "

In the Zulu language, bopha means to arrest or detain, and it is also a cry of protest against an authoritarian regime. In the screenplay by Brian Bird & John Wierick, the conflict between the country's oppressors and the oppressed is paralleled in the conflict between father and son until Mangena is forced to choose between loyalty to his job and love for his family.

The message of "Bopha!" is conveyed through highly charged emotional scenes that might daunt a first-time director.

Woodard would have played opposite Freeman if he had accepted the starring role that was initially offered to him. But he was intrigued by Hunter's suggestion that he direct. "I immediately saw Danny Glover as Micah Mangena," Freeman says.

Freeman's jitters subsided when Glover and Woodard signed on as leads. "I agree with Mike Nichols; the hardest part about directing is casting," he says. Still, he knew the role of Zweli would be difficult to fill, "that I'd have to interview a lot of people and agonize over who to choose. Then I had a brainstorm. I knew the actor who got the part would come and seize it. And I wouldn't have to agonize at all."

Freeman found his Zweli when Eziashi ("Mister Johnson," "Twenty-One"), a British-born actor of Nigerian descent, walked in.

"Maynard took the part the way any actor takes a part," Freeman says. "He said, 'I am Zweli.' He wasn't trying to sell me on the idea, he already knew. And when I saw that, I knew too."

Freeman recalls his own audition for the role of Fast Black in "Street Smart." Casting director Joy Todd, who read the prostitute's part (later played by Kathy Baker) in a memorable scene, was no doubt surprised when Freeman leaped up, grabbed her by the hair and jabbed his fingers at her eyes. "She never looked away," Freeman says. "I had the confidence of who I was. And I recognized that in Maynard."

Confidence, or the ability to project confidence, is a crucial prerequisite for any director. "Of course I was nervous," he acknowledges. "I still am. The vote's not in yet. But I felt very confident with my actors."

And they were confident with him. "Morgan stands behind the camera and acts with you," Woodard says. "He's feeling with you, breathing with you, helping you go where you need to go. When a scene would break, and an actor would be confused and tired, Morgan would take that actor in his arms: Danny, me, whoever. I'd be on the first moon shuttle if Morgan was in charge."

Will Freeman direct again? "When I find the right script," he says. "'The problem is directing takes up so much time. And I won't give up acting to direct. Acting will give me up before I give it up. I'd like to spread my directing projects over a period of time, and act in between.

"I'd really like to make a Western about the buffalo soldiers, the 9th and 10th Cavalries in the 1860s Indian wars. I'd direct and star--not produce. I won't wear that many hats.

"I've done tons of historical research. I know a lot of black stunt guys, I'm in touch with the Black Cowboys Assn. of Rodeo Riders. But I'm not a writer. The right script hasn't come across my desk yet."

When it does, Freeman is ready to bring to light little-known truths about black history. "It hasn't really been done before," he observes. "At least, nothing really noteworthy has been done. I want to make a move so noteworthy that it makes the world up and say, 'Hey! Is that true?"

He can even see doing the film with his friend Eastwood: "No, I don't think Clint's got enough stature . . . " He bursts out laughing. "Of course! My buddy Clint? Are you kidding?

"Morgan will direct again," agent Hunter predicts. "He'll just wait to find something he believes in. There's been a lot of interest in him as a director, but his taste is eclectic."

"Bopha!" came in on schedule to the day and more than half a million dollars under budget. Freeman did his homework. The first day of pre-production he was out in the field with the storyboard artist. He knew exactly what he wanted.

"Another director might have been revolted by the food," Woodard points out, "or panicked by the power shortages, or unable to cope with so many perspectives--we had a camera crew from England, a South African support crew, American actors, black and white South African actors, Zims (Zimbabweans) and some Aussies skipped over. Everyone had different ways of working, different ways of seeing things. But Morgan held it together, he kept us focused, he helped us commit and tell one story about a family and a specific moment in their lives."

Telling that story meant discovering the truth of that story. "We were foreigners trying to make a picture about South Africa, and we had to keep our American values out of the way," Freeman says. "There was a gap between our two different cultures, and we had to find some person closely connected to their culture and find out the emotional truth. For instance, in our culture the family lineup goes father, mother, son. In an African family, the father is god, the son is prince and the mother is servant. We had to keep the situation real. But first we had to find out what reality was."

Freeman got plenty of exposure to different cultures in his own childhood. His family moved back and forth during from a small town south of Greenwood, Miss., to urban industrial cities like Chicago and Gary, Ind. Transitions that could have been traumatic taught young Freeman respect for different lifestyles. He adjusted easily to his new environments. His got involved in drama more as an outlet for his outgoing personality than to overcome shyness.

At age 8, Freeman was a local hero after a lead role in his school play. By 12 he had won a statewide drama competition, and in high school he was doing a radio show in Nashville, Tenn. "I was ambitious, but it was not a recognizable ambition to act. It was ambition to do something. I had a lot of friends. I wasn't a loner. But I always felt I was different from the other kids." He laughs. "Didn't you?"

Certain that he would find thrills and adventure in the cockpit of an Air Force jet, Freeman joined the service and turned down a partial drama scholarship from Jackson State. But the magic of the military waned when reality kicked in, and he realized that the operative word in his chosen profession was fight , as in fight to kill.

"The movies showed it one way, all glory and romance, but in real life being a fighter pilot is all about pumping .50-caliber machine gun bullets into another human being." Freeman shakes his head. "That military fantasy lost its luster fast."

But the military experience wasn't a waste of time: Freeman realized fantasy was his destiny: "I'm a born pretender. If I shot somebody, I wanted them to get up afterward. I wanted to make believe I shot them." He headed for the make-believe capital of the world.

Reality hit home again when Freeman arrived in Hollywood. He had made plans. He would take the town by storm. But Hollywood merely glanced at him, another straight-shouldered ex-serviceman, and shrugged. If competition was tough for the young Jack Nicholsons and Steve McQueens, imagine the number of roles for black actors in the late '50s.

Freeman laughs a little, recalling: "I was like 'OK, everybody! I'm here!' And it was a real jolt, because not only did people not know who I was, but they didn't care. And I was certain they were all lined up, waiting for me."

Hollywood didn't give Freeman his first movie role--New York did. It was an extra job in 1965's "The Pawnbroker." But it was work. "It doesn't matter at what level you're doing it if you're being paid to be a professional. I thought, 'I'm here! I made it! I'm doing it!' That kept me going through all the ups and downs."

During the "downs" Freeman lost his faith many times, he says, "but this is the blessing of friends, who are there to say, 'You can't give up! You're not allowed to give up!' "

When Freeman couldn't persuade a friend to give him an office job to make ends meet, he realized that the blessing of friends is sometimes not always obvious. "I was pushed toward what I really wanted to do. Everything else was just a fallback. Ultimately, I realized that 'falling back' is not something you should prepare for."

The "ups" were jobs in regional theater, a role as Easy Rider on "The Electric Company" and the role he originated as Miss Daisy's driver, Hoke Colburn, at New York's Playwright's Horizon. Freeman's powerful presence in "Street Smart," his first major screen role, impressed Hollywood, and in the next few years he appeared in "Clean and Sober," "Lean on Me," "Johnny Handsome" and the film version of "Driving Miss Daisy." There were no more downs for Morgan Freeman.

"Street Smart" not only was a breakthrough film for Freeman as an actor, but he's been credited with building a critical scene, a precursor to his directorial work. One of the most dramatic moments in the film comes when Freeman, as Fast Black, threatens Kathy Baker, who plays one of his prostitutes, with scissors. He holds her by the hair, sticks the open scissors close to her face, and asks her to tell him which eye she wants him to take out.

Freeman suggested that director Jerry Schatzberg focus on Kathy Baker, rather than him. His performance is the dominant one, even though the camera remains in a tight close-up on Baker's face, mirroring Freeman's psychotic frenzy through her terror.

But he insists that Schatzberg made the final decision: "After we'd done the initial setup on Kathy, I pointed out that we didn't need any more. The whole story was told right there in her face. . . .

"That's an example of how actors learn to direct. Experience was my preparation for directing. I always watched everyone on each job. I always listened. People told me I'd be a good director, that I had an ability to convey emotions. I never thought directing would be all that rough."

The second Academy Award nomination Freeman received, for "Driving Miss Daisy," finally gave Freeman credibility. When the Hollywood Establishment acknowledged the actor, his career pattern changed. He was no longer another working actor with a long resume. He was a Name. Morgan Freeman had arrived.

Freeman takes a realist's perspective on a make-believe town. Hollywood is "the same as it's always been," he observes. "It is an industry in the business of providing entertainment for a return profit. It's about making money. But I'm a part of this industry, and I get a lot of personal satisfaction from what I do. So I can't call Hollywood a cold, mercenary climate. Because I'm a part of that climate, and I'm not cold and mercenary!"

Meanwhile, new audiences will continue to evolve, in response to a new generation of filmmakers. But the business aspect of the industry will remain the same. "If you prove you can attract an audience," he says, "then Hollywood is interested in you.

But while Hollywood may be the money capital that raises the gambling stakes, Freeman gives the moviegoing public credit for responding to good films: "People think of Hollywood as this giant power machine, but it's the people who pay to see movies that finance Hollywood. Those are the people who dictate what's good. Those people have more power than they think. They have the power to choose how they spend their money."

But what do those people want for the price of a movie ticket? If they want the soul enhancing experience "Bopha!" offers, the film will do well at the box office.

"There's a well-established Hollywood syndrome that if a movie doesn't gross $100 million, it's a failure. Which is unfortunate for people who want to tell a story like this one. Because this isn't escapist fare."

Today Freeman has a home in Manhattan, his 38-foot ketch the Sojourner is docked in the Virgin Islands, and he and his second wife, Myrna Colley-Lee, who are raising Freeman's 11-year-old granddaughter, E'Deena, live on a 44-acre farm in Charleston, Miss. Freeman has traced his ancestry to his maternal great-great-great grandmother, who came from the Charleston area.

There is a quiet elegance to his life today. He rides the horses stabled on his farm. He's bracing himself for the onslaught of parental worries as E'Deena approaches her teens. "She's gearing up for puberty," he says with a laugh. "She wants to be in show business in the worst way." Freeman is one of those people who can laugh while his face stays stern underneath. Fame didn't come easy for him. E'Deena is going to have to work for it.

There's a knock on the door and Freeman's assistant tells him that his car has arrived. He springs to his feet, slips his shades over his eyes. In a few more days, as soon as this latest film wraps, he'll be on his boat in the West Indies for a few weeks until E'Deena begins school. Freeman looks out the window.

"You know," he muses, out of the blue or in response to something he was asked an hour earlier, "fame is frightening." He leans against the door.

He was on his way out but is held back for a moment by this thought. "I wanted to be famous, sought-after, adored, by screaming fans. But there's a certain kind of imposition to it. Everybody knows you, and it gets to the point where you don't know who you are. Early in my career, I had an identity crisis. 'Who are you?' I had to keep asking myself."

There's a knock on the door. It's time for Freeman to leave. Walking down the hallway, he moves as though he's comfortable with who he is. You don't have to ask him how long his identity crisis lasted, how long he asked himself the question: He kept asking himself until he knew.

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